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The Eel River—once home to the state’s third-largest salmon and steelhead runs, all of which are now listed as threatened―may see the return of healthy fisheries in coming years. A unique opportunity to remove a dam that blocks fish from reaching spawning habitat has arisen. We talked to Curtis Knight, executive director of CalTrout, about the situation.
PPIC: Why is the Eel River important for California fisheries?
Curtis Knight: This a complex system that involves two of the biggest coastal watersheds in the state—the Russian River and the Eel River. The Eel presents the best opportunity to restore historic fish abundance in California. The river is blocked by two aging dams—Cape Horn Dam, which diverts water from the Eel to the Russian River for hydropower and other uses and has limited fish passage, and Scott Dam, which has no fish passage and blocks important upper watershed fish habitat. Scott Dam is owned by PG&E, which is attempting to divest itself of the project. This presents an opportunity to reestablish fish into the upper Eel basin.
On the Russian River side, irrigators and others benefit from the water diversions. This water is used to grow crops like wine grapes and keep the river flowing for endangered species and recreation.
On the Eel River side, it’s all about wild fish. Getting fish into the upper watershed above the dam is a top priority for local tribes, NGOs, and others. We did an assessment with Humboldt State University that found more than 150 miles of quality habitat for salmon and steelhead above Scott Dam. This stretch includes high elevation habitat that is rare in the coastal range. Getting salmon and steelhead into this cold-water region will be increasingly important for these fish in a warming climate.
Congressman Jared Huffman has formed a committee to develop recommendations as part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) dam relicensing process for this project. The committee’s goals are to improve fish passage and habitat on the Eel to support naturally reproducing and harvestable native fish populations and to minimize impacts to water supply reliability, fisheries, water quality, and recreation in both basins.
The committee is looking at various fish passage alternatives, but Scott Dam is tall, which makes fish ladders—step-like pools to enable fish to cross the dam—really expensive and not very effective. Trucking fish around the dam, as is done in some watersheds, is also being explored, but in my opinion is not sustainable and won’t lead to fish abundance. Removing Scott Dam would clearly be the best way to restore fish abundance in the Eel River.
PPIC: Is there concern about losing both the water and the energy?
CK: The project doesn’t produce much power. The real value is the water. PG&E is walking away from the project in part because they lose roughly $5 million per year operating it.
On July 1, Humboldt County, Sonoma Water, the Mendocino Inland Water and Power Commission, and California Trout applied to take over the dam relicensing process from PG&E. The purpose is to work toward the two-basin solution and ensure the future of the project is determined locally.
Congressman Huffman’s committee will play a central role in determining what the project will ultimately look like. But one idea is to remove Scott Dam while still diverting water to the Russian River during the winter via Cape Horn Dam. Fish passage would have to be improved at Cape Horn and there are Russian River interests that would need to be met. The loss of water storage from Scott Dam can potentially be offset by storing Eel River water in Lake Mendocino. This would certainly be a good scenario for Eel River fish, but there are still some challenges to overcome.
So while there is still a long way to go, we are confident we will come up with a locally derived solution that meets the needs of fish and people in both the Russian and Eel Rivers.
Photo credit: Mike Wier, California Trout
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A Broad Group of Conservation Organizations, Landowners, Local Governments, Water Suppliers and Academic Institutions Applaud the Funding in the California State Budget to Help Reactivate Floodplains in the Central Valley
June 27, 2019
We applaud the Governor and the Legislature for including $92 million in the 2019-2020 State Budget for important investments to improve public safety, enhance water security and provide fish and wildlife habitat. These initial investments in multi-benefit projects using funding approved by California voters in recent bond measures are a win for both people and the environment as these efforts–which include projects to reactivate historic floodplains in the Central Valley–will upgrade California’s aging water and flood infrastructure while simultaneously enhancing the function of our river ecosystems for the benefit of fish and wildlife populations.
We are a diverse coalition of conservation organizations, farmers, local governments, water suppliers and academic institutions who have come together to advance a new model for water management and land use. The old ways separated native species from the river environment. Many successful projects have shown that integrating a working 21st-century scientific knowledge of how rivers work into the management of farms, flood protection, and water infrastructure create a system that functions far better for fish, birds, wildlife farms and cities.
In addition to the budget, we are also encouraged the Governor called out reactivating Central Valley floodplains in his State of the State address in February and his Executive Order on April 29, 2019, specifically directs the state’s water resilience portfolio to “utilize natural infrastructures such as forests and floodplains.”
Spreading out and slowing down flood waters across historic floodplains mimics natural flow patterns and provides multiple benefits year-round by allowing farmers to cultivate rice and other crops for humans during the spring and summer, habitat for wild birds, reptiles, and other fauna in the fall, and food for migratory birds and native fish species in the winter, all while continuing to provide critical flood protection for Sacramento and other parts of the Valley.
Examples of this multi-benefit approach are described in the attached document: Reactivating our Floodplains–A New Way Forward for California. The Sacramento Valley is fertile ground for developing this new path forward which integrates best available science about how river ecosystem’s function with the practical know-how of farm, flood and wildlife refuge managers.
Implementing these dynamic conservation strategies will build resiliency in both California’s environment and water systems by:
• supporting the abundant return of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway;
• revitalizing river food webs and supporting the recovery of salmon populations;
• recharging precious groundwater aquifers;
• improving flood protection in an era of increasing storm severity and a changing climate.
Science and experience have shown that flood protection bypasses, farmland and wildlife refuges that occupy historic Central Valley floodplains can be managed to mimic the historic natural processes and patterns which create and sustain fish and wildlife habitat.
