Potter Valley Project Updates

Action from FERC and PG&E seems to come in quick bursts – a lot has happened over the past two months. Before diving into that, we want to share the exciting news that this week FOER and our allies filed suit against FERC for violating the Endangered Species Act. When the federal agency issued an annual license to PG&E to continue operations of the Potter Valley Project pending its decommissioning, FERC failed to add new license conditions necessary to protect Eel River steelhead and Chinook salmon listed under the ESA. Our simple request is that FERC listen to the fisheries experts at the National Marine Fisheries Service and require PG&E to protect Eel River fish. Read our press release here.

License Surrender Update
As we mentioned in our previous newsletter, PG&E has announced their proposed schedule for license surrender. This 30-month “plan to make a plan” is another example of PG&E choosing to prolong the status quo rather than moving urgently to cease harms to Eel River fisheries. FOER, along with a wide variety of allies, submitted comments to FERC suggesting a shortened surrender process and requesting clarity on stakeholder outreach plans.

Flow Variance Update
In other PVP news, way back in May PG&E requested yet another flow variance at the Potter Valley Project. Variances are exceptions granted by FERC from the license-mandated flow schedule for the PVP, which allow PG&E to reduce the amount of Eel River water diverted out of basin to the Russian River. While some are granted for construction or similar issues, FERC has granted PG&E variances nearly every year in the last decade because there has not been enough water in the Eel River to meet all of the flows required by the FERC schedule. The project is not operating sustainably.

However, this May’s variance request was different. PG&E asked FERC that it be allowed to reduce diversions from the Eel to the Russian Rivers to maintain at least 30,000 acre feet through mid-September in the Lake Pillsbury reservoir behind Scott Dam. This is a key change in PVP operations that National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biologists have sought in order to maintain a cold water pool that can be used to keep river temperatures below the dams lower for the benefit of Eel River salmonids.

We were happy to see this shift in priority and submitted comments urging FERC to authorize this variance as soon as possible. Acting swiftly was necessary, as NMFS experts emphasized, because the longer PG&E continued diverting 75 cfs out of the basin, the less likely they’d be able to maintain that cold water pool. Unfortunately, it took FERC over 2 months to approve the variance. Depending on the weather over the next month, we may barely have the water necessary to keep temperatures below 19 degrees Celsius (roughly the point at which other species like pikeminnow begin outcompeting salmonids).

As part of consulting with stakeholders on variances, PG&E holds “Drought Working Group” meetings where they present modeling information and gather feedback from stakeholders including state and federal wildlife agencies, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, and Russian River water users. In their latest meeting, we were disappointed to hear PG&E staff seeking an immediate increase in diversions through the PVP, which had just been reduced to 5 cfs after two months of unreasonably high diversions. As NMFS staff pointed out, the variance is working to keep Eel River temperatures hovering just below a dangerous threshold. Why immediately risk that benefit?

Responding to National Marine Fisheries Service
And finally last month we told you all about PG&E’s response to the March letter from NMFS which outlines how the company is committing unauthorized “take” of legally protected salmon and steelhead and suggests eight measures to enhance protection. This month FERC took their turn responding to the fisheries experts. Notably the Commission said they are evaluating whether to reopen PG&E’s license to add amendments suggested by NMFS, and requested clarity from the agency on a number of the proposed amendments within 60 days. Stay tuned folks!