Article from Chico Enterprise-Record.
By Michael Weber
April 17, 2022 at 4:30 a.m.
PULGA — The fate of a recreational hiking trail near the community of Pulga is stuck in a regulatory process between Pacific Gas & Electric and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The Poe Hydroelectric Project located in the North Fork Feather River is licensed to PG&E. As part of its re-licensing, PG&E in 2018 was ordered by the FERC to create a recreation plan that would provide recreational enhancements to the area it manages and prospect possible hiking trails.
When PG&E submitted its recreation plan to the FERC on Sept. 29, 2020, it included five enhancements including access trails upstream of the Poe Dam and to beaches around the dam; and parking lots at Sandy Beach, Bardees Bar and Poe Powerhouse for river access.
However, PG&E did not include a hiking trail called Poe Hiking Trail that it claimed was infeasible to build, referencing a feasibility study filed July 30, 2020, which did not require input from stakeholders.
In its feasibility study conducted with Butte County Resource Conservation District, PG&E said the trail is topographically constrained which would increase estimated costs to construct and maintain the trail. PG&E was also concerned about parts of the trail would also breach into neighboring private property.
Because the trail was required to be all-weather, PG&E said construction would require ground blasting and in turn, create damage to environmental resources. The $645,000 estimated by the district did not take into account PG&E’s labor cost and construction standards, the study said, raising the estimate to $2.5 million.
PG&E also said there was a lack of evidence that there would be demand for the Poe Hiking Trail given that the license itself indicated the trail is not in high demand.
“Given the tremendous uncertainty regarding potential use of the proposed hiking trail, the substantial costs associated with the construction and maintenance of the Poe Hiking Trail are not justified, particularly because the license is heavily weighted in favor of recreation,” PG&E wrote in its study.
Before PG&E submitted its recreation plan, two stakeholders — American Whitewater and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance — filed an unsolicited motion to intervene on Sept. 18, 2020, stating the FERC should not accept PG&E’s determination that the possible hiking trails were infeasible to construct.
Joining the stakeholders, the Butte County Board of Supervisors, the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife submitted comments in favor of building a trail and disagreed with PG&E’s determination.
The Butte County Board of Supervisors indicated it thinks PG&E “did not enter into good faith discussions with stakeholders to either factually support (its) assertions or resolve the perceived challenges prior to making a determination on the feasibility of the trail,” the county submitted in a comment to the FERC.
Dave Steindorf, hydropower specialist for American Whitewater said he believed PG&E is fighting the order with no sympathy for Butte County.
“If you go down there to this landscape, it’s been completely devastated via the fire caused by PG&E, and now (PG&E is) showing this great concern for environmental impacts?” Steindorf said. “It goes beyond the pale.”
On Feb. 28, 2022, the commission ordered PG&E to consult with stakeholders regarding the final route for a trail named the Poe Hiking Trail and upon approval of the route, a plan and schedule for construction. The FERC noted the trail’s stakeholders and PG&E itself provided information indicating that all objections of feasibility could be addressed.
“Based upon the feasibility study report provided by the licensee and comments and information provided by the Forest Service and other stakeholders, we find that the Poe Hiking Trail is feasible and would provide a valuable recreation resource at the project,” the FERC said in its order.
On March 30, 2022, PG&E filed a request for rehearing the order in its defense that the FERC was dismissive about their concerns of feasibility and provided counterarguments to back up their claims.
PG&E said in its filing that the FERC’s conclusion to support the construction of the Poe Hiking Trail is not supported by any information in the record.
“We’ve asked the commission grant a rehearing to remove Ordering Paragraph E which is the requirement to construct an all-new all-weather hiking trail that has no nexus to our hydro project operations,” PG&E spokesperson Paul Moreno said.
The next action will occur Friday, April 29, 2022, when the FERC issues either a notice denying the rehearing or a notice to accept further consideration.