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THE CONTROVERSY AT WARD CREEK : Hydroelectric Plant Sparks Angry Reaction From Residents

June 18, 1989|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

TAYLORSVILLE, Calif. — Jack Rosebush frets on the porch of his rustic house, leafing through legal documents and swatting mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are a minor annoyance.

Nearby, a small hydroelectric plant sits behind locked gates on Ward Creek, which flows through a forest, down a mountain and through the meadows of Genesee Valley, a remote northeastern California community of about 50 rancher and retiree families.

Many feel violated by what Five Bears Hydro, Inc., has done to their valley. It's too big to swat away, and it isn't hard to find. Just follow the power poles and lines that weren't there yesteryear and look for the scar 20 yards wide down the mountain, which the developers needed for a 20-inch-diameter pipe to divert water from trout to turbine.

The power poles, residents say, were supposed to be underground or out of sight. They aren't.

The trout, the California Department of Fish and Game says, were supposed to have been protected during the construction. About a thousand were killed.

Mike Kossow, a U.S. Forest Service worker, said: "The worst part was their trying to hide it."

One resident, Elisa Adler, said: "Ward Creek was once considered the best fishing stream in Plumas County."

Rosebush, a logger, said: "I've got pictures of two fish my brother caught in '85--a two-pound brown and a three-pound rainbow. I walked my brothers down to the creek last year and they were real disappointed. It's probably not even going to be worth fishing."

The project--not yet operating--was conceived in 1981 by Ed McDowell, who had been a resident logger since the '50s but was looking for another source of income during one of the recurring slumps in the timber business. Five Bears was named for five old quartz mines--Brown, Polar, Cinnamon, Grizzly and Bear--on land McDowell bought in 1979. It was planned to pay back its $400,000 construction cost in only three years.

Later, McDowell, short of capital, sold his permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to Developpement, Innovation, Transfert de Technologie, a wholly owned subsidiary of Electricite de France.

His son Bruce, a former football player at Sacramento State, stayed on to work for DITT, but soon the project turned sour.

Mike Meinz, a DFG biologist, said he visited the site last August to check a report that a cement truck had dumped more than a cubic yard of concrete mix into the stream.

"I heard about it from another contractor (for) another power project," Meinz said. "He started complaining about what was going on at Five Bears. Apparently, they were trying to keep it quiet."

Game Warden Bill Peters said: "I counted 537 dead rainbow trout."

Nine months earlier, there had been a similar accident, in which about 400 trout died.

Jerry Mensch, environmental services supervisor for the DFG, looked over the situation. His office deals with hydro projects that affect fisheries in the state.

"We observed dead trout as large as 12 inches," Mensch said. "It's all native trout production, and it appeared to have an outstanding population."

Plumas County is, in effect, a small town of 18,000. It's hard to keep anything a secret for long. After hours, the project workers would gather at the Taylorsville Tavern, about four miles away, and talk.

"I think it was on the verge of . . . mutiny," Meinz said. "The workers were quite upset about that whole project. We started getting calls."

Some of those calls concerned a spill of diesel fuel, possibly contaminating the ground water and, indirectly, the stream. Although jobs are scarce in the area, some workers quit.

Down on the flats, the creek flows through a ranch owned by Brian Kingdon, who has cooperated with locals in projects to save the fishery. Late this spring, Kingdon waved down Kossow along the road to tell him something.

"I don't see any little fish out there anywhere," Kingdon said.

Opinion is divided on how good a trout stream Ward Creek was. Too remote and under-fished to be stocked by the DFG, it depends upon its native trout to reproduce themselves, but Mensch said that silting from the project has damaged much of the spawning bed.

To fulfill terms of the FERC permit, DITT had to commission independent surveys, using Thomas R. Payne and Associates, Fisheries Consultants, of Arcata, Calif. Payne's initial report in 1985 declared "a rough estimate of four to five fish per 100 feet of stream . . . a relatively low density for typical trout streams," with no fish larger than eight inches seen.

Last March, after the concrete spills, Payne took another look and found 27 fish, from two to six inches. He sent his report to DITT, whose vice president is Robert Treiberg, with headquarters in Grass Valley.

"The claim that the trout population was either irrevocably damaged or ruined is simply not true," Treiberg wrote to the FERC.

Meinz said, "I don't agree with that at all. If it had been normal, they would have got maybe 100 fish instead of 27."

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