What Lessons Can Butte Creek Teach Us About Improving Fisheries in California?

  • by Timothy Quinn
  • Jul 14, 2017
  • Voices on Water

There is a spectacular success story in Northern California that proves that the coequal goals are attainable and multi-agency collaboration is possible: It is the Butte Creek Fish Passage Improvement Project. The project, which celebrated its 20th anniversary June 15, has brought more than 10,000 spawning spring-run salmon back annually to a waterway that once saw only a few hundred salmon return to spawn each year.  I was intensely involved in the Butte Creek restoration project back in the 1990s and was invited to speak at the 20th anniversary celebration. This blog is based on my remarks that day.

The Butte Creek Project is a reflection of a time when water policy stakeholders were working hard to solve problems through collaborative processes and avoid adversarial “winner take all” solutions.  The project was made possible, in part, by a grand compromise, the Bay-Delta Accord of December 1994.  In the closing days of the negotiations that created the Accord, then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt called the General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (my boss at the time) Woody Wodraska.  The two of them agreed that Interior would guarantee water supply outcomes for the four year term of the agreement and MWD would put up $30 million to fund habitat restoration projects called for in the Accord.  I was the fortunate person who administered that $30 million fund, with the extremely capable support of MWD staffers Steve Hirsch and Walter Hoye.  These restoration projects were collectively called the “Category III” Program, after the provision in the Accord that created it.

Like other Category III projects, the Butte Creek Project was a model of multi-agency collaboration.  The project was developed solely through voluntary agreements with stakeholders who hung in there to do the hard work of negotiations. Those stakeholders included Western Canal Water District, urban water agencies particularly Metropolitan Water District, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, individual landowners, and environmental groups. Launched in 1997, the project involved the removal of four dams, the replacement of other dams with structures that freely allowed for the migration of the Spring Run Salmon fishery, the restoration of 25 miles of unimpeded habitat, and the installation of state-of-the-art fish screens on 12 previously unscreened diversions. All of these changes have allowed better passage for salmon and steelhead trout, which has brought those fish back from the near brink.

As stakeholders gathered June 15 in Durham to celebrate the project’s anniversary, I reflected on the lessons this project provides to all of us who are in the water arena working to achieve the coequal goals – project by project, agreement by agreement.

Here are five big-picture takeaways from the Butte Creek success story:

Lesson 1: Some Jobs are More Fun Than Others

Working on the Butte Creek project when I was managing the Category III fund was fun – an absolute joy. I didn’t see this joy coming when Betsy Rieke, who sat across from me at the Accord negotiating table representing Interior, approached me one morning toward the end of the negotiations and with a twinkle in her eye and told me that her boss  had twisted – ever so gently – my boss’s  arm for $30 million.  The Category III Program turned out to be one of the best assignments I ever had.  The point is there is a lot of satisfaction in making collaborative solutions work – solutions that benefit both the environment and water supply.  There may be something to this concept of “Coequal Goals” that we wrote into law in 2009.

Lesson 2: The Best Projects are Home Grown

I first heard of the concept of the Butte Creek project from Marc Reisner, the author of Cadillac Desert. After speaking with him, it became clear that he learned of it from the locals here in the Sacramento Valley. In fact, most of the leadership, enthusiasm and know-how for the project came from the locals on the ground, more than a few of whom I got to know very well over the years of developing the project.  The success of a project like the Butte Creek Project absolutely needs local support and local leadership.

This is most decidedly a home-grown project with national star power.

Lesson 3: People Really Count

Individuals, and groups of individuals, can have a tremendous impact on the world. This project is a testament to that fact. Some of the state’s most creative thinkers helped to pull this project together. It wouldn’t have happened without the foresight and commitment of these people. A lot of them are now gone, but are worth remembering.

Gary Brown was the remarkable General Manager of Western Canal Water District when the project was conceived and implemented.  I remember one day sitting in the Richvale Cafe, where I enjoyed more than a few burgers in those years, and Gary said maybe we could just split the costs three ways: 1/3 from Western Canal (which still had money in the bank from selling water to the Drought Water Banks of the early 1990s), 1/3 from Category III, and 1/3 from federal CVPIA funds.  It was the shortest cost-sharing negotiation of my career.

Don Heffren, long-time manager of Gorrill Ranch and a 16-year director of Western Canal Water District, was bigger than life. Once Don got on the bus, forget your plan, Don was going to dream it bigger and better – and make it happen.

Some of the amazing people associated with this project are still around and are worth noting, including the current members of the Western Canal Water District Board of Directors: Greg Johnson, Eric Larabee, Lance Tennis, Daniel Robinson and Bruce Lundberg.

I mentioned Steve Hirsch and Walt Hoye earlier – they were both absolutely dedicated to the success of the Butte Creek Project.  And of course we have the hard work of those at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, notably Paul Ward and Gayland Taylor, who nurtured this project through every step of its creation and implementation. Projects like this one need passionate supporters, and there were a lot of them associated with the Butte Creek Project.

Lesson 4: It takes a lot of collaboration to make a project like this come together.

This project is the poster child of disparate groups from all levels of government and the private sector coming together to accomplish great things. It involved give and take among local elected leaders and landowners, state government officials, federal officials, growers, and urban water agencies from Southern California. You name the interest group in water, and chances are a representative from that group was likely a part of this project.

It proves that only collaboration can create something this creative and lasting. Adversarial processes can’t accomplish this.  You just can’t force people to cooperate the way they need to in accomplishing something this complex.

Lesson 5: Lastly, and perhaps most important of all, Butte Creek proves that this model of project actually works.

This project embraces the best available science, utilizes functional flows for fish species, looks at the issue comprehensively from the needs for habitat restoration to water supply and is linked and integrated with other projects and uses.  The Butte Creek Project symbolizes a policy of coequal goals.  The project provided the local rice growers with a better water distribution system than they had previously, while it restored 25 miles of habitat for the Spring Run salmon with dramatic improvement in the population of the species.  Flows were part of the solution – but not that big of a part.  Much of the conflict in California between fisheries and water supply reflects the fact that we are trying to accomplish the coequal goals with outdated infrastructure.  The Butte Creek Project transformed that part of California with “coequal goals” infrastructure – and it worked spectacularly.  Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt is now an employee of the State of California, and working hard for the Brown Administration to take us back to an approach where we rely more on the kind of collaborative solutions that Butte Creek embodies and less on the adversarial wars that have characterized the recent past.  We should all wish him the utmost success.

Executive Director Timothy Quinn may be reached at timq@acwa.com


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