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Sonoma County considering taking over Eel River water-power project

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County supervisors agreed Tuesday to study the possibility of applying for a license to operate a remote Mendocino County hydropower project, marking the first move to maintain a long-standing water transfer deemed critical to residents and ranchers in both counties.

A coalition of five Mendocino County agencies and California Trout, a 50-year-old environmental nonprofit, are collaborating with Sonoma County’s water agency in the consideration of taking over the federal license for the Potter Valley Project, which delivers 20 billion gallons of water a year from the Eel River into the Russian River basin.

Each of the three partners is putting $100,000 into the study, an amount dwarfed by the potential cost of establishing free passage for the Eel River’s protected salmon and steelhead — likely a requisite step to extend the project’s life.

PG&E, the state’s largest utility now in bankruptcy, surrendered the project in January, upending the license renewal process, and no entity has responded to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) call for a new operator.

The utility, which had owned the project since 1930, said it was no longer economical to operate a plant that generated less than 1 percent of its power.

But the water flowing through the powerhouse is virtually invaluable to the towns and ranches along the upper Russian River from Potter Valley to Healdsburg and is a critical source for Sonoma Water, which delivers water to 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county customers.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9598819-181/sonoma-county-supervisors-eye-future

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CalTrout wants old Scott Dam on Eel River removed to help salmon and steelhead

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A state environmental group is calling for the removal of an old dam on the Eel River, contending it threatens the future of protected salmon and steelhead while acknowledging it is a key part of the North Bay’s water supply.

Scott Dam, a 138-foot concrete dam erected in 1922, is one of five aging dams California Trout asserts are “ripe for removal” to benefit their natural surroundings and communities.

The nearly 50-year-old nonprofit known as CalTrout said in its report, “Top 5 California Dams Out,” the Eel River represents “perhaps the greatest opportunity in California to restore a watershed to its former abundance of wild salmonids.”

Scott Dam, located in Lake County’s portion of the Mendocino National Forest, has been a longstanding target of other groups, including Friends of the Eel River, who want steelhead, coho and chinook salmon to swim freely within the 288 miles of habitat in the Eel watershed blocked by the dam.

The environmentalists see a “unique opportunity” to achieve their goal, as California’s largest utility PG&E, which has owned the dam as part of a small hydropower project since 1930, has filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and abandoned plans to sell or seek relicensing of the project that diverts 20 billion gallons of water a year from the Eel to the Russian River at Potter Valley.

Eel River interests have considered the diversion a form of theft, while the water is critical to towns and ranches on the upper Russian River from Potter Valley to Healdsburg and part of the water supply for 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties.

How the future of the Potter Valley Project will play out over the next 18 months to two years is unclear, but it appears likely to result in either decommissioning or relicensing of the project, which includes a small powerhouse and two Eel River dams.

The bottom line is either PG&E or a new owner of the project may face a choice between paying more than $90 million for a fish ladder at Scott Dam or about $70 million to remove it.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9312399-181/state-environmental-group-wants-old

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PG&E announces withdrawal from Potter Valley Project relicensing and auction process

CALIFORNIA TROUT

PG&E announced last week that it was withdrawing from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process as well as the effort to sell the Potter Valley Project.  California Trout has been engaged in both proceedings and are hopeful this development will create a favorable environment to continue working towards a two-basin solution. 

From Pacific Gas and Electric:

Today PG&E submitted a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission providing our “Notice of Withdrawal of Notice Of Intent to File License Application and Pre-Application Document” for the Potter Valley Project.  As a result, PG&E will expeditiously cease all activities related to the relicensing of the Project.  Our decision to cease Project relicensing will also result in the stoppage of our efforts to sell the Project via the Request for Offers (RFO) process.

Although the timing is unclear at this point, we anticipate that PG&E’s action will result in FERC initiating its Orphan Project process.  In accordance with the Orphan process, FERC will provide interested parties the opportunity to submit an application for a new Project license.  We believe this path will allow interested parties more time to prepare for the acquisition of the Project and the ability to submit a License Application on their own terms rather than assuming PG&E’s current application.  If the Orphan process does not result in the issuance of a new Project License, it is expected FERC will order PG&E to prepare and submit a Surrender Application and Decommissioning Plan.

