Ben Stookesberry 13/01/2017 | Posted in Creeking, Internationalisation, United States, Whitewater, WW Disciplines
October Grizzly Creek, North Fork Feather River; California
20 years ago PG&E, California’s largest utility and hydroelectric operator, wrote a letter to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to complain about the the brand-new mandate to provide recreational releases on a class 3 -4 dam controlled section of the North Fork of the Feather River. They claimed that since activities like whitewater kayaking are inherently dangerous, putting water back into the river for recreation would jeopardize public safety. While I’ll concede that you are much less likely to drown in a river with no water, I think PG&E was missing the point. Luckily FERC agreed and denied PG&E’s request.
Compare that with October of 2016 where PG&E was a willing participant in a flow study to test the navigability of one of the steepest creeks in California. It’s fair to wonder how such a massive shift in the perception could occur. There is actually a simple answer: American Whitewater. Yep our scrappy little 501c3 that cut it’s teeth by championing the Wild and Scenic Act in the 1960’s, revolutionized the way we think about hydroelectric operations in the 1980’s by pushing for an amendment to the Federal Power Act. The new rules mandated equal consideration to ecology and recreation when considering water and energy extraction. Think Gauley, Green, Talulah, Cherry Creek, and South Fork of the American just to name a few hydroelectric projects that turned into mandated recreational releases. But American whitewater certainly hasn’t stopped there, and nowhere is this more apparent then the Grizzly Creek flow study.
For decades paddlers from across the country have probably wondered about Grizzly Creek. Driving up Hwy 70, Grizzly Creek announces its confluence into the North Feather with massive granite wall that marks the exit of the 3000 foot deep Grizzly Canyon. But the creek remains dry for all but a few days a year because of a hydroelectric project that harnessed the creeks water and 2500 feet of gradient in 1928. So too say that there has literally been no good chance to attempt a navigation of the creek in the last 88 years is no overstatement.
In August of 2014 local NorCal kayakers Taylor Robertson and I were alerted to relicensing of this hydroelectric project by AW Stewardship director Dave Steindorf. Called the Bucks Creek Project, the system diverts the combined flows of 3 creeks including Grizzly Creek into Bucks Creek powerhouse on the North Feather. In preliminary hearings we analyzed the gradient and some relatively poorly shot footage of the affected watersheds to determine their navigability. Taylor and I advised AW, PG&E, and FERC that only Grizzly Creek had potential as navigable stretch of whitewater. In saying that, we acknowledge that if runnable it had to be on the upper limit of what is possible in a kayak, considering it’s 2800 vertical feet drop in just 7.5 miles. In the fall of 2015, PGE put 75 cfs in Grizzly Creek and choppered Taylor and I up the canyon to have a look with our own eyes; probably believing that if we saw it first hand we would decide against an attempt. We were only more intrigued. Consider that the only large drainage in California that is boatable with a comparable vertical drop over such a short distance features multiple 100 foot waterfalls that must be portaged. Grizzly Creek on the other hand dropped continuously and at times perfectly through a canyon so pristine it was hard to believe what we had seen with our own eyes.
Even so it was clear that only a small subset of an already small group of class V kayakers would want to run Grizzly Creek principally because it is located in a region with the highest concentration of quality class V whitewater on earth. So why make the effort and spend the time and resources necessary to bring the Grizzly Creek flow study to fruition? I’ll let AW’s Mr. Steindorf answers that question: “AW is charged with putting water back in the rivers period. If we can show Grizzly Creek is navigable, we can negotiate for a return to a more natural hydrograph where interested paddlers would have the opportunity to see the creek with the right flow as PG&E would be required to draw the flow down slowly from a peak event like rain or snowmelt. More Importantly, we feel that the ecosystem benefits greatly from this effort to more naturally fluctuate the flow in Grizzly Creek.” For more on Grizzly Creek, stay tuned for a soon to be released video from the flow study where I was joined by Chris Korbulic, Eric Boomer, Will Pruet, and Rush Sturges.”