Ambitious dam restoration project focuses on salmon


For nearly a century, dams along Battle Creek have turned water into power. But they also kept endangered Chinook salmon and threatened steelhead from reaching prime breeding ground.

"The Battle Creek hydro-electric power has been in existence for many, many decades and this uses spring fed water from volcanic rock and the southern cascades to produce hydro electric power," Paul Moreno from PG&E said.

Five dams along Battle Creek are being torn down or modified to make way for fish. It's an ambitious project being head up by the Bureau of Reclamation.

"In its entirety, the Battle Creek restoration project will restore approximately 42 miles of habitat along with about six miles of tributaries to Battle Creek," Mary Marshall from the Bureau of Reclamation said.

The creek restoration comes after nearly a decade of wrangling over how to restore habitat and demolition began in July.

"We have three dam sites currently under construction and we're gearing up to star construction on a fourth site," engineer John Pospishil said.

Demolition of Wildcat Dam, which was built in 1912, is a welcome site to community activists who have pushed hard for restoration of the watershed.

"This restoration project really is an opportunity for everybody involved, for the agencies, for the people who live here to accomplish something her that really does matter," Sharon Paquin-Gillmore from Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy said.

The overall project is expected to cost almost $125 million to complete. It includes the addition of fish ladders and screens at two other dams along the creek.

"One of the reasons that the restoration is happening is because Battle Creek is fairly pristine creek," Paquin-Gillmore said.

Many of the dams are in hard to reach places and that's created challenges for contractors.

"It's highly inaccessible. The only way to get to them basically is to walk down a rugged trail," Jim Goodwin said.

This is a multi-agency project. The State Department of Fish and Game, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, Caltrans, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the bureau have all teamed up with PG&E to get it going.

"It could be a win-win situation for everybody and at this point I believe it is," Paquin-Gillmore said.

"It's a phenomenal accomplishment and it's hard to characterize it any other way," Scott Hamelberg from U.S. Fish and Wildlife said.

The Coleman Fish Hatchery is the largest in the state. It is on the banks of Battle Creek near the Sacramento River.

The young salmon raised here will need to make their way to the river on to the delta and out to the Pacific. Everyone is hoping that they will come back to Battle Creek to breed.

"We have to keep our fingers crossed in regards to the timeline, it will probably 10 years to determine how well the restoration project is going, but there will be annual monitoring," Hamelberg said.

The changes to Battle Creek don't come without consequences. At a time when the state is mandating utilities to produce more green power, PG&E will be reducing the amount of energy produced.

Currently the dams produce enough power for 21,000 homes. After they are torn down, Battle Creek will only generate energy for 15,000 homes.

"That's power that would have gone on to the grid, but the advantage of the project is that we can still have a hydro-electric project and gain tremendous benefits to salmon and steelhead," Moreno said.

The project is expected to be completed by 2014.

The Bay Area will play a role in funding the project. Environmental mitigation funds from repairs to the San Rafael and Benicia bridges will go to restore Battle Creek.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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