By David Kligman
CHICO — When PG&E biologists need to count salmon, sometimes they have to swim with the salmon.
Two PG&E aquatic biologists and California wildlife officials recently put on wetsuits to snorkel Butte Creek, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, near the Centerville Powerhouse.
But this was more than just a dip in the creek on a hot summer day. Every year, over three days, PG&E partners with the California Department of Fish and Game to count the threatened Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon.
PG&E’s purpose is simple—to ensure the utility’s nearby hydropower facilities continue to generate some of the nation’s cleanest electricity while protecting the environment.
In the case of Butte Creek, officials credit the utility with enhancing the fish’s habitat. That’s because the diversion of cold water to the area has created ideal conditions for the salmon, which migrate from the ocean to Butte Creek in the spring and spawn in the creek in the fall.
Craig Geldard, supervisor of aquatic and natural resources for PG&E, said the utility’s presence in the area is the reason the fish are thriving.
“I believe that long term this has provided a safe haven for spring-run Chinook salmon,” he said.
A report by the federal agency that promotes sustainable fisheries and the recovery of protected species found that PG&E’s flow management during summer months actually contributes to greater survival for the salmon.
“There’s a lot of interest here in Butte Creek because these fish are listed under the Endangered Species Act,” said Clint Garman of the Department of Fish and Game. “There’s lots of different stakeholders that have interest in seeing these fish do well, and PG&E is as big a part of that as all the other stakeholders involved.”
As for the fish counting, it’s a unique task that involves a good memory and acute observation. The salmon counters don’t actually touch the fish but count how many fish they see as they float down the creek while the fish schools scatter around them. Members of the group then compare their fish counts with one another in order to create a fish population estimate.
This year has provided the biggest population of the salmon in years. Officials estimate 10,000 to 15,000 fish this year compared with about 2,000 last year. This year’s spring-run Chinook population is estimated to be one of the largest since 1954.
At the end of the day, PG&E aquatic biologist Catalina Reyes gets to tell her young daughter that she did something important for the environment.
“I tell her that I’m out and counting fish and making sure that they’re OK,” Reyes said.
E-mail David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com