Placeholder Image photo credit: D Smith/flickr
Confluence of the Main and Middle forks of the
Eel River at Dos Rios in Mendocino County.

Some big changes to the North Bay’s water landscape are coming.

For the past century the Potter Valley Project has moved water from the Eel to the Russian River, feeding thirsty crops and growing cities.

Owned and operated by Pacific Gas & Electric since 1930, the utility is now on track to decommission the hydroelectric project's aging dams and diversion, wiping responsibility from the company's plate.

In this two-part series KRCB looks into the latest Potter Valley development.

It’s called the New Eel-Russian Facility, and the proposal was submitted to PG&E on July 31st, the deadline day set by the utility.

It is a joint effort looking to take over control of two-thirds of the Potter Valley Project: the Cape Horn Dam and Van Arsdale diversion.

One of three groups behind the new proposal is Sonoma Water.

"We put that together along with Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, Round Valley Indian tribes in order to sort of what I refer to as keep the door open," said Sonoma Water’s Pam Jeane.

So what exactly does keeping that door open mean?

"The diversion from the Eel River to the Russian River continuing, as well as improving fisheries on the river," Jeane said.

This isn’t the first attempt by the three entities to wrestle control of the Potter Valley Project - part of it at least - away from PG&E.

In 2018 Congressman Jared Huffman convened an ad hoc group to explore the project's future. That ultimately yielded what's called the "Two Basin Partnership" included Sonoma Water, the Inland Water and Power Commission, and the Round Valley Tribes; as well as California Trout and Humboldt County Public Works.

The Partnership tried and failed to take over the facilities; unable to form a new official entity and find the cash needed before a 2022 deadline set by FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

That failed attempt leads us to today.

According to Pam Jeane, this New Eel-Russian proposal builds off of those previous efforts, and the numerous studies done by the partnership.

"The proposal includes the two, what we call dam out alternatives, that for the most part, they envision Cape Horn Dam coming out, there may be some ancillary facilities associated with the dam or ancillary pieces of the dam that might be incorporated into a new facility there, but for the most part, the dam would be gone," Jeane said.

Jeane said one alternative is called a “roughened channel.”

"[It] essentially replaces the dam with some very large in-stream features that is almost like a staircase for the fish to get past that location, stepping the river up to get from, you know, a lower elevation to a higher elevation in place of having a dam," Jeane said.

Jeane said that option could be a groundbreaking one.

"It's a bit cutting edge as far as we know," Jeane said. "Nothing like it's been implemented on this scale, but we are studying it. We think it's feasible. We don't know how feasible."

The other “dam out” option would need significant construction as well, Jeane said.

"The second alternative that we're looking at is constructing an in-stream facility that you actually capture water and then pump it up to the head of the tunnel that goes between the Eel River and the Russian River," Jeane said.

And, as Jeane noted, the natural flow of the Eel River presents a challenge.

"The Eel River is quite flashy, can range and flow from, you know, less than a hundred cubic feet per second in the summertime to tens of thousands of cubic feet per second in the wintertime during rainstorms," Jeane said. "So you have to be able to build a facility that is really, really strong and robust and can operate in all sorts of conditions."

In this second part of our series, we hear what North Coast environmental and fishing advocates think about the new proposal, and the future of the Potter Valley Project.

The action so far has been focused up river, with interests looking to the south, away from the Eel River's mouth.

But for some community stakeholders to the north, down river from the Potter Valley Project, the New Eel-Russian Proposal leaves much to be desired.

Alicia Hamann is president of the Arcata based nonprofit Friends of the Eel River. She and other Humboldt County fishing advocates have strong concern for the Eel’s native salmon and steelhead populations.

"It's actually been years that we've all had to prepare for this, so that this proposal is still so vague, is really kind of disappointing," Hamann said. "And I think we would all prefer to see more fleshed out ideas and more followed information about what the future of the project is really gonna look like and how it's gonna be paid for and how it's gonna be maintained."

Despite her concerns about the new proposal, Hamann said continued diversions are not a deal breaker.

"Friends of the Eel River and many of our allies are not opposed to a continued diversion that is ecologically appropriate and isn't going to harm Eel River fisheries any further," Hamann said. "We are very unlikely to fight that."

What Hamann is most concerned about: any delay to removing the final third of the Potter Valley Project, Scott Dam.

Impassable to fish, Scott Dam backs up Lake Pillsbury and creates a consistent supply of water for year round diversions into the Russian River. PG&E has already moved to lower water levels within the reservoir, citing concern over seismic safety of the hundred-year-old dam.

Final decommissioning plans from PG&E are expected in January 2025. After that, Scott Dam, which is not in the New Eel-Russian Proposal, can be removed, something Hamann wants as quickly as possible.

"We're seeing some really, really dire conditions for the Eel River's native fish," Hamann said. "If they could get beyond Scott Dam there is cold water habitat up there that would really help the fish survive the uncertain climate reality that we live in right now."

Despite PG&E's efforts to maintain a cold water pool within Lake Pillsbury, water temperatures below Scott Dam peaked at over 21 degrees Celsius on August 31st, a major concern for Hamann.

"Right now temperatures just below Scott Dam are at about 19 degrees Celsius, which is a level at which invasive species are able to out-compete the native steelhead," Hamann said. "And once we get a little bit warmer, 20 to 21 degrees Celsius, that's where we're gonna start seeing mortality of juvenile steelheads."

But Sonoma Water's Pam Jeane said the New Eel-Russian proposal isn't meant to cause delays to dam removal; and that it's designed for a future without Scott Dam and its consistent supply of water.

"Which means that there won't likely be any diversions during the summertime when flows in the Eel River are very low," Jeane said.

It’s not just the timing and volume of Eel River diversions that are likely to change either, Jeane said.

"There seems to be a recognition that folks in the Russian River Watershed who have never paid for water that has been diverted through the project, will need to pay for that water in the future," Jeane said.

Not everyone wants to see such dramatic change though. Community groups around Lake Pillsbury, and elected officials in Lake County have voiced their concerns about the potential damage to water security in the region if Scott Dam and Lake Pillsbury are lost.

That is in stark contrast to where Hamann stands.

"The true benefit of removing the dams is all about water quality and access to habitat, not necessarily water quantity," Hamann said.

Whatever the path the New Eel-Russian Proposal might take, Hamann said she, and Friends of the Eel, will be fighting for the fish all the way.

"They're really, really remarkable fish," Hamann said. "And if we lose these fish, we lose them forever. It's very different from what's at stake in the Russian River, which is a bunch of hatchery planted trout and you know, wine grapes. Things that are totally replaceable. And you know, I understand that that might sound a little bit harsh, but it's my job to be looking out for these really remarkable fish, and if we lose them, we won't get them back."

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