It will take $40 million to $60 million and four to five years to repair the upper portion of a major canal destroyed by the Camp Fire, according to PG&E study findings reported during a virtual meeting hosted by Butte County on Monday (Sept. 20). With the third anniversary of the disastrous wildfire a month-and-a-half away, ranchers and farmers reliant upon the canal and desperate for water are still awaiting an answer from PG&E, which hasn’t decided how to proceed.
Such a project would reconstruct and restore water access to the Miocene Canal, a historic water conveyance system of ditches and flumes that the utility owns. The canal has run dry since November 2018, imperiling the livelihoods of county residents who’ve long relied upon the canal to irrigate orchards, provide water to their livestock and conduct basic everyday chores and tasks.
PG&E originally balked at the cost of repairing the canal, choosing to explore alternatives. Last summer, the company pledged to dedicate $15 million toward providing water access to Miocene customers over the next five years while long-term solutions were explored.
This canal repair estimate “significantly exceeds” that initial commitment, said Mike Schonherr, director of strategic agreements for PG&E, and as such, the company is still evaluating whether to approve the project. PG&E has returned to examining an alternative idea it had previously discussed with Del Oro Water Company in Butte County regarding creating a pipeline water service extension to canal water users.
At the meeting, members of the Miocene Canal Coalition (made up of water users and those who’ve benefited from spillage from the leaky canal system) expressed frustration over the drawn-out process. The company has spent $2.1 million—over half of that on the study and alternative analysis, the rest on water deliveries—thus far, which it has subtracted from its initial $15 million commitment.
Ryann Newman, a coalition member, said that she feels that families reliant upon the canal have been “taken advantage of and violated by PG&E over and over again.”
“The longer they drag out restoring it, the more it costs us,” she said.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who was in attendance, said that he disputes PG&E’s claim that the $15 million pledge was not necessarily for the restoration of the canal.
“It was a supposedly good faith effort by the CEO of that time,” Ramsey said. “The anticipation was that $15 million amount came from an amount that PG&E announced back in 2019 that it would take them to fix or restore the flume.”
Water users have asked that the funding for the stop-gap water deliveries and the study and analysis of solutions not be deducted from that pledge. Schonherr said PG&E is “seriously considering” that request.
Butte County Supervisor Debra Lucero, also in attendance, expressed interest in writing a letter of support for the water users from the Board of Supervisors. There is plenty of evidence of the dry canal’s impact, she added.
“We always end up at the same place: that nothing has happened, you gotta check with your upper [management] and we’re in a holding pattern once again,” she said.
Toward the end of the meeting, Ed Cox, spokesman for the Miocene Canal Coalition, pressed PG&E for an answer: Will it pay for the canal repair or not? In his view, the solution is clear: there was a commitment made for restoration of the Miocene Canal for a variety of reasons, including historical preservation and benefits to wildlife as well as local agricultural operations.
Schonherr replied: “I will take it back [to management] and I will express the urgency again. That’s all I can do.”