Member Case Study – July 2017

  • by Pamela Martineau
  • Jul 21, 2017
  • Newsletters

Butte Creek Fish Passage Improvement Project: 20 Years of Collaboration and Ingenuity

Spring-run Chinook salmon have returned en masse to Butte Creek thanks to the Butte Creek Fish Passage Improvement Project – a national model for interagency collaboration on habitat improvement that celebrated its 20th anniversary on June 15.

The project, which brought together state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, water districts and farmers, is composed of various smaller-sized improvements in fish passage in the middle 90 miles of Butte Creek. It is considered by many to be one of the nation’s most significant fisheries restoration efforts. The project not only improves passage for spring-run salmon, it also effectively diverts water for the benefit of farms, birds, and other species along the Pacific Flyway.

“The Butte Creek effort is a leading example of how regional leaders are working to re-establish the natural connection between water and the landscape, providing functional and targeted flows that are directly tailored to benefit salmon and other species,” Ted Trimble, general manager of Western Canal Water District, said at an event in Durham June 15 that commemorated the anniversary. “And the results of these efforts are real, they are making a difference.”

Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, also praised the project during the anniversary event.

“The Butte Creek restoration projects happened because of the cooperation between the different communities involved. We are pleased to see these partnerships continue to bring new, innovative projects to the Sacramento Valley to benefit salmon and other species,” said Kightlinger.

MWD has invested in numerous salmon projects in Northern California, including providing funding that helped with the Western Canal siphon on the Butte Creek Project.

A String of Improvements to Help Salmon Passage

Construction of the improvements along Butte Creek began in May 1997 and completed in November 1997. The improvements include: removal of four dams, the restoration of 25 miles of unimpeded flow, the elimination of 12 unscreened diversions, augmented flows to Butte Creek, four new pump stations, 2,500 feet of additional pipelines and 24,000 feet of new and improved canals.

The project cost $9.5 million including all stages of design, permitting, environmental documentation, construction and environmental mitigation. Funding was provided through an innovative cost-sharing agreement among Western Canal Water District, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bay-Delta Accord’s CALFED category III program and the Tracey Pumps Mitigation Fund.

The money and effort paid off. Spring-run salmon had dwindled in some years to fewer than 100 returning adults during the drought of the late 1980s. Now, the number of returning spring-run salmon is more than 10,000 on average.

Officials stress that there are many reasons for the success, including: water management in the upper reach of Butte Creek that provides well-timed functional flows for spawning and holding habitat; the Butte Creek fish passage improvement projects in the middle reach of the creek, including the Gorrill Ranch diversion and the Western Canal Gary Brown siphon; and fish food production and safe rearing habitat for juvenile fish in the lower reach of the creek flowing through the wetlands created by the Sutter Bypass.

(l-r) ACWA Executive Director Timothy Quinn discusses the Butte Creek Fish Passage Improvement Project with Correen “Corrie” Davis, managing partner at Gorrill Ranch, during the project’s 20th anniversary celebration. Quinn worked on the project 20 years ago during his tenure at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The Project Stands as a National Model of Success

Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt was on hand at the June 15 anniversary event. Babbitt was instrumental in the development of the project and visited Butte Creek with a sledgehammer 20 years ago to tear down McPherrin Dam.

“When I was here twenty years ago, there was spirit of hope for California to find a better balance  between agriculture, recreation and the environment,” said Babbitt. “And today, we celebrate that hope being reality on Butte Creek. Butte Creek is a wonderful example of how innovation and partnerships can lead to real improvements for fish, and there are many lessons we can take from Butte Creek as we address other water challenges in California.”

ACWA Executive Director Timothy Quinn also participated in the development of the project when he worked at MWD. Quinn called the project a “spectacular success story in Northern California that proves that the coequal goals are attainable and multi-agency collaboration is possible.”

“This project is the poster child of disparate groups from all levels of government and the private sector coming together to accomplish great things,” Quinn wrote of the project in a recent blog. “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.”

Officials said “unprecedented partnerships” among agricultural, urban, and environmental communities were essential to the project’s success. Key stakeholders included local water suppliers and farmers, California Urban Water Agencies, U.S. Department of Interior, and California Department of Fish and Game.

“It proves that only collaboration can create something this creative and lasting,” Quinn added.


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