Source: Email from California Trout, read more about the Potter Valley Project at: https://caltrout.org/regions/north-coast-region/keystone-initiative-eel-river-recovery/potter-valley-project-and-ferc-relicensing/

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Friends of the Eel River ask state, feds to protect NW California summer steelhead

FRIENDS OF THE EEL RIVER

Friends of the Eel River submitted both federal ESA and CESA petitions to list Northern California Summer Steelhead as an Endangered Distinct Population Segment.

Both petitions are largely based on a combination of the extensive 2017 report by Moyle et al on the status of California salmonids, State of the Salmonids: Status of California’s Emblematic Fishes 2017, and two papers that have come out of Mike Miller’s UC Davis lab over the last couple of years.

Northern California summer steelhead are truly extraordinary fish. They include the largest adult steelhead in coastal rivers, the southernmost surviving summer steelhead, and fish (in the interior rivers like the Eel) capable of withstanding higher stream velocities and jumping higher than any other salmonid. As Moyle et al make clear, once you accept that summer steelhead are biologically and reproductively distinct from winter steelhead, the status of summer steelhead on the far North Coast is quite dire. There are probably fewer than 1000 adults spawning in all of the rivers they still inhabit, from Redwood Creek in the north to the Mattole in the south.

However, our primary strategic goal at FOER in seeking recognition and protection for summer steelhead was to advance the cause of cause of removing Scott Dam. The dam blocks 98% of potential habitat for the Upper mainstem Eel River population of summer steelhead that was apparently wiped out by dam construction. If a population of summer steelhead could be restored to the upper main Eel, it would be the longest summer steelhead run in the state. It would also hugely improve the conservation status of the overall summer steelhead population on the North Coast. Because we call O. mykiss steelhead when they run to the ocean, but rainbow trout when they stay in freshwater, there remains some possibility that surviving native rainbow trout above the Lake Pillsbury reservoir could still retain the key premature migration gene.

Source: https://eelriver.org/2018/11/27/protect-nw-california-summer-steelhead/

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PG&E plan to sell Mendocino County hydropower project unsettles North Coast water system

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PG&E intends to sell a remote Mendocino County hydropower project at an auction this fall, a decision that means little in terms of its meager electrical output but sends a ripple through the water system that supplies cities, residents and ranchers from Ukiah south through much of Sonoma County and into northern Marin County.

Many of the more than 600,000 customers and residents who get their water from the Russian River have no idea how much of it flows from the Potter Valley Project’s two dams on the Eel River and through an aging powerhouse in the out-of-the-way valley about 20 miles north of Ukiah.

There’s no indication yet that PG&E’s divestiture from the 110-year-old project — or the alternative of transferring it to local control — would jeopardize the annual diversion of more than 20 billion gallons of Eel River water into the Russian River. But the utility’s announcement opens the door to changes water experts have anticipated and unsettles communities across two counties that rely on it.

“The water supply needs to be protected,” said Janet Pauli, a longtime Potter Valley rancher and irrigation district official. “It’s very serious. There’s no way around it.”

Lake Mendocino, the reservoir near Ukiah, depends on the Potter Valley diversion to supply dry-season Russian River flows down to Healdsburg and supplement the supply the Sonoma County Water Agency delivers to customers in Sonoma and Marin counties. Most is taken from water stored in Lake Sonoma, the region’s largest reservoir.

But without the diversion, Lake Mendocino would shrivel in size in the driest years ahead, diminishing flows in the upper Russian River, a local government study found.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8314850-181/pge-plan-to-sell-mendocino

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Proposed rail plan envisions ‘world class’ North Coast hiking trail

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

State Sen. Mike McGuire is proposing to reorganize management of the North Coast’s railroad system aimed at enabling people to walk — not ride — along a trail from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay, including the spectacular Eel River Canyon in Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said McGuire, D-Healdsburg, to create a “world-class experience in our own backyard.”

Caryl Hart, a former Sonoma County parks director, joined McGuire in hailing the proposed trail as an opportunity to traverse the coastal redwoods from Cloverdale to Arcata.

