PG&E Tells FERC “Seismic Risk of Eel River Dams Greater Than Previously Understood”


-FERC Approves Changes to Dam Operations to Mitigate Earthquake Risks

-Four Months After Request, Approval Comes Too Late to Stop Fish Kill

Washington, DC – Yesterday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted a request for a Temporary Variance to the flow requirements for PG&E’s license to operate the Eel River dams, also known as the Potter Valley Project (PVP). PG&E requested the Variance to secure federal regulators’ approval after the utility announced in May it could no longer raise the radial gates on Scott Dam due to seismic risks. The Variance also sought approval to change flow releases to protect steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“We are pleased that FERC and PG&E are finally taking the seismic risks associated with the Eel River dams seriously; however, FERC’s long-delayed decision comes too late for this year’s juvenile steelhead,” explains FOER Executive Director Alicia Hamann.

PG&E filed the request with FERC on May 23, 2023, FERC responded yesterday. In its explanation for granting the Temporary Variance, FERC explains that “PG&E determined, and D2SI [FERC’s Division of Dam Safety and Inspections] and California DSOD [Department of Dam Safety] concur, that the seismic instability of Scott Dam may be greater than previously understood.”

Unfortunately, the FERC decision comes too late to help this year’s juvenile steelhead. While PG&E explained to FERC “that maintaining the cold-water pool in Lake Pillsbury helps ensure that the released flows do not become dangerously warm,” FERC inexplicably failed to approve the Variance request in time to prevent a fish kill.

“Federal biologists have made clear that until the Eel River dams are removed, we’ll need that cold water pool to protect juvenile steelhead from high temperatures in the late summer and early fall. But after high diversions to the Russian River all summer, by mid-August the water coming out of Scott Dam had reached temperatures lethal to steelhead. We only return a couple hundred adults each year, every fish matters as we try to prevent an extinction event,” explained FOER Conservation Director Scott Greacen.

Despite this summer’s tragedy, there is cause for optimism. PG&E will propose a plan to remove the dams in November. While some Russian River interests want to maintain the diversion of Eel River water to the Russian, that looks increasingly less likely.

“Seismic risks and fishery impacts have motivated PG&E to surrender their license to operate the Potter Valley Project. It’s difficult to fathom how anyone could afford to build and maintain new water diversion infrastructure that won’t create the same problems, especially when there are more cost-efficient options to optimize water use,” concluded Hamann.

# # #