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photo credit: Courtesy of Hitchster/flickr
Another lawsuit was filed this week in the continuing saga of the Potter Valley Project, a hydroelectric plant affecting the Russian and Eel Rivers.
PG&E is in the early stages of surrendering control of the Project - a pair of dams, a diversion tunnel, and a hydro-electric station along the Eel River - and some groups are hoping the surrender will result in California’s next dam removal project.
Others, not so much.
"This is a regional water issue and multiple counties are involved and it has everything to do with the drinking water in Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin counties." Carol Cinquini, a local advocate said. "It has everything to do with fire protection in, in those counties."
"I like where I live, but it's getting hard to live here without knowing that I'm gonna have a steady water supply."
And those of the words of Frank Lynch. Both Cinquini and Lynch are with the Lake Pillsbury Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the lake’s preservation.
Filled 100 years ago by the completion of Scott Dam, Lake Pillsbury is in many ways the lynch pin of the Potter Valley Project.
"Started out, they built the diversion point at Van Arsdale, which is 12 miles downstream from Lake Pillsbury in 1908, as a means to create power initially for the Potter Valley and Ukiah area, and also the supply water of the Potter Valley area." Lynch said. "And then in 1922, they realized they couldn't control the flows enough to sustain that power and water supply on a year round basis. So in 1922, they built Lake Pillsbury."
The removal of Scott Dam would spell the end for Lake Pillsbury, which Lynch noted would impact many downstream communities.
"Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Ukiah, Ukiah Valley, and Sanel Valley, which is Hopland, Alexander Valley all the way down to Healdsburg." Lynch said. "All that area is very dependent on Lake Pillsbury for a steady water supply; and as climate change occurs it’s getting more and more precious that we maintain that as a regional water supply."
Lynch said the Alliance aims to offer a different vision for the area and the Potter Valley Project beyond dam removal.
"Folks who are in favor of dam removal have been very effective and very vocal in their messaging." Lynch said. "And I think it needs to be recognized that there is another voice out there. There's a broader vision for the region, with the benefits of the Potter Valley Project, including Lake Pillsbury."
Cinquini said the Alliance advocates for a holistic accounting of the lake’s impact on the region. Incorporating that broader view, she pointed to Lake Pillsbury’s role beyond being simply a water supply for downstream residents.
"The water supports the Lake County fire protection needs." Cinquini said. "It supports hundreds of species, tule elk, nesting bald eagles, osprey, migrating water fowl."
As well, Cinquini said she feels knowledge of regional water relationships is lacking.
"It's part of a regional water supply system, and there's only going to be greater demand for water." Cinquini noted. "And there are lots of creative opportunities that are showing themselves in terms of recharging the aquifers and building more above ground storage. But I think we're gonna need every single water storage reservoir or facility that we can possibly have to meet the needs as climate change continues. And these extensive droughts continue."
One of the future visions for the Potter Valley Project, Lake Pillsbury, and the Eel River is known as the Two Basin Solution Partnership. That plan aims for the removal of Scott Dam and the draining of Lake Pillsbury, and the partnership’s members point to two and a half million dollars in studies they say show the necessary water will still flow through the Van Arsdale Diversion into the East Fork of the Russian River.
But Cinquini said the Alliance hopes all possible options will be explored before the drastic step of dam removal is considered.
"We're just at the beginning of the surrender process." Cinquini said. "This could take 10, 20 years to complete, and I think anything can happen during that process. And it just may be that the state and local entities will see this as an opportunity to take control of this water supply in a different way to benefit the entire region."
One of the local entities concerned about the removal of Scott Dam: Lake County.
In July, Eddie Crandell, chairman of the Lake County board of supervisors, issued an open letter on the boards behalf. Crandell noted the pivotal role water from Lake Pillsbury plays in guaranteeing year round flow in the Russian River. He also took issue with studies done by the Two Basin Solution Partnership, pointing to the massive range of cost estimates for dam removal, with 80 million dollars suggested at the lowest end, but up to 520 million at the highest estimate.
Lynch, like Crandell, sees a lack of public education around where water comes from as a major issue as drought stresses local water supplies.
"I think most people, in general, turn on their tap, just feeling that water's gonna magically appear." Lynch said. "And they're not realizing where their water comes from."
Further echoing Crandell and Lynch’s concerns, Cinquini said the fate of water supplies for 600,000 plus residents in Sonoma and Marin county, is intimately tied to the fate of Lake Pillsbury.
"Lake Mendocino being dry has caught a lot of attention, but what the general public needs to know is a good portion of Lake Mendocino is filled by the water that's stored in Lake Pillsbury." Cinquini said. "When Sonoma Water is releasing water south of Lake Mendocino, that water is critically important to meet the needs of the people downstream all the way into Marin County."
With a two and a half year timeline for just the Potter Valley Project decommissioning plan, the many different visions for Lake Pillsbury remain in play. On Monday, August 15th, a group of five conservation and fishing groups filed suit against federal regulators in an attempt to protect endangered fish trapped below Scott Dam.
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