FOER Comments to Humboldt County on Eel River Fisheries Restoration and Dam Removal

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Humboldt County Board of Supervisors via electronic mail

RE: Humboldt County’s Position on Eel River Fisheries Restoration and Eel River Dam Removal

 

Dear Supervisors:

Friends of the Eel River encourages Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors to adopt a strong and clear statement of the County’s interests in the protection and restoration of the Eel River, the recovery of the Eel’s fisheries, and thus in the removal of the Eel River dams.

While having such a position statement will be important for the pending relicensing of the Eel River dams by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, it is also clear that the future of the dams, and of the diversion of Eel River water to the Russian River watershed which the dams facilitate, is likely to be the focus of discussion in other fora as well. Having a clear statement of the County’s interests and position can only assist the County’s representatives in consistently and vigorously advocating for protection of the Eel River, rebuilding its fisheries, and for dam removal in every forum where these questions arise.

Humboldt County’s central objective should be the recovery of Eel River fisheries, especially salmonids now listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Fisheries recovery should be our top priority for reasons that include:

  • Healthy fisheries are essential to the North Coast’s native peoples and their cultures;
  • Low population levels of Eel River fisheries are a key constraint on commercial fishing opportunities in the nearshore Pacific, limiting the prospects of boats working out of Trinidad, Eureka, and Shelter Cove;
  • Abundant fisheries are literally the foundation of our forest ecosystems, critical to their recovery and long term productivity. As the globally significant carbon- sequestering capacity of North Coast forests comes into focus, it’s essential to protect the link between our forests and the marine nutrients critical to their growth;
  • The Eel River’s unique salmon and steelhead runs are irreplaceable parts of our natural heritage, the protection of which is a central duty of government under the public trust doctrine;
  • Humboldt County has a responsibility to at least try to mitigate its past errors. Eel River fisheries are at very serious risk of extinction today in large measure due to Humboldt County’s failure to prevent land abuses that caused enormous damage to salmon and steelhead runs, including their ability to reproduce and to feed before entering the ocean. These include drainage of the highly productive Eel River estuary, overcutting of the county’s old-growth forests, and failure to effectively regulate the Green Rush of destructive marijuana cultivation operations across some of the county’s most sensitive remaining fisheries

Removal of Scott Dam is the single step that would do the most to further the prospects of chinook and steelhead recovery in the Eel River over the next few decades. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to restore salmon and steelhead to habitat now buried beneath the Lake Pillsbury reservoir and in the tributaries above it, all inaccessible for a century because there is no fish passage over 138’ Scott Dam.

As well, serious questions about the safety of the Eel River dams have yet to be adequately addressed. Despite substantial evidence that Scott Dam: was constructed using

  • inadequate materials and techniques on (b) a foundation of uncertain quality; has (c) aged badly in the century since; and is (d) now subject to a range of quite serious geotechnical and seismic threats that were not even considered when the dam was planned, neither FERC, nor PG&E, nor the California Division of Safety of Dams has even attempted a public assessment of these

For its part, FERC has insisted that dam safety is simply not a consideration in dam relicensing, and that its existing protocols are entirely adequate. Given that those protocols failed entirely to predict the near-failure of the Oroville Dam – a structure half the age of Scott Dam – FOER questions whether such reviews can be relied on to accurately assess the risks dam failure presents to the Eel River and downstream interests. Humboldt County should demand a comprehensive review of the safety issues presented especially by Scott Dam, but by the Potter Valley Project as a whole as well, as a critical part of the assessment of liabilities necessary to any realistic discussion of the future of the Eel River dams.

Full removal of Scott and Cape Horn Dams and the associated diversion works would be the best outcome for Humboldt County. Removal of both Scott and Cape Horn dams would:

  • Fully restore fish passage;
  • Address concerns about the safety of project facilities, especially the seismic stability of Scott Dam;
  • Cost Humboldt nothing, as the county receives no benefits from diversions of Eel River water to Potter Valley and the Russian

A compromise that retained Cape Horn Dam and the diversion infrastructure, and allowed winter-only diversions to the Russian at approximately the current average annual diversion rates of 60-75K AF, could probably prove ecologically sustainable, assuming some additional modifications to facilitate passage of down-migrating adult steelhead (kelts). Providing Russian River interests with a degree of certainty regarding future water diversions – limited in scale and season – will clarify their choices. It will also assist their effort to increase the height of Coyote Dam, thus increasing available storage in the Lake Mendocino reservoir, which will help to mitigate for loss of summer diversions from the upper Eel River. However, Humboldt County should assent to such a compromise if and only if Scott Dam removal is assured as part of the deal.

Far from working to assure removal of Scott Dam, the Eel Russian River Commission (ERRC) has been working to facilitate the retention of both Scott and Cape Horn dams and their transfer to a new entity under a non-power license. A non-power license would allow operators to avoid federal requirements to provide fish passage over Scott Dam. That should be unacceptable to the County, as it would be a betrayal of Humboldt County’s public trust responsibilities to secure fisheries recovery in the Eel River. Humboldt County should vigorously and publicly oppose any effort to move toward a non-power license for the Eel River dams.

Further, turning the Eel River dams into a monetized water supply for Russian River interests would only cement in place a diversion that has injured Eel River and Humboldt County interests, and which would continue to do nothing to benefit the Eel River and Humboldt County. It is unlikely any amount of mitigation elsewhere in the Eel River basin could ever match the value to fisheries of restoring natural spawning habitat above Scott Dam on public land already being managed by the US Forest Service for natural values.

Aside from the effort to facilitate a non power license, no rationale has been presented to the public explaining why the ERRC should be expanded. In fact, the available evidence suggest Humboldt County should reconsider whether the ERRC should continue to exist. Humboldt County never received the benefits it bargained for in the formation of the Joint Powers Agency, when the ERRC was created to support relicensing of the Eel River dams in the late 1970s. Humboldt still receives no benefits from the ERRC today. In view of the extent to which the JPA for the ERRC appears to bind Humboldt to decisions the county cannot block, and of the evident divergence of interests between Humboldt and Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake counties with respect to the desirability of keeping the Eel River dams and diversion, Humboldt County should consider asking its partner counties to dissolve the Eel Russian River Commission.

Finally, FOER is deeply troubled by Humboldt County’s participation in the Eel Russian River Commission’s closed door discussions about the future of the Eel River dams.

Humboldt County should adopt a clear position regarding dam removal and should negotiate openly and in good faith with all stakeholders to seek agreements that will help protect and restore a vital part of its natural and economic resources – the Eel River and its fisheries.

 

Thank you for your careful consideration of these important issues.

For the river,

 

 

Scott Greacen

Conservation Director

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