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.
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
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
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/
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
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
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
Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Even the record rainfall that dowsed the North Coast this winter, filling reservoirs and streams, will not be enough to head off a looming clash over the water that courses down two of the region’s largest rivers, the Russian and the Eel.
Together, they drain a swath of territory, including cities, forests and vineyards, that stretches from central Sonoma County to Fortuna, in Humboldt County — an area larger than Connecticut.
A key link between the two rivers, a small powerhouse more than 100 years old, is now the focal point in a fight over the water that flows down these rivers. It’s a standoff with many of the main players in western water wars — farmers, environmentalists, water districts serving urban customers and fishermen. And it raises many of the same questions: Who benefits and who loses from water taken for decades from one river — at over 20 billion gallons a year — and funneled into another river?
In this case, it is the Eel River that has been tapped, its water sent down a milelong tunnel through a mountain in Mendocino County, into a PG&E powerhouse and ultimately into a fork of Russian River, which flows down through Sonoma County.
Water drawn from the Eel River sustains Lake Mendocino, the main source of drinking water for residents along the Russian River from Redwood Valley down to Healdsburg.
Turning off that supply could devastate agriculture and diminish that primary water source for thousands of people, according to interests on one side of the tug-of-war.
The vast majority of the more 600,000 North Bay residents who depend on the Russian River for drinking water are unaware of the plumbing arrangement and the controversy that has long swirled around it and two related dams on the Eel River, where once-prolific runs of salmon and steelhead trout have dwindled amid various human impacts, water diversion among them.
But for the partisans — the water managers, environmentalists, public officials, ranchers and scientists — the dilemma of parsing out this water between competing interests, between people and fish, between town and country, is revving up again over the relicensing of the PG&E powerhouse, called the Pottery Valley Project.
“It’s a critical moment,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, the San Rafael Democrat whose North Coast district spans the adjacent watersheds.
Read more at: Fate of Russian and Eel River flows rests in big fight over small hydroelectric project | The Press Democrat
Judith Lewis Mernit, CAPITAL & MAIN
A study on water demand from marijuana growing shows that 25% to 100% of the water in the study watersheds may be diverted during low-flow periods.
Another study estimates that indoor marijuana cultivation uses 3% of California’s total electricity.
In his sunny office on the edge of town in Arcata, California, Scott Greacen pulls up a slideshow on his large high-resolution monitor. As wildflowers sway in the wind outside a window, a woodsy guitar solo starts to play along with the pictures. Greacen mutes it; he wants to focus on destruction. Aerial images of clear-cut plots within the coastal forest, bounded by dusty roads and dotted with trucks, show the intrusion of industrial marijuana cultivation into redwood groves and hillsides. Some plots are small, barely detectable. Others cover hundreds of acres with row upon row of oblong structures covered with white tarps, blighting the landscape like giant predatory maggots.
“Look,” Greacen says, pointing to the screen. “Eleven greenhouses on the top of a ridge. Where does the water come from?”
Greacen, who has the genial appearance of a scholarly mountain man — neatly trimmed beard, wire-rimmed glasses, long hair parted in the middle and tied back — is the executive director of Friends of the Eel River, a nonprofit founded in 1994 to promote the restoration of California’s third-largest watershed. The 200-mile long Eel runs south to north from Mendocino County to the Pacific Ocean below the central Humboldt County city of Eureka. It has been hammered by industry for more than a century, dammed and drained to serve municipal water demand in Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Timber companies, too, have done their share of damage, stripping slide-prone land of stabilizing vegetation and causing sediment to clog the river’s already diminished flows.
“Our coast range has a seismic uplift equivalent to the Himalayas,” Greacen says. “If it weren’t for erosion, we’d have a Mount Everest.”
Mountains lifted out of the ancient seabed typically shed a certain amount of fine sediment into the Eel, but at a rate the river’s flow can handle. The accelerated spalling caused by roads, traffic and grading, sifts in much more. Anadromous salmon travel hundreds of miles from the ocean inland to spawn in the river bed’s oxygenated gravel. If that gravel is clogged with sediment, the eggs will suffocate before they hatch.
The Eel, its forks and many smaller tributaries had only recently begun to recover from timber’s assaults when, in the 1990s, a relatively benign, back-to-the-land cannabis movement exploded in Humboldt’s mountains. The Compassionate Use Act of 1996, passed by voters as Proposition 215, legalized marijuana for medical use, opening a whole new market for weed. Growing operations multiplied on public and private land in California, particularly in the forested reaches of Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties, a region so full of cannabis crops it’s known as the “Emerald Triangle.”
Read more at: High Times: Marijuana Growing and the Environment – Capital & Main
Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The dispute [over Eel River water] will be aired this summer when the Sonoma County Water Agency releases an environmental report on proposed changes to a decision by state water regulators who 30 years ago established the minimum streamflow requirements on the Russian River. The water agency intends to hold workshops and public hearings on the report.
The roar of water cascading over a 109-year-old concrete dam on the Eel River in Mendocino County was music to Janet Pauli.
“It should be a welcome sound for everybody on the North Coast,” said the longtime Potter Valley rancher, watching the river run down a remote canyon in the Coast Range, bound for the Pacific Ocean far away near Eureka.
Twelve miles the other way, the gates atop another dam had closed a week ago, and the Lake Pillsbury reservoir was filling fast with runoff from early spring rains, offering strong hope of a normal season after four years of drought for the multitude of people who depend on the Eel River for necessities and revelries, including water, wine grapes and stalking wild steelhead trout.
That group includes the 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties who get their drinking water from the Sonoma County Water Agency, ranchers and residents on the upper Russian River, and people along the Eel River as it courses nearly 200 miles through Mendocino and Humboldt counties, passing through nearly untouched wilderness, giant redwood forests, small towns, popular parks and attractions like the Benbow Inn near Garberville before it flattens in the coastal plain approaching the coast.
Most have no idea how these two dams and a mile-long tunnel through a mountain move about 20 billion gallons of water a year from the Eel River into the Russian River, crossing a geographically narrow but politically wide gap and inciting the North Coast’s version of California’s age-old water wars.
“It’s our chapter of western water (conflict),” said David Keller of Petaluma, a leader of the group that has tried for more than two decades to halt the diversion of Eel River water that has gone on for nearly a century. The dams, diversion tunnel and a powerhouse are known as the Potter Valley Project, operated by PG&E.
Read more at: Wild and harnessed, Eel River a vital, troubled North Coast watershed | The Press Democrat