Where the wild things aren’t

Photo by Alessandro Catenazzi via flickr

A foothill yellow-legged frog.

For decades, Jim and Laura-Lyn Burch have enjoyed watching hundreds of ducks, geese and red-winged blackbirds visit the pond on their property off Pentz Road in Oroville.

Lately, they have no idea where the birds have gone. Since the Miocene Canal was damaged in the Camp Fire and stopped flowing, the wildlife they’ve grown accustomed to sharing their lives with have disappeared or even died as a result.

As the pond dropped dangerously low this year, the couple’s grandchildren carted 5-gallon buckets of polliwogs to a neighboring pond with more water. But they couldn’t save them all: Hundreds were left flopping about.

“[Our granddaughter] was so upset … and there’s nothing we can do,” Jim said.

The man-made Miocene Canal—25 miles of earthen and cement ditches and wooden and metal flumes spanning from Magalia to Oroville—is more than a century old. However, the full extent of its environmental impact has never been publicly documented.

Memos dating back to 2013 from PG&E to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) obtained by the CN&R provide some information regarding the life sustained by the canal. Biologists performed fish rescues of brown and rainbow trout, California roaches and Sacramento suckers during annual maintenance outages. At the same time, they reported observing and saving foothill yellow-legged frogs, which are on the CDFW’s list of state and federally threatened animals as of April.

The Miocene Canal Coalition pleaded with the CDFW to survey the canal during the rainy season post-Camp Fire, before it dried up. “We just got stonewalled left and right,” said Ed Cox, coalition spokesman. “I spent weeks leaving messages for people.”

In April, Henry Lomeli, CDFW biologist for Butte, Yuba and Glenn counties, issued a memo to Cox stating that a dry canal could result in the “indirect” deaths of foothill yellow-legged frogs (a state candidate for listing) due to habitat loss and increased vulnerability to predators. The habitat of another species (listed as threatened), the California black rail, also could be in jeopardy, he added.

“Without immediate corrective action to restore minimum water flow down the [ditch] before May 15, 2019, ‘take’ of the threatened species listed above is likely to occur … alternative temporary measures are strongly encouraged to be evaluated that provide a minimum flow to sustain life to these listed species,” the memo reads.

The department asked PG&E to do a survey for foothill yellow-legged frogs in early May, said MaryLisa Cornell, water unit supervisor for the CDFW’s north central region. The survey was completed the day after Lomeli’s deadline of May 15 and came back with no sign of the species. There’s not much more the department can do, Cornell says, because the canal is privately owned and is not a natural stream.

“It’s a very different situation if PG&E has for some reason stopped releasing water into a natural waterway … then it becomes a public trust resource and the department will always step in,” she said.

Cox expressed frustration at how the environmental concerns have been handled. Debris removal operations have been halted for threatened species in Paradise—why is the Miocene any different?

“That’s absolutely true they aren’t there today,” Cox said of the frogs. “They’ve allowed it to go so long that now the environment is radically changing, and not for the better.”