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Trust the science. We see and hear this a lot lately. The Potter Valley Project isn’t rocket science. It’s not even political science. It’s basic science. It supplies water for fish in two river systems, green power, fire suppression, and for over a half-million people in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. Yet it’s amazing that there are numerous elected leaders that can’t seem to grasp the basic science surrounding a system that is the lifeblood to homes, farms, and economies on the North Coast.
The other day I saw a post with a photo lamenting a dry stretch of the Eel River and it expressed how desperate the river looked. These days one can look at Lake Mendocino and its dry lakebed and see the old Coyote Valley, its bridge and roads, and the domestic and agricultural water intake for Redwood Valley high and dry. We are amidst a drought. A serious drought. But what we are seeing today is what we will see every summer if we lose the water that originates from Lake Pillsbury and flows down the upper Eel River, to the Russian River.
The diversion from the Eel to the Russian was built in 1906. Not long after, Scott Dam was built creating Lake Pillsbury, a recreational lake for Lake County and others. This simultaneously created a year-round water supply of which a small portion is diverted to the Russian through a mile-long tunnel. For the last 100 years, this water has created green, pollution-free power and provided the literal lifeblood for Potter Valley and the Ukiah Valley through to Northern Sonoma County.
Removal of the dam means we are faced with losing Lake Pillsbury and with it a critical water supply, mainly because PG&E has decided to walk away from the Potter Valley hydroelectric power plant. The power plant’s federal license is up for renewal, and PG&E (despite the pleas from Mendocino and Sonoma Counties) has decided that they would rather walk away than work with those who depend upon this resource. Mendocino and Sonoma Counties stood with PG&E during their last relicensing battle that lasted over 30 years. Several studies were required for that relicensing and those studies resulted in a reduction in the diversion of 50% percent. That reduction has been in place for the last 15 years. Those below the diversion have learned to adjust to that reduction in water flow, but it has been a challenge and has resulted in impacts to water rights holders and multiple years of Temporary Urgency Change Petitions with the State Water Resources Control Board for modified minimum instream flow requirements on the Russian River.
Now the relicensing process is before us again, but it is much worse this time around. When I was elected to the Mendocino Board of Supervisors, water issues, and the Potter Valley Project in particular, were front and center on my agenda. The bulk of my 12 years of service were spent trying to find solutions that worked for everyone on this project. It’s extremely disappointing to me to see that 13 years later our current representatives are so willing to walk away from this issue and worse yet, dismantle a system that has been in place for a century.
Congressman Jared Huffman created the Two Basin Solution that included select environmental groups but excluded the County of Lake in which Lake Pillsbury sits. Lake Pillsbury is a major recreation draw and economic driver for Lake County. Congressman John Garamendi recognizes the importance of retaining Lake Pillsbury. He is one elected representative that understands the science, and he should be roundly applauded for that.
However, Lake County was denied a seat at the table in the exclusive Two Basin Solution group by Congressman Huffman. State Senator Mike McGuire was initially adamant that Lake County be included in this group; however, Congressman Huffman strongarmed Senator McGuire and Senator McGuire backed away from his support, caving to Huffman. Lake County continues to lack representation in this exclusive group that is making decisions that will impact the future of its lake…unbelievable! This isn’t rocket science. But it appears that it’s a very poor version of political science.
This is a critical and pivotal time for Mendocino County and Sonoma County. During my tenure on the Board of Supervisors, our relationship with the Sonoma Board of Supervisors was very strong. I worked closely with its members and the Sonoma County Water Agency to develop solutions that were science-based and considered what was best for the local economy. While I am no longer involved in county government, nor are many of those who worked on this during my tenure, it appears that the coalition is still strong, and I hope that is true.
We have a lot in common. Yes, we have our differences, but finding a solution that works for all is critical. A solution that continues to provide water for our fisheries, water for our agricultural crops, water for our households and industrial users, and water that feeds our economy and our quality of life is possible. However, the trajectory upon which Congressman Huffman is proceeding to tear down Scott Dam, and with it destroy Lake Pillsbury and eliminate the water supply, is extremely short sighted. It will decimate the economy and with it the livelihoods of over half a million people. And what is truly baffling is that most of these folks are his constituents!
Congressman Huffman loves to tout the Two Basin Solution, yet a primary goal of this exclusive group was a feasibility study to determine whether Scott Dam should be removed based on the environmental and economic impacts of doing so. That study has yet to be conducted, and Huffman has done nothing to seek the funding necessary to carry out this type of study. Why would that be? Could it be because he lacks the clout in Congress to secure the funding? Or more likely, could it be that he does not want the study to proceed?
Should a legitimate feasibility study be conducted on the removal of Scott Dam, it could likely find that the sediment stored behind the dam released into Eel River system following the dam’s removal would choke the river to death. It could also find that the lack of water coming out of Lake Pillsbury would cripple the economies of Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Facts of this nature could hinder someone’s perception of science and this might be too risky for Huffman.
So, Huffman, skipping the studies altogether, has jumped to the conclusion that Scott Dam must be removed. He has posted on his social media and stated publicly that decommissioning the Potter Valley Project and removing Scott Dam is the way to go, science be damned.
Huffman’s constituents run from the San Francisco/Marin County line to the Oregon border – a district that was created to sustain his position as a representative in U.S. Congress. He appears to be either ignoring or is oblivious to the needs of those in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. Instead, he is focusing solely upon the misguided demands of those in Humboldt County and his radical environmental constituency in his home county of Marin. I sincerely hope that Congressman Huffman comes to recognize the actual science behind the Potter Valley Project. That he comes to the reality that without Scott Dam and Lake Pillsbury, there is no water supply to run through the lower Eel River in the summer and late fall to augment natural flows when necessary (as in the last droughts of 2014-2016). Without Lake Pillsbury, there will be no clean energy created by the hydroelectric power plant that in turn supplies the water that supports half a million of his constituents.
It’s basic science. It shouldn’t be political science. But if it were political science, any political scientist will tell you don’t ignore the needs of the bulk of your constituents. In doing so, you will fail to protect the very people who elected you and have put their trust in you to represent them.
It’s time for all of us – let me say that again – ALL OF US to express our thoughts, concerns, and outrage over the notion that a 100-year-old water supply system should be destroyed at the whim of one elected representative. It is time for all of us to step up to the plate and contact Congressman Huffman, along with every other county, state, and federal elected official to help them understand how important this water supply is. They represent us, and we must call upon them to stand and defend this water system. It is time to trust the actual science and quit playing ridiculous games in political science.
-Michael Delbar, Former Mendocino County 1st District Supervisor