“It’s a dream,” she said likening the trail along the tracks to the Pacific Crest Trail through the Sierra Nevada and giving the local area an economic boost in the process. “I really think it has the potential to be a bedrock of the economy of the North Coast.”

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8114152-181/proposed-rail-plan-envisions-world

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PG&E considering abandoning Potter Valley dams

Hank Sims, LOST COAST OUTPOST

Pacific Gas and Electric is actively considering the possibility of getting out of the business of operating dams on the Eel River, a company representative told a regional commission this morning.
The company’s decision, when it comes, could ignite a northern California water war.

The two dams associated with the utility’s Potter Valley Project — a hydropower system — annually divert tens of thousands of acre-feet of water out of the Eel River and into the Russian River watershed, where it is used by municipalities and agricultural operations in Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

At a meeting of the Eel Russian River Commission in Eureka this morning, PG&E director of power generation David Moller said that the utility has been looking at all its options as in undergoes the process of relicensing the dams. The current licenses for the project — issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — are set to expire in 2022.

Read more at https://lostcoastoutpost.com/2018/feb/23/pge-tells-regional-commission-its-thinking-about-s/

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PG&E project blamed for harming endangered fish in Eel River

Nicholas Iovino, COURTHOUSE NEWS
Pacific Gas and Electric’s operation of dams, tunnels and a 109-year-old power plant on Northern California’s Eel River harms endangered salmon and steelhead, two conservation groups claim in a new lawsuit.
California River Watch and Coast Action Group sued the utility giant in federal court Friday, claiming its management of the Potter Valley Project in Mendocino County threatens endangered Coho salmon, Chinook salmon, and steelhead trout in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
“The project water diversions have reduced flows and increased water temperatures in various parts of the Eel River, in addition to altering important environmental cues that, for example, tell fish when to spawn or begin their outmigration,” the 12-page complaint states.
The groups claim the project also creates conditions that are beneficial to the predatory Sacramento pike minnow, which further threatens the endangered fish.
Earlier this year, PG&E filed its intent to renew its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to run the 109-year-old irrigation and hydropower system. Its existing license expires in April 2022.
Read more at: PG&E Project Blamed for Harming Endangered Fish in NorCal River

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California Supreme Court issues ruling in closely watched North Coast rail case 

Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that publicly owned railroads are not exempt from the state’s bedrock environmental law, a decision hailed by environmental watchdogs on the North Coast and opponents of California’s high-speed rail project.
Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, called the court ruling “vindication.”
The Arcata-based group sued the North Coast Railroad Authority in a bid to force the state-chartered agency to study the environmental impacts of running freight along a 316-mile rail line that traverses Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties and runs through the Eel River canyon.
Greacen said as a result of the Supreme Court decision, NCRA won’t be able to rebuild the line through the canyon “without taking a hard look at the environmental impacts, which has been the goal all along.”
More broadly, the court ruling could have major implications for the state’s high-speed rail project. Several court cases are pending in state courts seeking to hold the California High-Speed Rail Authority accountable for construction and operation of the service.
Read more at: California Supreme Court issues ruling in closely watched North Coast rail case | The Press Democrat

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Surge in lamprey population in Eel River

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Swimming by the thousands up the Eel River this year, Pacific lamprey are literally climbing the wall of a dam near Potter Valley in Mendocino County.
Driven by the biological imperative to spawn in the river’s gravel beds, the snake-shaped, prehistoric fish — commonly mistaken for eels — have almost no chance of scaling the 63-foot high Cape Horn Dam.
For decades, their best option has been a fish ladder that flanks the dam, but even it halts the migratory journey for most lamprey, a largely ignored ocean-going species that shares the stream with federally protected chinook salmon and steelhead trout. Those that do clear the passage, by inching their way up the concrete walls, take up to five weeks to do so.
“They go crazy at night just trying to find a way up,” said Scott Harris, a Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who runs the Van Arsdale Fisheries Station next to the dam.
The surge of lamprey numbers at the dam this year is a mystery, but wildlife watchers welcome the spectacle as a possible sign of a rebound in the population that mistakenly gave the Eel River its name in the 19th century.
Read more at: At Eel River dam, thousands of spawning lamprey make for natural spectacle | The Press Democrat