Cooling upper Feather River is centerpiece of plan for thermal curtain

Water temperatures in the upper Feather River are driving a controversial project its critics say may not save the native fishery that is its objective.

In an environmental study nine years in the making, the State Water Resources Control Board has proposed lowering the temperature of the river 40 miles below Lake Almanor through enormous devices known as thermal curtains.

The proposal also recommends seasonal releases of cold water from a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. outlet at the Almanor dam to flow directly into the river channel.

The overall goal is reduce temperatures in the Feather River near Belden to 20 degrees Celsius (around 68 degrees Fahrenheit) to comply with a 1978 cold-water fishery designation.

The effectiveness of the alternatives proposed by the water board is “marginal at best,” said Wendi Durkin, president of Save Lake Almanor, a grass-roots organization formed in 2004 to fight the thermal curtain. “We don’t have enough cold water to give away,” she said.

Durkin fears implementation of the proposal will lead to the degradation of the Lake Almanor fishery, a mainstay of the local Plumas County economy. Almanor residents and business owners are rallying against the water board proposals under a new slogan: “Not one drop of cold water.”

The thermal curtain project is part of PG&E’s application to renew licenses on its Feather River hydroelectric projects at Rock Creek and Cresta. Relicensing is the responsibility of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But before FERC can issue new licenses, PG&E must obtain water-quality certification from the state water board to comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

The utility company is under a mandate to take “reasonable steps” to cool temperatures in the river to improve the habitat for native trout and other cold-water fish. During public hearings 10 years ago, PG&E offered 24 separate plans to reduce water temperatures.

The water board cut them to two in the draft environmental study now available for public comment. Both involve construction of thermal curtains to shunt cold water downstream from Almanor to Butt reservoir, eventually reaching the north fork of the Feather River near Belden.

At Almanor, a sheet of plastic as big as 14 football fields would be mounted in the lake to direct cold water from the reservoir bottom through exiting outlets to Butt Lake. Most of the apparatus would be underwater but some would show on the surface, where it would be anchored by lighted buoys as big as Volkswagen Beetles. A smaller thermal curtain in Butt reservoir would move cold water down to the Feather River.

Whether Almanor has enough cold water to make a difference downstream is one of the questions raised by Sherrie Thrall, a Plumas County supervisor. “No one knows for sure what the cold-water pool really is,” she said.

Thrall has challenged the data used in the water board study as so outdated it has “almost no bearing on the current conditions.” Since the relicensing project was launched a decade ago, the Almanor area has experienced reduced rain and snowfall as well as reduced output from the springs that feed the lake, she said.

She called for additional studies that use updated data and include an analysis of the economic impact of the thermal curtains. In addition to the direct effect on fishing, Thrall cited the effect of buoy lights kept on through the night. “We’re used to a perfect dark area with starry skies and moonlit nights,” she said.

Plumas County has hired a fisheries biologist and a water-quality specialist to prepare comments on the water board’s environmental study, due March 26 to the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento.

Releasing 250 cubic feet per second of water from the reservoir into the river has drawn little local opposition. It’s a start, but not enough to restore the cold-water fishery downstream, said Chris Shutes, FERC project director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, a statewide fisheries advocacy organization. Releasing more water – as much as 600 cubic feet per second – would likely reduce temperatures the required 2 degrees Celsius, he said.

That would increase costs for PG&E, company spokesman Paul Moreno said. He estimated it would cost more than $2 million a year to replace the power generation lost by the release of 250 cubic feet per second.

Shutes does not support the thermal curtain “and never did. We’re looking for a solution that will work for the lake and the river ... and will lead to an enduring economy and fishery,” he said.

PG&E joined the chorus of opposition to the thermal curtain. It would be expensive – $42.6 million, according to the company’s 2005 estimates. And it would be “visually unaesthetic and an intrusion to people recreating on Almanor and Butt reservoirs,” Moreno said.

Water board staffers have recommended releasing water into the river to test its effectiveness before installing thermal curtains. Thrall is concerned that if this alternative does not sufficiently reduce temperatures, the water board will move directly to thermal curtain construction without further public input.

That won’t happen, said Jeff Wetzel, a senior engineer with the state water board. Before construction, the board will engage in an open public process, he said.

Wetzel is hoping public input will include updated data on water temperatures and flow levels in the river and the reservoirs. “Both are natural resources and we will do our best to balance them,” he said.

The State Water Resources Control Board is scheduled to take public comments when it meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Chester at Veterans Memorial Hall.