Friends of Eel River prepares for river’s future; founder Nadananda honored at symposium (Part 1 of 2)

Redwood Times
Posted:   04/24/2012 11:07:02 AM PDT

Part 1 of 2

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

Environmentalists, activists, and friends of the Eel River filled River Lodge in Fortuna on Saturday, April 14 to hear presentations about dam removal, water law, and the meaning of “ecohydroatmogeomorphic” at an all-day symposium hosted by Friends of the Eel River.

FOER’s founder, Nadananda, who recently retired as executive director, was honored at a luncheon, one of the highlights of the day.

Bridgeville artist Michael Guerriero, chairman of the FOER board of directors, described Nadananda as “a flower child with a background in the performing arts” who “felt the power” of the Eel River back in the 1990s and became determined to do all that she could to save it from decline, creating a non-profit organization that is respected by key figures at the state and national level today.

Scott Greacen, the new executive director of FOER, along with Guerriero and FOER’s Bay Area director David Keller, presented Nadananda with a “celebration flag” created by Guerriero from salmon stencils made by his young art students. Greacen thanked Nadananda “for your gift to us … for giving us the opportunity” to work for the Eel River.

“Straightening out this river system is akin to everything else that’s happening in the world,” Nadananda told the audience. “Change happens on a dime – well, with the Eel River, sometimes on a quarter,” she added.

Greacen urged everyone to participate in the struggle to “take back our country, take back our watersheds… We’ll never get anything done unless we’re all standing together.”

Keynote speaker Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center gave a stirring and humorous overview of the challenges of global climate change and its impact on world water.

Keynote speaker Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center gave a stirring and humorous overview of the challenges of global climate change and its impact on world water.

Dolman quoted Aldo Leopold, “The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land,” as well as other environmental sages, and included many quotable puns of his own.

“Our head waters are in need of ego-system restory-ation,” Dolman said, displaying a drawing of the human brain. He urged the audience to find ways to use water carefully, such as collecting and storing water from roofs and looking at beavers as model hydrologists for stream restoration.

Since it was founded in 1995, Friends of the Eel River’s most important issue has been pressing for larger and more effective releases of Eel River water back into the main stem Eel from the diversion into the Russian River at Pacific Gas and Electric’s Potter Valley Project east of Ukiah.

FOER’s ultimate goal has always been removal of the two dams that capture water for the diversion, Scott Dam and Van Arsdale Dam, to restore natural flows to the main stem of the Eel River. The diverted water, once it passes through the Potter Valley hydroelectric plant, becomes part of the Russian River, where it is drawn upon by farmers, municipalities, and other users in Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin counties.

PG&E’s license to operate the Potter Valley Project expires on April 14, 2022 – exactly 10 years from the date of the FOER symposium, as several speakers noted – and FOER is hoping to see the project de-licensed because of its environmental impacts, age, and relatively small production of electricity.

But even de-licensing may not lead to removal of the Scott and Cape Horn Dams, which impound Eel River water in Lake Pillsbury and the Van Arsdale Reservoir respectively.

The Sonoma County Water Agency has expressed interest in purchasing the system if PG&E abandons the Potter Valley Project. SCWA not only provides water to the Russian River to its own customers, it also sells water to Marin County.

Kevin Bundy, formerly a staffer for the Environmental Protection and Information Center and now senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, described the tangle of state and federal law that regulates many aspects of water use in California, and specifically the Eel River system.

Bundy noted that over 500 entities claim rights to Eel River water in both the Eel and Russian basins, as well as unknown numbers of unofficial, extra-legal users. Additionally, land use such as road building and gravel mining also affect water quality and quantity.

Seven different categories of law directly or indirectly affect water use and impacts, including the federal Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Clean Water Act, federal Indian law, California state water rights laws, and – in the case of the Eel and Russian Rivers, the Federal Power Act, which governs licensing of hydroelectric generation plants. Additionally, numerous private agreements can come into play, such as the 1946 agreement between PG&E and the Potter Valley Irrigation District.

Widespread marijuana cultivation is having an impact on rivers as well, Bundy said. “I don’t know of any studies, but anecdotally, it’s clear it’s happening,” he said.

Among future issues, Bundy saw the problem of meeting the water needs of users in the Russian River basin if the diversion at Potter Valley ends. In Humboldt County, proponents of harbor development see gravel mining as critical to commercial revitalization of Humboldt Bay, which would require rebuilding the Northwest Pacific rail line through the Eel River Canyon.

Examples of dam de-commissioning projects in the west were presented by Brian Cluer, a geomorphologist and dam removal specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).

Cluer described several projects in which he was involved, most notably the removal of two dams on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, Washington state. In each case the major risk posed by dam removal is movement of the sediment that has accumulated behind the dam, which can cause massive flooding.

In some cases, especially if lots of people are living downstream of the dam, the solution was to route the water release around the sediment and then remove the sediment and deposit it elsewhere.

But the best solution, if chances of impacts to human population are low, usually is to remove the dam at the onset of the rainy season and let the sediment wash out with the torrent.

While this method may impede fish passage temporarily, and possibly wipe out a year-class of eggs, the river and the fish population will recover more quickly than if they must contend with the gradual, cumulative impacts of leaving the dam in place, Cluer explained.

When the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington was breached, the lake behind the dam drained in less than an hour. The Elwha and Grand Clines Dams on the Elwha River, however, are being removed in controlled increments to mitigate the impacts of dam removal.

Additionally, impacts to water quality were mitigated by building treatment plants to handle the increased turbidity of the released water and, at the insistence of local tribes; a fish hatchery was constructed to protect populations of the seven salmonid species in the Elwha.