CHICO — Brown and orange colored sediment polluted salmon-bearing and crop-irrigating waters of Butte Creek beginning Thursday morning, caused by a breach along the Butte Canal near Lovelock.
Around 7 a.m. Thursday, a breach towards the bottom side of the Butte Canal — which carries water to the De Sabla Powerhouse — led water to go downhill which brought sediment into Butte Creek, according to Paul Moreno, marketing and communications principal for PG&E.
Moreno said PG&E confirmed turbid water in Butte Creek by helicopter patrol, stopped flows into the damaged section of the Butte Canal by opening a side spill gate, and notified state and federal agencies.
Sediment polluted water runs through Butte Creek seen around 7 a.m. Friday, Aug. 11, 2023 near Helltown, California. (Allen Harthorn/Contibuted)
“The turbidity was caused by the beach where water came out and it ran down the hillside,” Moreno said. “The spill gates are located at natural drainages … rocky drainages — and that’s by design and you have a bit of turbidity there.”
Moreno said PG&E completed a temporary diversion to the breach using sandbags and plastic sheeting by late Thursday, and began working on installing sheetrock at the bottom of the breach starting early Friday. Permanent repairs by PG&E are expected to come.
Water diverted from the De Sable Powerhouse helps dilute the turbidity of the water, according to Moreno.
About six weeks before the Butte Creek was polluted, a section of the creek is seen with clear water, on June 27, 2023 near Allen Harthorn’s residence in Helltown, California. (Allen Harthorn/Contributed)
Resources from the State Water Resources Control Board were sent Friday to help reduce sediment coming into the creek, according to Allen Harthorn, executive director of Friends of Butte Creek, whose team has purchased with a grant a 5 cubic feet per second in stream water right dedicated for habitat restoration.
Harthorn said breaches along the canal aren’t uncommon, and estimates the canal has failed about every two to three years in his experience.
“The thing to keep in mind is that these canals are in some cases over 100 years old,” Harthorn said.
The turbid water was seen continuing into Friday at the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve, and according to Harthorn, turbid water has been reported to travel as far as Durham.
A secton of Butte Creek is seen contaminated with sediment, appearing opaque and brown and orange around 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 near Allen Harthorn’s residence in Helltown, California. (Allen Harthorn/Contibuted)
The sediment in the water appears to not be settling easily, and according to Harthorn, is reported to have traveled as far as Richvale — a characteristic of very fine and clay-like particulate.
Ted Trimble, general manager for the Western Canal Irrigation District said his district is not currently drawing water from Butte Creek, but said sediment could pose a risk to crops, but is unsure to the extent.
There are three other water diverters upstream from his district which also draws water from Butte Creek.
He said farmers’ water filtration equipet may be damaged by sediment in water, but a large concern of harm is for salmon that spawn near Centerville around this time of year.
An estimated 500 or more salmon are in danger of dying in the next few days because of the sediment pollution in Butte Creek, according to Harthorn.
Salmon restoration experts are particularly worried because the creek, on a typical year, sees 5,000-10,000 salmon during spawning season, and the population of an already-small run may dwindle further.
Sediment polluted water runs through the Butte Creek Ecological Reserve on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023 near Centerville, California. (Michael Weber/Enterprise-Record)
“(Butte Creek) has been the premier salmon restoration model in the state of California,” Harthorn said. “Everybody was nervous about having 500 fish come back this year, and with this event it very likely could kill all 500 fish,” and just about everything else in the creek. “It is really smothering everything.”
Harthorn said sediment in the water can make getting oxygen more difficult for fish and can damage their gills making them vulnerable to disease.
Harthorn said results of the pollution will not be known for a few days, but that he expects dead fish to be found by Monday.
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An iconic large boulder in Butte Creek near Harthorn’s residence in Helltown is known to hold hundreds of salmon during spawning season, and is a popular place for photos — but Harthorn said he had yet to see one for the first time in 30 years.
Upon hearing the news of polluted water Thursday, Harthron rushed to his residence in the late evening and watched the creek turn clear to opaque from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday.
“Yesterday, I did see a fish … I thought, ‘Wow, what a coincidence,’” Harthorn said. “Here I am waiting for this pollution to come downstream, and there’s the first spring-run salmon of the year.”