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.