We all look forward to continuing our collaborations with the Newsom Administration and the Legislature to secure additional funding to advance these important win-win efforts. Together we can reactivate Central Valley floodplains and help build a more secure water future for all Californians, even those that happen to be finned and feathered.
Due to a last minute cancellation, Fly Water Travel has two spots available at Tsimane’s Secure Camp in Bolivia. In addition to being a great deal, 100% of your payment will help CalTrout fund projects that are helping California’s trout, salmon and steelhead to survive, and even thrive.
The six person Secure Camp is the furthest upstream of the three camps and focuses on the uppermost reaches of the Secure River. It is accessed from an airstrip in the little village of Asunta, where it is common for many members of the community to come out and have a look at the new arrivals, their clean quick-dry clothing and their big bags of gear and tackle. From there it is about a 15 minute boat ride upstream to the deluxe six-person tent camp. The camp features a handsome hardwood Camp with an open bar, Wi-Fi and delicious meals paired with excellent Argentine wines. Guests stay in deluxe double occupancy safari tents complete with attached bathrooms, hot showers, bedding and ceiling fans. From this camp you fish the productive waters of the Secure above and below the camp. The water upstream of camp is rugged and incredibly scenic with mossy cliffs and deep green pools and is known to have the region’s best pacu fishing in addition to great dorado fishing. This upper beat is accessed by traditional pole-pushed dugouts. The water downstream is broader with more woody debris. It offers good wade fishing and good boat fishing for large dorado and is accessed by motorized dugouts. Like the other two camps, Secure also offers backpacking-style trips to the upper reaches of the system.
August 15,2019- August 24,2019 (2 spots)
$5800 + $570(Native Fee) = $6370 for 2 people for a 9 night/6 day package. (Regular rate is $5800 + 570 native fee per person)
Included: Accommodations and meals at Tsimane Lodge, arrival night and departure night lodging in Santa Cruz, guided fishing, charter flights, native fees
Not Included: Round trip airfare, fishing tackle and flies, guide gratuities, departure taxes
Please contact Ken or Max at 800.552.2729 for more information on this discounted trip.
Broad-Based Partnership Takes Next Step Toward Two-Basin Solution for Eel and Russian Rivers
California Trout is excited to announce that we are taking a huge step towards opening up the upper habitat of the Eel River for salmonids for the first time in over 110 years. In partnership with Humboldt County, Sonoma Water Agency, and Mendocino Inland Water and Power Commission, CalTrout has submitted a Notice of Intent to apply for a new license for the Potter Valley Project.
The Project is located on the Eel River and the East Branch Russian River in Mendocino and Lake Counties, California. It includes Lake Pillsbury, a 2,300-acre storage reservoir impounded by Scott Dam; the 106-acre Van Arsdale Reservoir, impounded by the Cape Horn Diversion Dam; and a tunnel and penstock across a natural divide to the powerhouse located in the headwaters of the Russian River Basin. The Project was built to store, then divert, Eel River Water to a powerhouse located on the Russian River.
Potter Valley is currently licensed by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), but on January 25, 2019, PG&E withdrew both its Notice of Intent (NOI) and Pre-Application Document (PAD) and formally discontinued its efforts to relicense the Project. The company determined that the Project no longer fits with PG&E’s energy portfolio and was estimated to be costing the company between $7 and $10 million dollars a year in operation and maintenance costs associated with the aging infrastructure. This determination coincided with PG&E declaring bankruptcy and left the door open for an alternative Project Proposal.
With help from the Ad hoc Committee led by Congressman Huffman and committed to finding a ‘Two-basin Solution’ for the Project, CalTrout has spent the last two years working to find a solution that opens passage above Scott Dam without endangering the water security needs for the Russian River. This Project represents the nexus between water security, fish passage, complicated water rights concerns, and all the political challenges that come with a large-scale project like Potter Valley.
“CalTrout is committed to ensuring that future operations of the Potter Valley Project create the conditions under which native Eel River steelhead and salmon can thrive in the context of a two-basin solution,” said California Trout Executive Director Curtis Knight. “The Eel River was once an incredibly productive watershed, and it holds tremendous promise for returning salmon and steelhead to abundance. Our objective is to identify a long-term, sustainable and realistic plan for future of the Project that includes returning fish to their historic spawning and rearing grounds above Scott Dam, while using innovative approaches to address the needs of the various stakeholders.”
Over the last several years CalTrout has brought together a diverse coalition of interests who have worked collaboratively to reach the goals of fish passage on the Eel – critical to reviving the abundance of Eel River salmon and steelhead – while at the same time achieving water security on the Russian River.
Our filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this week takes a large step towards reaching our goals for the Project and we look forward to doubling down on our efforts to find a solution that could deliver enormous benefits to the Eel and Russian River Basins and set precedent for collaborative approaches to hydro project relicensing in California as it faces the realities of climate change.
Read more news coverage below:
“Humboldt County Joins North Coast Coalition Seeking to Take Over the Potter Valley Project, Which Diverts Water from the Eel River.” Lost Coast Outpost June 27, 2019
Date & Time: Monday, July 15th from 12:30 PM to 1:30 pm
Location: California Natural Resources Building – First Floor Auditorium
About: Please join Natural Resources Agency Secretary Crowfoot and a diverse panel of experts in a public conservation about efforts to reactivate the floodplains in the Sacramento Valley. Presentations will provide an interesting mix of fish and wildlife science, water management policy, and video highlighting multi-benefit projects that reconnect water and land, provide flood protection and create habitat.
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- 🙌 A win for our native fish! 🐟
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