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Eel River to some, Wiya’t to the tribe that fishes it

Arthur Dawson, PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Eel River runs through Lake, Mendocino, and Trinity counties before reaching the Pacific Ocean in southern Humboldt County. Its name was given by Josiah Gregg in 1850 as he was exploring and looking for land to settle. Coming upon a group of Indigenous Wiyot fishermen, he traded a frying pan for some Pacific lampreys, which he mistook for eels.

Those Wiyot fishermen had probably been up most of the night — a good time for catching lamprey. Some of the best fishing spots were in the breaking waves at the river’s mouth. Waving redwood-splinter torches over the water, they attracted the lamprey with the flames. With quick reflexes and a carved stick, they snatched them from the water. And because lampreys are so slippery, the Wiyot twirl them over their heads before setting them on dry ground — otherwise they can slide off back into the river.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/eel-river-to-some-wiyat-to-the-tribe-that-fishes-it/

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Scott Dam slated for removal in plan by Sonoma County and partners to control hydropower project

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Enviro Updates: From the Eel River Action Plan 2016, by California Trout: “The Eel River is the third largest river entirely in California.The Eel River ecosystem, its salmon and steelhead populations, and other native fish and wildlife populations have been in decline for the past century and a half. It has been transformed from one of the most productive river ecosystems along the Pacific Coast to a degraded river with heavily impaired salmonid populations.”

A nearly century-old dam on the Eel River that impounds Lake Pillsbury is slated for removal under a $500 million proposal helmed by Sonoma County and four other regional partners seeking to take over from PG&E a remote but pivotal hydropower project in Mendocino County.

The coalition, including Mendocino and Humboldt counties, hailed the proposal as a milestone in their effort to meet the needs of all three counties, protecting water supplies for farmers, fish and communities, including a key source of supplemental water for the Russian River system that serves 600,000  customers in Sonoma and Marin counties.

The dam removal alone, a long-sought goal of environmental groups and fish advocates, would be the highest-profile project to improve habitat for imperiled North Coast salmon and steelhead in decades, perhaps behind only the dam removals planned on the Klamath River within the next two years.

“The good news is that Scott Dam is coming out,” said Scott Greacen, conservation director for Friends of the Eel River, a nonprofit that for decades has been pursuing removal to open up more than 300 miles of spawning habitat in the upper Eel. Due mainly to dams, water diversion and other development, the river’s salmon and steelhead “have paid a devastating price, going from a million fish a year to the brink of extinction,” he said.

The proposal, submitted Wednesday to federal officials, has also stirred passions among those dismayed by the prospective loss of a 2,300-acre recreational lake deep in the Lake County portion of Mendocino National Forest. Santa Rosa residents George and Carol Cinquini, who have held a cabin at Lake Pillsbury since the 1940s, are annoyed that the 450 homeowners, ranchers and small business owners in the lake community were excluded from the planning process.

“We tried to get our foot in the door,” said Carol Cinquini, vice president of the Lake Pillsbury Alliance, which was formed last year.

“We’re very upset,” said George Cinquini, an alliance board member. The reservoir, about two hours from Santa Rosa is a haven for water sports, and without it, Cinquini warned, Russian River flows will be diminished in dry years.

But North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who brought local shareholders together to chart the project’s future, said the proposal is the only way to guarantee a “really important water resource” for the Russian River.

The 98-year-old dam has long outlived its purpose, he said, and the coalition project, dubbed the Two-Basin Partnership, calls for habitat restoration “to rejuvenate one of our great salmon rivers in California.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose district stretches across both drainages, called for Lake County to be added to the partnership because Lake Pillsbury and most of the Eel River’s headwaters are in the county.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10960029-181/sonoma-county-backs-plan-to

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Will overhauling Scott Dam save native fish?

Alastair Bland, THE BOHEMIAN

Salmon three feet long seem to clog the water as the chrome-colored fish, fresh from the ocean, begin their journey upriver toward the high-elevation gravel riffles where they were born. Here, in the remotest tendrils of the watershed, they will lay and fertilize the eggs that ensure the next generation of salmon.

At least that’s how it once was early each autumn on the Eel River. But nature’s security system for fish survival is only as good as the health of a river. In the case of the Eel, a local power company built a dam on the Eel’s main fork in 1920. As a result, Chinook salmon lost access to about 100 miles of spawning habitat.

Steelhead, which swam farther upstream into smaller tributaries, suffered even greater impacts. Intensive in-river commercial fishing, water diversions, logging and other land degradation took their toll, too. Today, annual salmon runs in Eel River that once may have totaled a million or so adults consist of a few thousand. Lamprey eels, too, have dwindled.

Now, there is serious talk of removing Scott Dam, owned by PG&E since 1930.

For fishery proponents, such a river makeover is the optimal way to revive the Eel’s salmon runs.

“We want to see volitional passage, both ways,” says Curtis Knight, executive director of the conservation group California Trout.

Volitional, in this context, means the salmon are able to make their historic migration on their own—downstream as newly born juveniles and, later, upstream as sexually mature adults—all without the assistance of human hands.

“We think dam removal is one possibility here,” Knight says.

California Trout is one of several local groups and agencies now formally considering taking over the operation of Scott Dam from PG&E. As a hydroelectric facility, Scott Dam is not very productive, and with PG&E’s operating license scheduled to expire in 2022, the utility giant recently stepped away from the project. PG&E even briefly put the Potter Valley Project up for auction, though the offer attracted no takers.

Read more at https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/saving-salmon/Content?oid=9360901

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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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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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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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Fate of Russian and Eel River flows rests in big fight over small hydroelectric project

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