The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved sending a letter to the federal agency that denied a request last month to briefly funnel more water through the Potter Valley Project to assist the Redwood Valley County Water District.
“I agree that the diversion could have been easily accomplished without any danger to the minimum flows (required to be maintained in the Eel River),” said 2nd District Supervisor John McCowen, who moved to approve the letter addressed to Irma Lagomarsino, the assistant regional administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s regional office in Arcata.
The letter expresses disappointment with the federal agency’s denial of a request to temporarily — for likely less than two days — divert water through the Potter Valley tunnel at a rate of 250 cubic feet per second until an extra 800 acre feet could be collected for Redwood Valley.
Though written agreements supporting the temporary diversion were acquired from the Friends of the Eel River, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, CalTrout and the Potter Valley Irrigation District, 3rd District Supervisor John Pinches wrote in the letter that Dick Butler from the Santa Rosa NOAA office denied the request “due to the fact that he believed the current situation does not qualify as an emergency,” which would have to cause “damage to life, health, property or essential public services.”
“We are very concerned that a federal employee could make a determination that, first, drought is a predictable local event, and, second, that the loss of a farmer’s crop is not considered damage to property,” the letter continues. “We would like you to review the circumstance surrounding the proposed minor water diversion … and provide us with an explanation of how the final decision to deny water to Redwood Valley was made.”
Customers of the RVCWD are currently limited to 50 gallons a day per person and water for agricultural uses, such as livestock and frost protection for grapevines, is no longer available.
David Keller, a Petaluma resident and member of the Friends of the Eel River, disputed the letter’s claim that the 800 acre-feet could have been collected in only 38 hours, and that even if it were collected, “there is no legal process for Redwood Valley to take that water,” and many other stakeholders had senior water rights that would have had to be addressed beforehand.
Keller also said “the letter is a little over the top in regards to blaming Dick Butler.”
Guinness McFadden, a member of the Potter Valley Irrigation District’s board of directors, said the lives of many in Redwood Valley who have vineyards and livestock “are going to be miserable this summer, and that water could have easily been sent to them without harming the fish.
“This is not the time to lawyer up; this is a time for neighbors to help neighbors,” McFadden continued. “Lawyering up is for normal circumstances. This drought is extraordinary circumstances.”
Fifth District Supervisor Dan Hamburg said he “agreed with the basic concepts of the letter,” but he also agreed with some of Keller’s comments and he wanted to “make this letter as cooperative as possible.
“The Friends of the Eel River are not going away, and we need to figure out how to march forward together and let’s not try and pick fights,” Hamburg said. “I want to see as little acrimony as possible in the letter.”
Pinches said he found it frustrating that so much attention was being put on the small amount of water going through the Potter Valley tunnel when “90 percent of the problem” was how the illegal water diversions by marijuana growers “dry up all of the Eel River’s tributaries into nothing” every year.
“Why that isn’t the focus, I don’t understand,” he said. “It is a real tragedy what’s happening in the river, and people need to get on the ball and do something about the illegal marijuana industry.”
The supervisors then unanimously approved sending the letter to NOAA, and directed 1st District Supervisor Carre Brown to make any necessary changes.
Justine Frederiksen can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @JustFrederiksen or at 468-3500, ext. 1141.
Comment from David Keller, Friends of the Eel River Bay Area Director
As a participant in the phone conferences convened by PG&E with RVCWD and other stakeholders, I would like to address some of the concerns raised in this article.
Unfortunately, while the math from commenter Tait Lambert is theoretically correct, PG&E’s project manager made it abundantly clear during the conferences on 4/8 and 4/9 that they could NOT divert 250cfs (actual number proposed, not 280cfs) through the Potter Valley tunnel into the East Branch Russian River at a constant rate of diversion for the duration to yield an additional 800 acre feet thru the tunnel quickly.
At the time of RVCWD’s request (April 8-9), PG&E was keeping as much water as possible in Lake Pillsbury to fill it, while stream inflows into the reservoir were still continuing. As a result, the actual flows then passing below Scott Dam and Cape Horn Dam (Van Arsdale Reservoir) and into the main stem Eel River were declining rapidly. Or, as PG&E put it, the flows were in “the descending limb of the hydrograph.”
The operating rules for the Eel River flows below Cape Horn Dam at that time required a minimum 200 cfs (plus a safety margin of 20-30cfs, totaling some 230cfs). At 12:15pm on 4/8, that flowwas 439cfs. At 1:30pm on 4/9, the flow had already been reduced to 370cfs. By midday 4/10, the flows were down to appx. 340cfs. On 4/11, appx. 310cfs. On 4/12, appx. 290cfs. Those flows obviously do not leave 280cfs diversion for RVCWD above the ~230cfs flows required to pass into the Eel River.
In addition, Cal. Dept of Fish and Wildlife and NMFS both stated that flows into the Eel River could not be reduced at a rate of decline exceeding 40cfs/hour, to prevent stranding of juvenile Chinook salmon in the main stem of the river. That meant that PG&E could not divert more than an additional 40cfs/hour increased flows through the tunnel. The tunnel at that time was conveying appx. 45cfs (PVID=5cfs; Russian River=35cfs; Buffer=5cfs).
There never was the capability of PG&E to divert 250cfs through the PVP tunnel to yield 800af in a short time, as claimed in the Supervisors’ letter to NMFS. This was abundantly clear to the participants in the conference calls with PG&E. I pointed that out to the Supervisors, but they chose to do their own magical math instead to support the impossible assumption that the transfer of water to RVCWD could be done quickly.
In addition, the State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates water rights and permits, asked PG&E to show how “the proposed diversion and release for use by RVCWD can be made under existing water rights,” and to answer “what impacts this proposal will have on other water rights holders and riparian users in Eel River and East Fork Russian River, including but not limited to Sonoma County Water Agency, RRFCD, Potter Valley Irrigation District?” Those important legal questions relating to transfer of water to junior water rights holder RVCWD were never answered by PG&E.
Finally, regarding Chairman Pinches’ valid concerns about the huge damages being done by marijuana cultivation to so many watersheds in California, and particularly the Eel and Russian Rivers: Friends of the Eel River is very actively working with other stakeholders to bring best management practices into place. This is difficult, and will continue to require good will, intelligence, and significant work to change the practices now proving to be destructive to forests, water flows and quality, soils, fish and wildlife. FOER is well aware of the problems, and is working alongside others to help correct them. Together, we can do this!
The flows in the Eel River are not “excess” or “wasted” water: they are essential to assist in the recovery of Chinook, Coho and Steelhead, and the recreational and spiritual enjoyment, economy, tourism and food their abundance will provide.