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September 7, 2016     Feather River Bulletin
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September 7, 2016
 

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Feather River Bulletin Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016 11A /I Water Stacy Fisher Staff Writer chesternews@plurnasnews.com This year's inaugural Grebe Festival in late August went off without a hitch, according to Teresa Arrate, outreach and education coordinator for the Plumas Audubon Society and the Grebe Festival, with participants enjoying a number of field trips and activities in the Lake Almanor Basin Area. The purpose of the festival was to educate the public, while at the same time celebrate these extraordinary birds. Regrettably, the grebes ' themselves did not fare as well. Arrate saidthat the lake levels dropped too quickly this year during the grebes' nesting season, with disastrous results for the climate endangered birds. "We saw an active nesting Colony of 701 nests, and one week later when we went back to monitor the nests) we found the colony abandoned, and many of the eggs destroyed." She said this meant that potentially over 1,000 chicks had not hatched. The Plumas Audubon Society is a nonprofit organization whose mission is the protection of natural habitats and bird populations in the Feather River Region through education, research, and the conservation of natural ecosystems. For the past seven years, college interns hired by the Audubon Society were sent out twice a week to Lake Almanor to survey the western and Clark's grebe colonies during the birds' nesting season from about June 25 through Sept. 15. According to David Arsenault, Plumas Audubon Society executive director, the species, which are already in decline, are considered endangered or threatened due to climate change, and are facing severe habitat loss over the next 20-plus years, On Aug. 8, the interns reported back to the Audubon Society that most of the grebe nests had been abandoned, with up to 90 percent of the first wave of colonies affected. "We collect a lot of complex information," Arsenault said, "and the whole story isn't known until that data is put together." Arsenault said they conducted a lake-wide survey where they counted all the adult grebes and their chicks after they hatched, "So we couldn't tell how successful d from lake too quickly just 72 chicks had managed to hatch from an estimated 44 nests. It takes a lot of investigative work, Arsenault pointed out, gathering information that comes together at different times before they can make a conclusion on what had happened, One of the important data points includes information on the rate that water drops in the l ke, which is posted on the California Data Exchange Center website, he said. By Aug. 12, and only after Arsenault had compiled the information they had gathered, combined with the lake survey to confirm the bird count, was he able to conclude that the grebe colony had been decimated. "It's an ongoing issue because the lake drops at different rates every summer season," he noted, "depending on a number of factors that include decisions made by PG&E," which owns and manages the lake. He said the Plumas Audubon Society worked with PG&E in January of this year in a Pilot Project Working Group committee, consisting of Arsenault, two individuals from Audubon California, and a group of managers from PG&E to try and plan ways to ameliorate the problem of lowering the water level too quickly during the grebe's breeding and nesting cycle. During their meeting, he said the Audubon Society recommended to PG&E the maximum drop rate in the water level in Lake Almanor in order to protect grebe habitat during the peak-nesting season. A graph was created indicating PG&E's 2016 forecast, showing an estimated water rate decline in Lake Almanor levels of just 0.64 inches per day between July 8 and Aug. 4, well below the Audubon Society recommendation of no more than 0.72 inches per day. Unfortunately, PG&E was unable to meet its forecast, and the actual drop in water level amounted to 1-inch per day during this period-- right in the middle of nesting season. The Plumas Audubon Society has seven years of grebe monitoring data for Lake Almanor that shows a 93 percent correlation between how fast the water drops and the success of grebe hatchlings, according to the organization's literature. This makes it more of a challenge to manage the lake level that's beneficial to the grebe colonies due to competing interests of water users, Arsenault said. The water level itself isn't the issue, he continued, "because there are suitfible nesting habitats at different levels; the problem stems from how fast the water level drops while the grebes nest." He said that once the rate exceeds 0.72 inches per day, and the water level drops to 6 inches or less under existing nests, there is almost no successful reproduction because the colonies are abandoned before the chicks can hatch. "The adult grebes instinctively feel unsafe," and respond to the precipitous draw down "by abandoning their nests to avoid predators," he explained. "Because from their perspective it's too dangerous to stay with the colony." On the other hand, if the water had dropped at the recommended rate, Arsenault estimated that the colony would have had at least 11 more days to hatch its young and could have seen up to 1,000 chicks. Instead, fewer than 100 eggs survived to hatch. There are many factors that influence the lake level, noted Paul Moreno, PG&E spokesman. "As part of our commitment to environmental stewardship, we agreed to evaluate how we might be able to maintain a gradual drawdown of Lake Almanor levels while the grebes are nesting," Moreno said. He noted that PG&E must balance that goal with its obligation to deliver water to downstream users under contract with the California Department of water ....... Resources under the Western Canal Agreement. "We have to maintain minimum flows in the Feather River for the benefit of downstream aquatic habitats," he said, including water contracts that obligate PG&E to provide water from Lake Almanor to Lake Oroville. In addition, Moreno explained that, "Two of our powerhouses along the Feather River are under the control of the California Independent System Operator in Folsom. Our Caribou power plants along the North Fork of the Feather River are part of that system. When more power is needed, Almanor 2016: July 8 to Aug 4 (active colony) 4492.5 4492.0 4491.5 ," 4491.0 ~ 4490.5 O 4490.0 m 4489.5 ----2016 actual (1"/day) 4489.0 4488.5 4488.0 ........ 