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 license renewal, PG&E was ordered by the FERC in 2018 to create a recreation plan that would make recreational improvements to the area it manages and scout for possible hiking trails.
When PG&E submitted its recreation plan to FERC on September 29, 2020, it included five improvements, including access trails above Poe Dam and 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 impossible to build, citing a feasibility study filed on July 30, 2020, which did not require stakeholder input.
In its feasibility study with the Butte County Resource Conservation District, PG&E said the trail is topographically constrained, which would increase the estimated costs to build and maintain the trail. PG&E was also concerned that parts of the trail would also enter nearby private property.
Because the trail needed to be passable in all weathers, PG&E said construction would require ground blasting and, in turn, damage environmental resources. The district’s $645,000 estimate did not factor in the cost of labor and PG&E construction standards, according to the study, bringing 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 was not in high demand.
“Given the enormous uncertainty regarding the 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 leisure,” 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 September 18, 2020, saying FERC should not accept PG&E’s decision that possible hiking trails were impossible to build.
Joining stakeholders, the Butte County Board of Supervisors, U.S. Forest Service, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife submitted comments in support of trail construction and disagreed with PG&E’s decision.
The Butte County Board of Supervisors said it believes PG&E “did not engage in good faith discussions with stakeholders to factually substantiate (its) assertions or resolve perceived challenges before making a decision on the feasibility of the trail,” the county said in a comment to FERC.
Dave Steindorf, hydroelectric specialist for American Whitewater, said he believed PG&E was fighting the order with no sympathy for Butte County.
“If you go down to this landscape, it was completely devastated by the fire caused by PG&E, and now (PG&E) shows this great concern for environmental impacts?” said Steindorf. “It goes beyond paleness.”
On February 28, 2022, the commission ordered PG&E to consult with stakeholders regarding the final route of a trail named the Poe Hiking Trail and, once the route is approved, a construction plan and schedule. FERC noted that trail stakeholders and PG&E itself provided information indicating that any feasibility objections could be addressed.
“Based on the feasibility study report provided by the licensee and comments and information provided by the Forest Service and other stakeholders, we conclude that the Poe Hiking Trail is feasible and would provide a valuable recreational resource. to the project,” FERC said in its order.
On March 30, 2022, PG&E filed a request for a rehearing of the order in its defense that FERC dismissed its feasibility concerns and provided counter arguments to support its claims.
PG&E said in its filing that FERC’s conclusion to support construction of the Poe Hiking Trail is not supported by any information in the filing.
“We asked the commission to grant a new hearing to remove paragraph E from the order, which is the requirement to construct a brand new all-weather hiking trail that is unrelated to our hydroelectric project operations” , said PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno.
The next action will be on Friday, April 29, 2022, when FERC will issue either a Notice Denying Rehearing or a Notice Accepting Further Review.