Seven Reasons to Save the Eel River and Take Down the Dams
Reflections on the tragic 100th anniversary of PG&E’s Potter Valley Project (PVP) tunnel, Cape Horn Dam, Van Arsdale Lake, and later construction of Scott Dam and Lake Pillsbury.
David Keller, Bay Area Director, Friends of the Eel River
The Eel River has been severely damaged during the last century by diverting water through the PVP to the Russian River. It’s time to restore the health and wealth taken from the Eel River.
Here are 7 reasons to take down the dams and save the Eel River.
1. They don’t make rivers like they used to: fish, wildlife and human friendly, abundant and self-cleansing, resilient and self-sustaining. Restoration of the Eel River and other coastal rivers is essential for all species’ survival and prosperity in the future. Life depends on water, and we must stop abusing this incredible treasure, and our soil, timber and fishery resources, until they are damaged beyond repair. If we continue to practice “cut and run” water exploitation, where will we go next when these resources are gone?
2. We are not willing to allow the extinction of California’s native coastal Salmon (Coho, Chinook) and Steelhead. Their survival and recovery includes restoration on all our coastal rivers and streams, including the Eel River, which was once one of California’s most abundant salmon bearing rivers. Its 3684 square mile watershed is the third largest in California, and cannot be lost as productive home to these federally and state protected species.
Damming and diverting Eel River flows prevents fish from migrating to spawning gravels in over 750 stream miles of prime, snow-melt fed cold water headwaters habitat, bringing ocean nutrients upstream, and prevents juveniles from journeying to the Pacific. Water temperatures are too hot and flows too low to support healthy salmonid populations. Dam elevations too high for fish ladders and poorly designed fish screens at the tunnel intakes also take an extreme toll on fish.
West coast salmon populations have collapsed. The 2008 commercial and sport ocean salmon seasons have been closed for the first time ever in all of California and most of Oregon, costing millions of dollars to the local economies.
3. We can no longer build our civilization as if there are no limits to water, wildlife and energy. Generations of engineers dammed and diverted rivers, based on the perception that there were abundant natural resources and scarce people. But, now there are abundant people, scarce natural resources, and global climate change. Water viewed as a commodity for sale to the highest bidders, will not get us through the next century. To ensure a sustainable future, engineers must be given new goals and tasks by our policy makers: how to get the same – or better – results for us while using far less water and energy. Higher efficiencies and reuse of highly treated wastewater to offset current and future potable water use are critical components of our new path of demand reductions. We need effective economic and legal incentives to leave more water in our rivers.
We must fundamentally change the directions given to our engineers, bureaucrats and utility rate setters by public policy makers. This includes Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), and a host of other legislative and regulatory agencies. These agencies have failed to protect and restore the public trust resources, including our National Wild and Scenic designated Eel River.
4. The Eel River Watershed belongs to the people of California. Under California’s constitution, citizens own all the water in the state. Water law allows you to get a ‘right’ to use water in a reasonable and beneficial way, but not ownership of the water. The Constitution importantly prohibits “the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use or unreasonable method of diversion of water.”
The California Supreme Court has concluded that “the public trust is an affirmation of the duty of the State to protect the people’s common heritage of streams, lakes, marshlands, and tidelands… The State has an affirmative duty to take the public trust into account in the planning and allocation of water resources, and to protect public trust uses whenever feasible.” (National Audubon Society v. Superior Court of Alpine County).
We have a legal, ethical and moral obligation to be good stewards, to preserve the value and health of our watersheds and their complex environment, and to protect our common resources forever. The current damages to the Eel River violate these principles of law and stewardship.
5. The Russian River doesn’t need the water diverted from the Eel River. 120,000 to 180,000 acre feet of water are diverted year round from the Eel River through the PVP, then released into the Russian River. Many stakeholders have become dependent on this century-old transfer, and fear relinquishing the water wealth. From Potter Valley agriculture to filling Lake Mendocino, the Eel’s water is sent down the Russian River to serve municipal, agricultural, residential and industrial growth and users in Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin Counties. Yet, not one dime has been paid to communities in the Eel River watershed for this theft.
According to the SWRCB, major segments of the Russian River are ‘over appropriated’: more water is taken in dry seasons from the river and its tributaries than is naturally coming into the system from rainfall, snowmelt, aquifer and groundwater discharges. This illegal abuse of the Russian River is masked by the transfers of Eel River water.
This practice damages both rivers. Russian River residents, water suppliers and businesses must learn how to live within their own water budget. This transfer of water has cost the Eel River’s recreational fishing and boating industry over $6M per year in lost income, jobs and productivity. If Russian River customers’ water bills actually included the costs of restoring the Eel River, watershed management practices would change rapidly.
6. The PVP is obsolete and is bad for river health: neither Scott nor Cape Horn dams were designed for flood control. Instead, they provide flows to PG&E’s now antiquated, inefficient hydropower generator, producing a maximum of 9.2mW when everything is working. This is not “green energy”. More efficient electrical usage in the service area alone could easily save more than PVP generates.
The dams hinder fish migration and prevent new gravels and sediments from flowing downstream to replenish spawning grounds, and cause increased erosion of the river bed. Dams fill with these sediments, reducing their capacity, and have lifespans further shortened by seismic and geotechnical faults. The costs of correcting these and other problems are staggering, and PG&E has no budget to fix them. The true cost of this electricity is huge.
7. Salmon and Steelhead are not cute, furry and cuddly, but they have been part of the complex life of the Eel River for millions of years. The Eel River is a remarkably inspiring and beautiful river. Let’s not lose this all during our watch.