Missing in action

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Butte Valley neighbors (left to right) Danny Cuneo, Ryann Newman and Gail Tozier are property owners dependent on the Miocene Canal.

Gail Tozier has been living without a steady source of water for her Butte Valley orchard and cattle pastures for nearly a year. Her property had been fed by the Miocene Canal for more than a century, but that changed when the upper portion was destroyed in the Camp Fire.

She’s always on edge now, Tozier told the CN&R—she’s terrified of fire risk because the valley is so dry. Last month, when she surveyed her olive orchard, she could see the devastation: branches of the parched trees filled with shriveled, brown leaves.

“When there was water in the canal, we had the security of the fact that not only did we have green, [irrigated] grass … [but] if Cal Fire needed to tap into something to take care of a fire, the water was there.”

The future of the canal, which has sustained thousands of acres of ranch and farmland for generations, remains uncertain—PG&E maintains it is not a worthwhile investment to repair, citing a price tag of $15 million. Miocene water users, under a collective of property owners called the Miocene Canal Coalition, have met with the utility several times over the past year, and grown increasingly frustrated. PG&E’s absence at the most recent meeting prompted the group to make its case in bankruptcy court.

Tozier’s concerns about increasing fire hazards releated to the canal’s destruction are warranted. In May, Butte County Fire Chief David Hawks said as much in an email sent to Dan Blair, a senior government relations representative with PG&E, which the CN&R obtained through a public records request.

The canal—a 25-mile, man-made system of ditches and wood-supported metal channels—runs from Magalia to Oroville, and when in full operation, fed not only Kunkle Reservoir off of Pentz Road but nearby ponds and streams. This created a contiguous wetland through Lime Saddle, Cherokee, Coal Canyon and into the valley that Hawks said was used as a fire break.

He called the reservoir a “strategic” water source for firefighting primarily for helicopters, but also for fire engines and water tenders. Its location “shortens ‘turn around’ times, dropping and returning water for fires in the lower Paradise Ridge, Butte College, Cherokee and other surrounding areas,” he explained. Not only has Cal Fire used the canal itself to draft water to fight fires, Hawks wrote, but it also has drawn from ponds throughout the Ridge that are typically fed by the canal. This is “indicative of the direct impacts that the Miocene Canal has on fire protection as a resource.”

Blair was unavailable for comment before deadline, but Paul Moreno, a spokesman for PG&E, said the Kunkle Reservoir has been “relatively full over summer and fall thanks to water runoff from a spring, so it has been available for Cal Fire’s use.”

The utility company had sent several representatives to meetings over the past year, where stakeholders brainstormed short- and long-term paths forward to restore water. The gatherings didn’t result in any concrete solutions, other than the temporary delivery of up to 5,000 gallons per week per household starting this July. But at least PG&E was participating, Tozier told the CN&R.

When she arrived at the Sept. 27 meeting between Miocene Canal water users, Butte County staff and Ridge water purveyors, she looked around the room and found no sign of PG&E. The company’s absence that day was telling, Tozier said.

“It sent a clear message to everyone at the table,” she said. “[The company], they don’t care. They paid their bonuses out and to heck with the people that rely on the canal.”

Tension regarding the matter has mounted to the point that the county has stopped being polite. Paul Gosselin, director of the Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation, facilitated the meetings between the utility and water users—as well as interested parties Del Oro Water Co. and Paradise Irrigation District—per the direction of the Butte County Board of Supervisors. The county’s goal was to help the parties solidify a plan and protect local water use and agricultural lands.

Until last month, Gosselin had remained diplomatic. But at the September meeting, he told property owners to get legal counsel and file in the bankruptcy proceedings. He followed up by sending PG&E a letter chiding the company for its absence and lack of substantive participation.

“We collectively kind of viewed that as PG&E’s unwillingness to participate in the process,” he told the CN&R, “and kind of really drag things out with any sort of answer to people.”

In the letter, he wrote that “the good faith effort of the people along the Miocene Canal” was not reciprocated by the utility company, and, as a result, homes, farms and the environment along the canal corridor “experienced enormous damage this year that could have been avoided by meaningful PG&E involvement.”

Mike Schonherr, PG&E director of strategic agreements, replied to Gosselin’s letter via email, stating that the county’s request for PG&E to “fund water delivery solutions” was presented to senior leadership. The county will be notified when PG&E makes a decision.

Schonherr also presented the company’s perspective of its interactions.

“PG&E believes that it participated in the [c]ounty’s process in good faith and is willing to continue discussions about potential long-term solutions for water delivery related to the Miocene Canal,” he wrote.

Gosselin said the county is scheduling another meeting with water users for January. While “we cannot get in the middle and restore water to the Middle Miocene,” he said, it is exploring a project with Del Oro to extend water service on Pentz Road, which would help some of the folks who have been served by the canal. The UC Cooperative Extension is also close to completing an economic study related to the loss of the Miocene on water users, and Gosselin intends to seek grants and other funding for water supply reliability projects.

Ed Cox, spokesman for the Miocene Canal Coalition, told the CN&R that, barring an “earth-shaking development,” there’s no reason to continue discussions with PG&E. The coalition and its individual members have filed claims and will be making a case for the Miocene in PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings.

“We have no reason now to be anything but aggressive,” he said. “We will litigate, we will file in bankruptcy court, we will try to press for criminal charges against PG&E. We will do everything we can possibly do in our power as constituents to compel them to do the right thing, and not just with the Miocene, but at every turn.”