We have great news for the Eel River and its fisheries. Days before entering bankruptcy, utility giant PG&E withdrew its application to relicense the Potter Valley Project and ended its attempt to sell the project, which includes two dams on the upper mainstem Eel River.
Friends of the Eel River has been working for decades to restore fish access to hundreds of miles of prime habitat completely blocked off by century-old, 130-foot-tall Scott Dam. Scott Dam, and its companion structure twelve miles downriver, Cape Horn Dam, are key components of the Potter Valley Project (PVP), which is licensed as a hydroelectric project by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
The Project’s license expires in 2022. In 2017, PG&E applied to FERC to renew its license for another 30 to 50 year term. Under Congressman Jared Huffman’s leadership, Eel River stakeholders began meeting with Russian River stakeholders to see if we could negotiate – at minimum – the removal of Scott Dam.
The basic idea here would be to remove Scott Dam and the Lake Pillsbury reservoir, but leave Cape Horn Dam and the diversion works to Potter Valley more or less in place. Rather than divert Eel River water in the summer when natural flows are very low, the plan would take a similar volume from high winter flows. The water would be stored in the Lake Mendocino reservoir on the upper Russian River, or in Potter Valley itself.
But even as we worked to define such a consensus solution, PG&E was meeting in secret with local governments, trying to sell a plan to keep the dams in place. In Spring 2018, FOER exposed those secret discussions to the light of day, where they quickly died.
PG&E then announced, in late August 2018, that it would auction off the whole Potter Valley Project, with plans to secure a deal to transfer the project to a new owner by Labor Day of 2019 – right in the middle of the FERC relicensing process. Clearly, PG&E thought it would be cheaper to get someone else to clean up its mess.
Then, just this month, PG&E announced it would enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy to avoid paying the victims of the Camp fire. The future of the Potter Valley Project, already buried deep in the obscurity of FERC relicensing and then hidden behind PG&E’s opaque auction, suddenly looked even murkier.
So PG&E’s announcement that it is reversing course, after spending millions on relicensing efforts, is huge news for the Eel River and its fisheries. It is by no means the end of the story. But this is the turning point. Removal of at least Scott Dam is now more likely than not.
We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we do get a dam removal agreement. We’re going to work hard to ensure PG&E doesn’t stick its ratepayers, or taxpayers, with dam removal costs its wealthy shareholders should bear. And after a century of folly, we are going to make the upper Eel River home once again for its native salmon, steelhead, and lamprey.