California dams falling to aid salmon

November 9, 1999

Web posted at: 11:28 a.m. EST (1628 GMT)

A plan to restore rare Chinook salmon and steelhead by removing five dams, constructing fish ladders and improving stream flow in 42 miles of Northern California's Battle Creek was announced Nov. 4 by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Spring-fed Battle Creek, a major Sacramento River tributary, is the first stream in California where several species of salmon will be able to return to their original spawning grounds.

"As deeply as gold or the grizzly bear, wild salmon infuse California's past," said Babbitt. "But through our collective will, today we help ensure that salmon swim on into our future. For they are not merely commodities, or emblems for a flag. Wild salmon are vital members of creation who enrich our landscapes, inspiring us through their upstream journey from sea to Sierra."

Under the CALFED process, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Fish and Game last June reached a historic agreement to restore salmon and steelhead in Battle Creek. The parties formed a unique partnership focusing on restoring the winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead which are listed or proposed for Endangered Species Act protection as well as the fall-run and late-fall run Chinook salmon, which are candidate species.

The CALFED Bay-Delta Program was formed in 1994. It is a joint federal and state agreement to improve California's water and ecosystem quality as well as the water supply reliability and the vulnerability of Delta functions in and around San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton, Calif.

The Battle Creek restoration proposal includes increasing the minimum instream flows from the present amount of three to five cubic feet per second year round to approximately 35-88 cfs adjusted seasonally; decommissioning five diversion dams (Wildcat, Coleman, South, Lower Ripley Creek and Soap Creek) and transferring their associated water rights to instream uses; screening and enlarging ladders at three diversion dams (Inskip, Eagle Canyon, and N. Battle Creek Feeder); and constructing new infrastructure to eliminate mixing of North and South Fork waters. Screening prevents fish from getting pulverized in the dams'turbines.

Friends of the River, a 25-year-old non-profit organization that works to protect California rivers and streams, named Battle Creek to the top of its target list for dam removal. Projects named to the list are based on economic status, unwanted or abandoned dams, endangered species issues and problems with fish passage. The group targeted the 42 miles of Battle Creek, where the five dams are located, above the Coleman National Fish Hatchery for restoration by removing Wildcat, Eagle Canyon and Coleman dams.

This is Babbitt's second CALFED project. Last summer he initiated the deconstruction of McPherrin Dam on Butte Creek. Months later, 20,000 salmon were spawning on and above the area where four dams were removed.

"Last time I came to show that irrigation farming and salmon could live side by side," said Babbitt. "This time I'm making the case that, with carefully wrought partnerships like these, hydropower and salmon can coexist as well."

The Battle Creek Working Group, a coalition of representatives from state and federal agencies, as well as fishery, environmental, local, agricultural, power, and urban stakeholders, is in charge of developing and coordinating the restoration of the stream.

Battle Creek was the most important salmon-producing tributary to the Sacramento River when its ecosystem had its original form and function, according to early fisheries investigators. Hydropower and agricultural water diversions in the late 19th century contributed to the degradation of the creek.