Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Rural responses to corporate utility disasters: Reimagining the future of Butte Creek Canyon after PG&E canal breach

Residents of Butte County, California are no strangers to PG&E-caused disasters. The latest of the vast corporate utility’s mishaps occurred August 10, when a breach of Butte Canal sent millions of pounds of sediment careening into Butte Creek, which runs through Butte Creek Canyon. The sediment turned the water orange and silty, threatening the survival of this year's salmon class and causing deep concern for ecosystem and human health.

The breach happened above Helltown and Centerville, two very small, unincorporated canyon communities about a half hour northeast of Chico and located on the ancestral homelands of the Mechoopda tribe.

I first learned about the breach through the Instagram of a Helltown local, who posted devastating videos of the murky orange waters and documented river otters desperately trying to find the end of the pollution. In the weeks since, I’ve observed that much of the clean up effort responding to this catastrophe is coming from rural canyon residents who have a deep connection with the land and water in their backyards.

For many canyon residents, their biggest concern revolves around the creek’s salmon population. Butte Creek, a 93-mile tributary of the Sacramento River, supports the state’s largest population of wild spring-run Chinook salmon and is one of only three tributaries that still support a self-sustaining salmon population. This makes the creek critical to saving the state’s endangered salmon population. The conservation group California Trout explained in a blog post about the incident:
Sediment in a stream is natural, but if sediment levels get too high, like they are currently at Butte Creek, it can be extremely dangerous for fish and other wildlife. Sediment blocks light that allows algae to grow, harms fish gills, fills or blocks important habitats, and stops fish from seeing well enough to move around or feed.
CalTrout also noted that the impacts on fish and other wildlife can’t be fully assessed until the creek flushes out.

The more I learn about the canal breach, the sadder and angrier I am, feelings I know are shared by many other people from the area.

Allen Harthorn, a canyon resident and founder of advocacy group Friends of Butte Creek, told ChicoSol, “This event is essentially an underwater Camp Fire — there’s no fire, but it’s killing everything in its path.”

Harthorn is referencing a devastating wildfire that burned much of Butte Creek Canyon in 2018. State fire investigators determined it was started by PG&E transmission lines and in litigation over the fire, PG&E settled with the town of Paradise and Butte County for $522 million in 2019. It also settled with individual fire victims from the Camp Fire and other Northern California fires for a total of $13.5 billion. You can read more about the Camp Fire here

Community frustration with PG&E is palpable (and aligns with statewide trends). I’ve heard and seen it voiced by residents in comments on news articles and social media posts about the breach, in my own conversations with friends and family in the area, and by Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who facetiously referred to PG&E as his “favorite punching bag” in the recent community meeting discussed below. A Friends of Butte Creek post about the incident reads, “We must not let PG&E continue to get away with destroying our watershed. The District Attorney and California Department of Fish and Wildlife are investigating the incident and potential legal actions are possible.”

As I see it, this anger, alongside hope, is fueling powerful community response and creating opportunity for meaningful change.

Following the breach, canyon residents organized a community meeting at the old Centerville Schoolhouse on August 24, and the community showed up in force. A recording of the meeting can be viewed here.

One of the organizers set the tone of the meeting in two meaningful ways. First, she asked everyone who was angry about the incident to raise their hand, her own hand going up first. With those feelings acknowledged, she asked for the meeting to center on solutions, rather than grievances. She also asked explicitly for people to leave partisan politics at the door. I’ve long felt that environmental action and sense of place can transcend partisanship (and the urban-rural divide), and it was refreshing to see that play out.

The meeting then turned toward understanding the problem and thinking about solutions. He-Lo Ramirez, environmental director and member of the Mechoopda Tribe shared the significance of salmon and the Butte Creek Canyon watershed to the Mechoopda people. A video created by canyon residents showed the site and effects of the breach. Harthorn talked about the creek’s salmon runs and the history of the canal project, which is connected to the DeSabla-Centerville hydroelectric project.

Harthorn envisions decommissioning the hydroelectric project and replacing it with a fish restoration project. He noted in the meeting that even PG&E has recognized the power project makes no economic sense. PG&E even tried to withdraw its long-term licensing application for the project in 2017, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied that request. Since 2009, PG&E has operated with yearly permits.

Harthorn talked about how removing the energy project would allow for the removal of power lines as well. This would benefit the area via less clear-cutting around lines and reduced fire risk, a topic of equally great concern to canyon folks.

Ramsey promised accountability and talked about litigation options, before welcoming some "boots-on-the-ground" PG&E officials to the podium to talk about their response to the breach. The PG&E representatives at the meeting voiced their own deep concerns over the breach and emphasized the utility's prompt response. Residents were respectful of the PG&E employees but insisted on corporate accountability.

As residents move forward with holding PG&E responsible and advocating for solutions that protect the canyon and fish, I’m curious what roadblocks stand in their way and what a reimagined and more sustainable future for the canyon might look like. Can community-based solutions, or even community-operated power, reduce both stream pollution and wildfire risk? In my next post, I’ll explore ways other rural communities are responding to big utilities mistreating or overlooking them and how those responses might transfer to Butte Creek advocacy.


Isha Sharma said...

This was a disheartening story to read because I feel like I am constantly seeing PG&E on the news for some mishap as well. I had not heard about this incident. There needs to be more accountability and real consequences for the environmental impact their company and others have. Maybe then will they be more inclined to have environmental safeguards in place. However, it was refreshing to see a community come together to troubleshoot how they could move forward. I look forward to part two.

Katie Eng said...

I am heartbroken but not surprised to read about yet another PG&E-caused disaster. Working at an energy law firm, I come across too many regulatory mishaps that allow PG&E to run an unsafe business. The breach turning the water orange is just a stark reminder of ongoing corporate negligence. Yet, the community’s response and determination to hold PG&E accountable is commendable. I am hopeful after reading about people coming together to seek solutions rather than merely airing grievances. Community-based solutions and community-operated power could indeed be a path to reducing wildfire risk.

Chris Datu said...

Thank you for this post, Laretta. It was difficult to read about the damage that occurred here, but it was uplifting to see the community spring into action. This reminded me of the important role affected and frontline communities play in environmental justice. What came to mind is the infamous Warren County incident and the powerful community mobilization there. I wondered if the lack of anonymity in rural communities facilitates community mobilization. I also wondered if intervening legal actors would make mobilization efforts more effective, though I am a bit worried they can do more harm than help in some scenarios.