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May 13, 2020 – A partnership of counties, Tribes, water users and a conservation group today submitted a plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on how the Potter Valley Project on California’s upper Eel River could continue to operate after its current license expires in 2022. The plan calls for removal of Scott Dam, which blocks access for salmon and steelhead to nearly 300 miles of prime spawning and rearing habitat, as well as new facilities to enable continued diversion of water from the Eel to the Russian River.
The Eel River is California’s third largest watershed and, prior to the construction of the Potter Valley Project and other human uses, once saw salmon and steelhead runs of as many as one million fish annually. Today, most of these salmonid species are threatened or endangered. The plan submitted to FERC will improve conditions for fish in the Eel River and increase water supply reliability for communities in Mendocino, Marin and Sonoma Counties. These communities rely on water diverted from the Eel River into the Russian River watershed through the Project’s operations.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) announced in January 2019 that it does not plan to relicense the project due in part to annual losses exceeding $5 million. With no other party to acquire the facilities, PG&E put the Project on a path for decommissioning. The company’s decision creates uncertainty around the security of water supplies in the Russian River watershed and the future of salmon in the Eel River.
“I’m pleased to see this diverse coalition moving forward toward a two-basin solution. The filing of this feasibility study with its well-defined project description is a significant step toward a win-win outcome for the North Coast and North Bay: robust restoration of Eel River fisheries, and long-term certainty and reliability for Russian River water users,” said Rep. Huffman. “We still have a long way to go including an extensive study plan, determining an appropriate financial contribution from PG&E, and securing state and federal financial support to reflect the broad public benefits of this plan. But today’s filing is an important milestone and I remain committed to supporting and securing the resources necessary to move the two-basin solution forward.”
Today’s plan was submitted by the Two-Basin Partnership, composed of the County of Humboldt, Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, Sonoma Water and California Trout. Last year FERC gave the Two-Basin Partnership ten months to come up with the outlines of a plan for operating the project in a way that meets the goals of both water supply security and fisheries restoration.
Curtis Knight, Executive Director of California Trout, said, “I’m encouraged by the broad areas of agreement we’ve identified among the diverse stakeholders represented in the Partnership. We have a way to go before we can realize the twin goals of securing water supplies in the Russian River and recovering the Eel River’s legendary salmon and steelhead runs, but today’s filing is a significant first step. Importantly, the public can now comment on the proposal.”
The Potter Valley Project includes the Scott and Cape Horn dams, water diversion facilities, and a powerhouse. Scott Dam blocks migratory access for federally listed Chinook and coho salmon, winter steelhead, and potentially summer steelhead. The 100-year-old project now generates only a small amount of hydropower but diverts significant amounts of Eel River water into the Russian River watershed, where it supports agriculture and residential uses in Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin Counties.
“Today, the Eel River is a shadow of its former self,” noted Charlie Schneider, president of Trout Unlimited’s Redwood Empire Chapter. “The good news is, there’s a lot of intact habitat left here, and we know that salmon and steelhead can rebound if we help them to reach that habitat. And the way to get there is by working cooperatively with all the folks that depend on water from the Eel to make sure everyone’s needs—people and fish—are met.”
Today’s filing follows the completion of an initial feasibility study that evaluated options for the Potter Valley Project with the goal of increasing water supply reliability for Russian River water users while improving fish habitat. One key conclusion from the study is that the removal of Scott Dam is the best and most cost-effective way to address fish passage concerns related to the project’s current operations.
“The existing Potter Valley Project is no longer economically viable and does not provide reliable water supplies or essential fish habitat, especially in the face of future droughts and climate change,” said Monty Schmitt, Senior Project Director with The Nature Conservancy’s Water Program. “Today, we have an opportunity of a lifetime for stakeholders to work together to restore struggling salmon and steelhead runs by reconnecting the river to its headwaters and modernize this project to improve water supply reliability for farms and communities.”
For more information about the California Salmon & Steelhead Coalition, visit: https://www.casalmonandsteelhead.org.The Salmon & Steelhead Coalition is a strategic partnership between The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and California Trout to increase streamflows in California’s North and Central Coast watersheds, with the goal of restoring and protecting wild salmon and steelhead and creating water reliability for people.