Eel River Dams (de)licensing Update

Every thirty to fifty years, hydropower projects get relicensed. Everyone knows that hydroelectric power is clean power, dams are good for rivers and fish, and even old dams never suffer any serious failures. So we should keep them all! At least, that appears to be how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) thinks. The agency is infamous for its disdain for the environmental impacts of the dams it licenses. At Friends of the Eel River, we have always known that we couldn’t look to FERC to change the status quo on the Eel River. Still, the depth of FERC’s indifference to its job as a regulatory agency is pretty astonishing.

This April, Pacific Gas and Electric filed initial paperwork to begin relicensing the two Eel River dams and diversion works known as the Potter Valley Project. When FERC issued its scoping document – which identifies key issues and outlines the process for making a relicensing determination – the only path forward presented was the unsustainable and illegal status quo: dam and diversion operations which are very likely to lead to the extinction of Eel River steelhead during the next license period.

We should be clear here: dam removal, by itself, probably isn’t enough to secure the habitat Eel River salmon and steelhead need to survive and begin to recover their populations. Dam removal is, however, an essential first step, and one that we can and must take now. More than 250 stream miles of high-quality steelhead habitat are locked behind the impassible Scott Dam. Meanwhile, the twelve-mile stretch below Scott Dam and above Cape Horn Dam operates as an ecological trap, with coldwater flows from the upper dam encouraging salmon and steelhead to spawn, but not to migrate downriver in time to survive. Instead, juvenile salmon and steelhead feed invasive pikeminnow.

We were a bit shocked that FERC refused to even consider any alternatives, especially decommissioning. Over the summer, we asked members of the public to request decommissioning be included as an alternative in comments to FERC.

A lot of people claim to be working for the recovery of the Eel River these days. We actually do it. FOER put together extensive, detailed comments on FERC’s scoping document with the help of key fisheries groups like CalTrout, Trout Unlimited, California Sportfishing Alliance, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations (PCFFA), and the Native Fish Society. The Round Valley Tribes and Wiyot Tribe, who have claims of still greater legal weight than those we can bring on behalf of Eel River fisheries, have stepped up and delivered substantive comments as well.

As bad as the FERC process has been so far, it’s about to get worse. By mid-September, we’ll see a revised scoping document from FERC (upon which the agency will accept no comments, but we’ll give them some anyway) and a pile of proposed study plans from PG&E. We’ll be working on comments on the proposed study plans for an early December 2017 deadline; FERC plans to finalize the study plans in early February to get studies going in 2018.

This process will continue for a minimum of five years, during which we can expect FERC to produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will set new standards for malign neglect of the critical environmental issues at hand for the Eel River and its fisheries. However, it’s important to note that similar relicensing efforts are still dragging on after ten or even twenty years. And for those who simply want to maintain the status quo, that’s an acceptable outcome, as FERC routinely issues waivers allowing dams to continue to operate under out-of-date license terms while relicensing fights continue. Thus, FOER will continue to seek leverage points both within and outside the FERC process, and will continue to dialog with stakeholders from every perspective who may be willing to support a negotiated solution to removing the Eel River dams.

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