RICHVALE, Calif. — For 25 years, the annual return of chinook salmon to Butte Creek brought waves of anxiety to game warden Lt. Gayland Taylor.
He watched the 20-pound fish throw themselves against concrete dams, knowing the abuse would kill many before they could spawn. He and his sons splashed in the creek, scaring salmon away from the irrigation canals that would have carried them to certain death in the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley. And he hesitated to go home at the end of a shift, knowing that 300 salmon of a run of only 500 were backed against a dam.
"It was absolutely critical that you treat each fish as the last one," Taylor said.
Today, with the fall-run chinook salmon powering up Butte Creek again, Taylor sees something he said he could not have dreamed of 10 years ago. Salmon move freely, spawning where dams once stood. Four dams are gone. The remaining five dams on the creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River, are equipped with modern fish ladders that ease passage.
Butte Creek is just one stream. But the effort to restore the salmon here is the first sign of success from a massive project to restore the environment of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Much of the cost of the project has been bankrolled by urban Southern Californians.
The investment by the giant Metropolitan Water District, which serves 17 million customers in Southern California, stems from the belief that healthier rivers in Northern California would lead to more stable water supplies for the south, which imports most of its water hundreds of miles. In the process, the water district has begun to change its ruthless reputation in Northern California, where it long has been known as the "800-pound gorilla" for its wealth and political influence.
"With their checkbook, they won our hearts and minds," said Lance Tennis, a rice farmer and president of the board for the Western Canal Water District, 93 square miles of rice fields and other crops south of Chico.
Since Butte Creek's dams were taken down in 1999, the number of adult spring-run salmon returning to Butte Creek has averaged nearly 6,000 fish. That's a big jump from the previous 40 years, when an average of fewer than 1,000 fish returned. In some years, such as 1979, only 10 spring-run salmon were counted.
Two distinct races of chinook salmon use Butte Creek to lay their eggs--the fall run, which is spawning now, and the spring run, which arrives from the Pacific Ocean in March, April and May.
Overall, the Metropolitan Water District has put $30 million toward environmental restoration projects, including $4 million that covered about one-third of the cost of the Butte Creek restoration. The money has helped pay for restoration on other salmon streams. On Battle Creek, for example, five dams are proposed to be torn down in the next several years. On the upper Sacramento River, three intakes that once sucked young salmon on to farm fields have been consolidated into a single, screened pumping plant.
"It's been gratifying to me to see how willing the large urban water agencies have been to commit resources, staff and money to solve these problems, and pay for water that they need, rather than try to take it legislatively or through the courts," Tennis said.
"A lot of people don't understand," he said. "They still think Southern California wants to drain us. But the people involved in getting some of these problems solved certainly recognize that Metropolitan's made a tremendous contribution."
Metropolitan's interest in Butte Creek is not altruistic. In 1999, spring-run chinook salmon were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, one of the nation's most powerful environmental laws. And so when too many of the young salmon are impinged on their way downstream at the pumps that ship water south, the pumps must be shut down.
A region that depends upon Northern California for as much as one-third of its water has a great stake in the health of northern rivers, Metropolitan Vice President Tim Quinn said.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to restore the abundance of salmon, Delta smelt, splittail and other native fish so they can be removed from the endangered species list.
"Water's not like anything else," Quinn said. "You go to the natural environment to get it. And that fact was ignored for more than a century.
"Butte Creek is a microcosm of what we're trying to do in the Sacramento Valley as a whole," he said.
With money earned from selling water in the last drought, Western Canal matched Metropolitan's $4-million investment in dam removal and new fish screens. Central Valley farmers who depend upon federal dams and canals for their water contributed the rest of the money through a tax imposed by Congress.