2016 forecast (0.64"/day) ----2016 PAS recommended (0.72"/day) .................... . ..................... ............... ...,... ...................... ........,.,,. .................... ,..,.. ....................................................................... 25-Jun 2-Jut 9-Jut 16-Jut The chart above indicates the Plumas Audubon Society's recommendation and PG&E's forecast for the rate of water level drop in Lake Almanor during the period from July 8 to Aug. 4. Unfortunately, the forecast wasn't met, resulting in the majority of the nests being abandoned before chicks could hatch. Chart courtesy Plumas Audubon Society Left, abandoned grebe nest with eggs on Lake Almanor. Photo by Penne Ward the state can tap into some of our hydroelectric plants for its power needs," leading to a further drawdown of the lake. Given the added power demand to the state's electrical grid during the summer to deal with a couple of heat waves, Moreno said PG&E was obligated to comply with the state agency's mandate and lower the water level at a rate conducive to run the powerhouses efficiently. "The increased heat of summer meant more evaporation, which contributed to lower lake levels as well," he added. "GoIng forward, PG&E will operate Lake Almanor to ensure public safety and :tSitlafi*C a[t 6nefi6ial uses of the Feather Rivei:," said Moreno. "We have listened to Plumas Audubon's request and as part of our commitment to environmental stewardship, PG&E will make every effort to minimize the operational impact on the existing grebes' nests on Lake Almanor." Moreno said the operation of the Upper North Fork Feather River Project is a complex system that must operate to balance a variety of beneficial uses throughout the Feather River system. "These uses include meeting contracted downstream consumptive water demands, meeting license-mandated recreational flow requirements, providing stream flows to enhance aquatic and riparian habitat in the Feather River; and providing least cost, carbon free power to PG&E's customers while meeting the state's power demands." The required outflow rate for downstream habitat, contractual water deliveries, evaporation, and the need for power to meet summer demand, together forced PG&E to exceed its original forecast, "although not by much," Moreno said. The Aug. 1 to Sept. 5 pilot drawdown conducted by PG&E in cooperation with Plumas Audubon Society .... "has demonstrated that balancing the many beneficial uses of the Feather River watershed prevented PG&E from ensuring a drawdown that meets Plumas Audubon's expectations 100 percent of the time," stated Moreno. Additionally, Moreno said Lake Almanor's current storage is significantly higher than normal for this time of year. "In order to ensure adequate storage in the reservoir for the upcoming winter and spring precipitation season, it is necessary for PG&E to move additional water out of Lake Almanor to avoid a potential public safety issue in the winter and spring." Even though Moreno claimed there is no regulatory requirement to maintain water levels for grebes, "we continue to evaluate how we can maintain a target drawdown during their nesting period," he said. Arsenault said the Audubon Society is hoping that wider community awareness of the issue will help persuade PG&E and state agencies to give greater consideration in protecting the grebe habitats in the future. A petition to manage Lake Almanor water level drops at rates favorable to the Grebe breeding cycle is gathering signature , eh iUit ! remarked. ' ..... ' The petition stated: "It has been clearly shown that the breeding success of the endangered western and Clark's grebes is strongly tied to the rate of water elevation levels at Lake Almanor, one of the most important breeding sites in California for these species. "Water elevation drop rates greater than 0.72 inches per day between June 25 and Sept. 15 -- the critical breeding season for grebes -- results in low breeding success." The petition at tinyurl.com/save-the-grebes can be filled out online. their breeding season has "I contacted our Pilot been until we have all the Project Working Group data in." members," Arsenault said, He said that the Audubon "to notify them of our Society also installs wildlife fmdings." cameras to record what's He said that PG&E makes happening at various habitat forecasts in the water drop 6~4~ A~ sites around the lake. rate based on a number of 2-YEAR TV PRICE GUARANTEE Although they had counted obligations the company has Same price, Every month. For 2 years. abandoned.701nestsnAug'l'byAug'8'Subsequently, under the Federal Energy / Saturday, September 10, 2016 , most of the nests had been licensing RegulatoryCommission requirements. " $S499oi ] ] 10:00 AM tO 4:00 PM Art & Crafts II We are currently ]] ,Lu, .i ulme Park FeN & Proace I II .. highly qualifiedseeking IIii I . ! 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