Water, Power, and Fish tour enlightens public

Laura Beaton
Staff Writer

  This year’s Water, Power and Fish Tour, sponsored by the Sierra Institute for Community & Environment, departed Collins Pine Museum the morning of Friday, Oct. 12.

  Sierra Institute hosts Emily Creely and Kyle Rodgers orchestrated the tour, which started with an orientation session inside the museum.

  About two dozen participants from all walks of life enjoyed the day-long tour that offered knowledge and insight from expert representatives of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the Forest Service.

  The first stop on the bus tour was the Prattville Intake on Lake Almanor.

  Before the lake was constructed in 1914 by what is now known as PG&E, the area was called Big Meadows and was used extensively by the Maidu.

Caribou Powerhouse No. 1, completed in 1921, sports a narrow catwalk that Water, Power and Fish Tour participants walk across Oct. 12. The catwalk allows a view into the powerhouse, where three generators can produce 75,000 kilowatts of electricity. A 1.8-mile tunnel and three 2,222-foot penstocks supply the generators.Photo by Laura Beaton

  In the 1880s, civil engineer Julius Howells saw its potential as a giant storage tank for a series of hydropower plants along the Feather River, which drops 4,350 feet in 74 miles.

  Lake Almanor was named by Guy Earl, the motivating force behind the lake and ensuing power system.

  Earl named the lake after his three daughters: ALice, MArtha and EleaNOR.

  Springs under the lake emit approximately 500 cubic feet of water per second. The lake is the third largest in California, after Clear Lake and Shasta.

  Tour-goers learned about the history of Old Prattville, Lake Almanor and its ecology, PG&E licensing agreements and the proposed thermal curtain.


Thermal curtain

  A thermal curtain is a man-made device, much like a gigantic, neoprene-like shower curtain. The curtain is attached to floating buoys and suspended in water.

  The proposed 770-foot-wide curtain would be installed about 900 feet from shore. It would serve as a barrier that isolates cold water while blocking warm water from entering the Prattville intake tunnel.

  That cold water would flow through the Prattville tunnel and continue through a series of tunnels and penstocks (steel pipes) downstream to Butt Valley Powerhouse.

  After a precipitous drop of 368 feet, the water funnels through a narrow nozzle into the powerhouse and generates electricity.

  After generating power, the water continues into Butt Valley Reservoir and on down the canyon. PG&E releases all of the water it uses back into the river.

  Additional thermal curtains are proposed at Butt Valley Reservoir to better achieve the desired water temperature.

  The controversial thermal curtain idea is a result of Clean Water Act legislation that requires monitoring and regulating water temperatures for aquatic habitat-related purposes.

  When water temperatures in the Feather River some 40 “river miles” downstream were discovered to be too high, the idea of the thermal curtain was explored by PG&E, whose responsibility it is to mitigate the water temperature.

  Similar curtains, like one in Whiskeytown Lake in Trinity County, have proved effective in reducing water temperatures by several degrees.

  Species such as salmon, steelhead and trout need colder water to survive.

  Fishing is a major draw for tourists, and fish help to maintain a healthy stream and lake ecology.

  It is on PG&E’s shoulders to find a solution in order for the state to authorize relicensing its powerhouse permits.

Hydropower production

  The second stop on the tour was Butt Valley Reservoir. Much of the surrounding area burned during the Chips Fire in August.

  The majority of trees near the reservoir were blackened and a coating of ash was covered by a thin veneer of pine needles.

  Ryan Foote, fish biologist for the Forest Service and resource advisor working with the Chips incident command team, explained that the pine needles will help control erosion when the rains come.

  Tour participants learned about the penstock and could hear the thrum of moving water in the 12-foot-diameter steel pipe as it coursed downhill at an estimated speed of 20 miles an hour.

  Retired PG&E manager Mike Wilhoit talked about the pipeline, the reservoirs constructed just upstream from each power plant, and methods of power generation.

  Based on simple technology, hydropower relies on gravity-fed water to turn a wheel that turns a turbine to generate energy.

  That energy is then transported via power lines and/or stored for later use.

  The greater the distance of the falling water, the more power it creates. That measurement is known as vertical head.

