This article appeared originally in the Press Democrat on March 16, 2019
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.
North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and CalTrout both say federal officials are likely to require “volitional fish passage” at Scott Dam, enabling the threatened salmon and steelhead adults to swim freely to their spawning grounds and juvenile fish to get out to the Pacific Ocean.
“There’s no way around it,” Huffman said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, under federal law, has the authority to require fish passage at hydropower projects that are either changing hands or shutting down, said Josh Fuller, an agency biologist based in Santa Rosa.
Fuller, who is involved in process, declined to name a preferred fate for the dam but said it should ensure the dwindling number of Eel River fish are “on a recovery trajectory.”
“We’re going to have to have some sort of fish passage at the facility,” he said. There are numerous ways to accomplish it, including trapping fish and trucking them around the dam, but Marine Fisheries favors volitional passage because it involves “less human intervention” in the fish population. Fuller said.
“It’s fair to say the status quo will not work,” he said.
Darren Mierau, CalTrout’s Arcata-based North Coast director, said the cost difference supports removal of Scott Dam, noting an engineer’s report to PG&E last year that estimated the fish ladder cost at $55 million to $93 million.
The report by Mead & Hunt, a Sacramento engineering firm, concluded the “most feasible and cost-effective fish ladder design would be challenging to build, complicated to operate, very costly, and would have uncertain effectiveness.”
The report was marked “confidential,” but is readily available on the Internet.
A different engineer’s report last year to Sonoma Water put the cost of removing the dam at $71.5 million.
“We feel that removal of the dam is the best alternative,” Mierau said. “Now that PG&E has abandoned the project, it just makes sense.”
PG&E notified the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in January that it was essentially surrendering the project that generates 9 megawatts of power, roughly 0.1 percent of the utility giant’s 7,700-megawatt total.
PG&E intends to operate the Potter Valley Project until it is relicensed or decommissioned, said Brandi Merlo, a spokeswoman for the utility. If no new operator comes forward, PG&E expects FERC will order it to officially surrender the project along with a decommissioning plan.
Either way, she said, all stakeholders — including water users, environmentalists and Native American tribes — would have a say during FERC’s determination of what happens to the project.
Merlo said “modifications to Scott Dam” could result from the process, but it is “far too premature to speculate on any potential outcome.”
FERC has set an April 14, 2020 deadline for proposals to acquire a new license, noting that if none are submitted PG&E will be advised to file an official surrender application. The federal agency’s website said the application should include a decommissioning plan that can allow project facilities to remain in place for other uses or their removal and site restoration.
Meanwhile, an informal 21-member stakeholders’ committee convened by Huffman has been working for more than a year on a plan that balances the need to improve fish passage on the Eel River with the continued diversion of water to the Russian River.
The committee includes representatives of PG&E, CalTrout, Friends of the Eel River, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Humboldt counties, state and federal agencies and three tribes.
Huffman said the panel’s goal is to craft a “two-basin solution” that could include removal of Scott Dam without cutting off water to people “who’ve been using it for 100 years.”
Dam removal would result in a “run of the river” hydro project with wet weather flows on the Eel diverted through the Potter Valley Project’s pipeline to the powerhouse and into Lake Mendocino, the reservoir near Ukiah. It could conceivably include a long-planned raising of the reservoir’s level to hold more water, Huffman said.
The congressman has not endorsed removal of the dam, but said in an interview that the fish ladder “may not be a great solution.”
Huffman said it is “highly unlikely” the status quo will continue, and that “nobody has a slam dunk to have their interests met.”
“We’re fully on board with it,” CalTrout’s Mierau said, noting that his solution includes removal of Scott Dam with a restored river channel in its place.
The Potter Valley Project started in 1908 with the 90-foot Cape Horn Dam erected on the Eel River, forming a small reservoir that diverted water to the powerhouse built to provide Ukiah with electricity.
Operators soon realized the powerhouse couldn’t run in the summer because of a lack of water, so the larger Scott Dam was built 12 miles upstream in 1922 to provide a year-round water supply. The water was essentially a side benefit from the electricity, but it transformed arid Potter Valley into an agricultural powerhouse that produces $34 million worth of wine grapes, cattle and other products annually.
The committee’s water supply working group has determined that a seasonal water diversion is sufficient to keep Lake Mendocino from going dry, Mierau said.
“Everybody was dedicated to making an effort to find the Potter Valley Irrigation District the water it needs,” Mierau said.
That might require developing water storage capacity in the valley or pumping water up from Lake Mendocino, he said.
“There has to be a two-basin solution,” said Janet Pauli, a Potter Valley rancher and irrigation district board member who serves on Huffman’s committee of stakeholders. But she’s not sold on the run of the river concept because there are too many unanswered questions, including how the 7,000-acre valley would be assured enough summertime water and how climate change may affect the watershed.
“At this point in time, there’s not an alternative that gives us confidence we can sustain the quality of life we have,” she said. “I think it’s premature for us to really discuss removing Scott Dam at this time.”
Potter Valley would be the first place impacted by a significant cut in Eel River water diversions to the Russian River, but only because “we’re at the top of the watershed,” Pauli said.
The famed Alexander Valley grape growing area of northern Sonoma County, among others, depends on the water, she said.
San Francisco-based CalTrout, founded in 1971, says it is “dedicated to solving California’s complex resource issues while balancing the needs of wild fish and people.”
David Keller of Petaluma, a director of the Friends of the Eel River, said the run of the river plan is “a very promising solution.”
His nonprofit has been pushing for removal of Scott Dam for more than 25 years and sees the end of PG&E’s operation of the project as an opportune time for that to happen.
The dam is a “white elephant,” he said, part of a system that no longer produces profitable electricity and is essentially a “water transfer project.”
A 2017 report commissioned by CalTrout and conducted in collaboration with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences cited the Eel River as a “stronghold” to be managed in perpetuity with the “highest priority to protect salmonid diversity and production.”
Historically, the Eel River supported spawning of more than a million salmon and steelhead, according to a 2010 report by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Science.
The average run is now about 3,500 fish, a 99 percent decline, according to the report.
Biologists are attempting to estimate the number of adult fish in the river. Only 95 chinook salmon and 112 steelhead have made it to a point near Scott Dam since October.
Removal of Scott Dam would eradicate the reservoir behind it, Lake Pillsbury, a 2,000-acre recreational haven within Mendocino National Forest.
Few people live year-round on the lake, a primitive area replete with bears, mountain lions and bobcats, a herd of tule elk plus eagles and ospreys circling over the water.
It’s an hour drive to Potter Valley and 90 minutes to Ukiah, the nearest shopping area, and there is no electricity.
But in the summer, the lake draws thousands of people for camping, fishing, hiking, boating and waterskiing, while the Soda Creek Store on the lake’s west side sells $10,000 worth of ice, said Edie Uram, who has run the store with her husband, Nick, for 30 years.
Frank Lynch, a Cloverdale-area resident whose family has leased a cabin at the lake since 1947, said he’s concerned the permanent and part-time residents — numbering close to 600 — are being ignored in the deliberations over Scott Dam’s future.
“Obviously, we’re being self- protective,” he said. “We love our lake.”
Lynch, who is president of the Lake Pillsbury Homesite Association, said he has tried, without success, to gain a seat on the stakeholders’ committee.
“There needs to be a recognition there is a community here,” he said.