Red Bluff project nears completion
New infrastructure lets water flow without harming fish
By TIM HEARDEN
RED BLUFF, Calif. -- Jeff Sutton grinned as he watched water being pumped into a canal that would take it to some of the nearly 150,000 agricultural acres his water districts serve.
"It's actually pumping water now. This is pretty exciting," Sutton said May 14 as he stood atop the pumping station that is part of the $190 million Fish Passage Improvement Project here. "It's providing water to growers as we speak."
Crews are wrapping up nearly three years of construction on the project, which includes a quarter-mile-long wall of fish screens, a forebay, a pump house, canals and a high-voltage switchyard.
The pumps will be sending 2,000 cubic feet per second into agricultural canals by May 22, maintaining a water supply for growers of almonds, walnuts, olives, rice and other crops in four counties, said Sutton, general manager of the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority.
The pumps are up and running just in time, he said.
"We've had really high demand," Sutton said. "It was a late spring, so all the crops are needing their first irrigation at the same time."
The project replaces the more than 40-year-old Red Bluff Diversion Dam, which lowered its gates to form a summertime lake that enabled gravity to carry water from the Sacramento River into canals. However, the lowered gates were blamed for blocking threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon and other fish from reaching spawning grounds.
In response to environmental lawsuits that threatened the dam's use, gates were lowered for shorter periods during the summer and temporary pumps and fish screens and an existing research pumping station were used to take up some of the slack.
The dam gates were raised for the final time last September. The structure will stay in the river to keep it from meandering away from the fish screens, which serve as the entry point for water into the new pumping system, said Paul Freeman, a division chief for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation here.
"The old dam was an excellent idea from an energy standpoint because it took very little energy to divert water," Freeman said. "Now with the fishery issues associated with it, it isn't a viable method anymore. (But) there's no reason to take it out, and it acts as a hard point in the river."
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger ruled in 2008 that the Red Bluff dam and other diversions harmed the state's salmon population, and he ordered the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service to seek ways to protect the fish.
The dam's potential demise worried water users, who produce some $250 million in crops each year and contribute about $1 billion to the regional economy, according to TCCA estimates.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in 2009 that $109.8 million in drought-relief funds would be allocated to improving the Red Bluff facility, which provides water to 17 different water districts.
The project's original price tag was $230 million but the estimate has since been lowered to $190 million, Sutton said. The portion not covered by stimulus funds will come from other federal and state sources and from water users, Freeman said.
The improvement project was designed by Reclamation along with CH2M Hill, a global consulting and engineering firm with headquarters in Englelwood, Colo., and offices in Redding, Calif.
"Actually it's been a pretty good project," said Jerry Grover, a construction manager for CH2M Hill. "We're pretty much on schedule and the contractor has been pretty good. I've had a lot worse."
Construction crews will be putting the finishing touches on the project throughout the summer, including completing a bridge over a local creek that will ease access to the facility and piping that will carry away sediment from the new forebay.
Tehama Colusa Canal Authority: http://www.tccanal.com