  Bucks Creek, with a vertical head of 1,900 feet, provides the longest drop into a PG&E powerhouse on the Feather River watershed.

  Rivers located in remote, mountainous terrain tend to be the best hydropower sources available. However, these areas typically lack the infrastructure to store or transmit the large capacity of electricity that could be produced.

  Because PG&E built dams along the Feather River, disturbing its natural flow, they are mandated to release a certain amount of water and maintain a minimum flow.

  Consequently, PG&E releases 40,000 cubic feet a second from its Lake Almanor Dam facility.

  From an elevation of 4,500 feet at Canyon Dam, down to 900 feet at Lake Oroville, PG&E has constructed nine powerhouses.

  Wilhoit estimated that hydropower makes up just 10 – 15 percent of PG&E’s energy production.


  Ken Roby, retired Forest Service fisheries biologist, talked about the fisheries of the Feather River, Lake Almanor and Butt Valley Reservoir.

  Roby described the three stratified lakes that Almanor actually is: the top lake is warmest and extends 10 to 12 feet below the surface.
Summer temperatures can reach the mid 70s.

  The second lake, the midlayer of water, is colder and occupies a depth range of about eight to 10 feet.    The third layer begins at around 20 feet below the surface and reaches depths of 90 feet near the Prattville and Almanor Dam intake towers.

  The average depth of Lake Almanor is 30 feet.

  The bottom layer of water averages about 38 – 40 degrees.

  This is the environment that trout, steelhead and salmon prefer.

  Currently, the coldwater habitat represents about 7 percent of the lake, according to Roby.

  An exotic species of smelt was introduced into the Feather River watershed as forage fish after the native species was almost exterminated by powerhouse operations.

  These smelt look almost identical to the young salmon, trout and steelhead fingerlings.

  Because the wild run of these highly desirable fish is so sparse, certain powerhouses must monitor the fingerling flows.

  When a run of small fish is detected, the powerhouse has to shut down so the fish will not be pulverized as they make their way through the power plant.

  It is costly to shut down a powerhouse. And many times the smelt are mistaken for salmon fingerlings, making the shutdown unnecessary.

  Roby talked about the poor planning involved in the construction of dams and power plants back in the ’50s and ’60s.

  Instead of a comprehensive study of the entire watershed, little pieces of the river were developed with no consideration for the big picture.

  This lack of foresight is partly responsible for the dearth of spawning grounds throughout the state.

  Roby said there are 1,500 miles of California rivers, and only about 100 miles of viable spawning grounds. Every river in the Sierra is dammed, according to Roby.

  Even if the fish manage to find their way upstream to the spawning grounds, Roby said, it is hard for them to return to the ocean because of all the lakes.

  Fingerling fish generally allow themselves to drift to the ocean. These 2- to 4-inch-long fish don’t have the strength to swim 100 miles or more to the ocean, where they will live for several years before returning to their spawning grounds.

  When they reach a lake, or the Sacramento Delta, the river current is widely dispersed, and the fish can easily get lost.

  Solutions, such as building channels that would direct the fish to the ocean, are being explored. But the scope and expense of this type of project is not feasible in these economic times, according to Roby.

Chips Fire burn areas

  Another stop on the Water, Power and Fish Tour was in an area of extreme burn during the Chips Fire.

  Steep terrain, difficult, dangerous access and lack of structures are all factors in these highest burn areas, which occupy 6 percent of the entire Chips burn.

  When the fire is so hot that all the groundcover burns up, the soil “cooks” too. These hydrophobic soils will not absorb water, making erosion a serious concern.

  Soil runoff severely impacts streambeds and creates poor aquatic habitat. Abatement is expensive and extremely difficult.

  Only limited amounts of burned timber is salvageable. Collins Pine co-owner Terry Collins explained that if timber is not harvested soon after it is burned, the wood may suffer disease and insect damage and be unusable.

  About 3,000 acres of Collins Pine forest burned in the Chips Fire. Collins said efforts are under way in hopes of completing the salvage before the snow flies.

  The Sierra Institute’s Water, Power and Fish Tour offered an insider’s view on these three important aspects of the Feather River Canyon.

  Participants also had the chance to view the Chips Fire burn areas up close and personal.

  For more information on the tour,visit

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