Obscure joint powers authority makes play to buy the fish-killing Eel River dams

Mendocino County water interests are moving forward with an attempt to buy the Eel River dams. If they succeed, they will only plant the seeds of a conflict that will last until the Eel River’s fish are gone or the dams come down.

Ever since PG&E announced its intent to unload the two aging dams that block fish access to 10% of the Eel River watershed (AKA the Potter Valley Project), Friends of the Eel River has been working to uncover who might try to retain these ecologically and structurally hazardous dams and their associated water diversion to the Russian River. For months, we have been met with denials and hostility.

Our public records act requests were carefully sidestepped, elected officials insisted their governments and agencies did not have the capacity to ‘take on the Potter Valley Project ALONE,’ and some even went so far as to accuse us of lying in pursuit of our vision of a free flowing and healthy Eel River watershed. And while it gives us no pleasure to say “we told you so,” it turns out our suspicions were well-founded.  

On August 8, FOER learned that, two days previously the Mendocino Board of Supervisors had approved the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission’s (MCIWPC) plan to attempt to acquire the dams – safety risks and salmon extinction be damned. Unsurprisingly, the County’s and the Commission’s responses to our public records act requests failed to disclose any deliberations related to this action. We learned about it via a tip from an ally. On August 9, FOER attended the MCIWPC’s meeting in which its representatives confirmed  their plans to negotiate a deal behind closed doors with PG&E. Needless to say, we are alarmed.

Most people have never heard of the MCIWPC, largely because it has been basically defunct since the 90’s. It was formed for a prior attempt to take over operation of the dams, which had become unprofitable for PG&E due to reduced power generation. It is comprised of representatives of the primary recipients of Eel River waters: the City of Ukiah, the Potter Valley Irrigation District, the Sonoma County Water Authority, etc.

These entities have become quite used to taking the Eel’s waters to avoid the tough decisions that face the overallocated Russian River watershed. And apparently, they’re determined to keep it that way – despite their participation in a stakeholders group led by Congressman Jared Huffman that is seeking a ‘two-basin solution,’ most likely an agreement to remove the harmful dams while still providing some water assurance to Russian River diverters.

While we can’t say that we blame the MCIWPC for wanting to retain the status quo (hey: it’s not THEIR watershed getting the short end of the stick), the Eel River dams not only severely impair salmon and steelhead recovery on the North Coast, they also pose a major safety hazard for downstream communities.

It’s well-known that 130-foot tall Scott Dam has structural issues. The dam was designed to run straight across the Eel River. But during construction, the “bedrock” on which the builders intended to anchor the dam shifted. The builders just bent the dam around the boulder and called it good. Since then, our knowledge of the regional geology has advanced. We now know that the dam and reservoir were sited within a mile of the most active portion of the 100 mile long Bartlett Springs Fault.

Add the risks that this threat poses to downstream communities to the $90 million price tag for fish passage and the fact that this aging infrastructure now generates almost no electricity, and the dams’ liabilities for any owners really start racking up. It’s no wonder PG&E doesn’t want it anymore.

Do the members of the MCIWPC – and the governing bodies they represent – really want to take on responsibility for what a dam failure would do to the people of the Eel River?

We’d like to think the answer is no, but as the history of water in the West teaches us, there’s no such thing as ‘too much risk’ for some people.

The really frustrating thing is they might get this license transfer/sale deal approved despite all this. Ironically, this would not necessarily secure their water supply. Rather, it would simply perpetuate the conflict over the future of the Eel’s fisheries and communities. And we will have lost precious time in the interim. Our endangered salmon and steelhead runs can’t afford to wait much longer. Meanwhile, the Ranch Fire, which has caused astonishing devastation throughout Mendocino and Lake counties, is burning right up against the dam and over the adjacent unstable slope.

Stay tuned for additional news on the geological hazards associated with this aging water project.