For over 120 years, Russian River water users have enjoyed a boost to their water supplies at the expense of the Eel River. PG&E’s Potter Valley Project uses two dams and a pipeline to divert water from the Eel River to a power house on the East Fork of the Russian River. While the project was developed primarily for hydropower, it offered free water to downstream water users who expanded vineyards accordingly.
Over time the economic, ecological, and cultural impacts to Eel River communities accumulated. The dams block salmon and steelhead from reaching headwaters spawning grounds and disrupt sediment transport down the river. This contributes greatly to the collapse of Eel River fish runs, harming coastal economies and robbing local Native Americans of an essential part of their culture.
As the years passed, federal regulators began to limit the diversions to protect Eel River fisheries which in turn limited the benefit to Russian River water users. In recent years, Eel River diversions contributed only about 3% to Russian River flows. More recently, the infrastructure itself has fallen into disrepair. PG&E no longer generates power from the project as repairs to transformers cost more than the project is worth and Scott Dam only holds a fraction of its capacity due to newly acknowledged seismic safety concerns.
Today, as PG&E exits its latest bankruptcy, it needs to get money losing assets like the Potter Valley Project off its books. PG&E tried to sell the project in 2018 and when no buyers emerged, they then give it away the following year. Now PG&E’s only recourse is to surrender the power license and remove the facilities. They are required by federal regulators to release a draft decommissioning plan in November. At a Russian River Water Forum meeting earlier this year, PG&E staff stated flatly that “PG&E’s decommissioning plan will include the removal of in water facilities such that no feature will continue to impound water and the natural flow of the river will occur.”
We at Friends of the Eel whole heartedly support this approach which will likely end the free water enjoyed by some growers. We note that Russian River water users, led by Sonoma Water, have had ample opportunity to craft an alternative outcome. The expiration date of the dam license has been public knowledge for decades and PG&E did try to literally give the project away. However, despite a good faith attempt to work with Tribes, conservationists, and Humboldt County, Sonoma Water and their allies were unable to develop a plan to take over the orphaned project when the opportunity arose.
Now, at the eleventh hour, Sonoma Water is lobbying PG&E to once again consider maintaining the diversion even as the two dams are removed. The idea is that winter flows in the Eel are so abundant that diverting some portion to the Russian would help fill Lake Mendocino thereby boosting their water supply reliability in the summer. But the plan Sonoma Water pitched to PG&E for consideration has little merit. It provides few details on how such a diversion would be engineered, who would pay to build a new diversion facility, or who would operate and manage it over time. Let’s be honest: if they haven’t figured out the details yet, it’s because it is a losing proposition.
Eel River fisheries are edging closer to extinction, especially steelhead that now only number in the hundreds of individuals. We need a meaningful large scale restoration project as soon as possible to avert extinction and dam removal fits the bill. Cramming a poorly developed idea to reconfigure infrastructure into the dam surrender process could delay dam removal for years – years that these fish runs don’t have. Furthermore, it wastes more money for PG&E customers and shareholders while perpetuating the risk of a catastrophic dam failure the next time there’s an earthquake.
We urge Russian River water users to instead invest their time and energy into water conservation measures and water projects within their own watershed. The Eel simply has no more to offer. Luckily, federal dollars are available from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act to help communities facing water shortages.
PG&E is finally on the right track when it comes to the Potter Valley Project. We urge the utility to move as swiftly as federal regulators will allow to remove dams and give Eel River fisheries and the communities that rely on them hope for the future.
Alicia Hamann, Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River