Former Mendocino County Supervisor on Dismantling the Potter Valley Project: ‘The Lifeblood to Homes, Farms, and Economies on the North Coast’

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Van Arsdale Dam, South Fork of Eel River, Ukiah, Mendocino County, CA [Photograph from the Historic American Engineering Record]

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

Categories: Op-Ed

7 replies »

  1. The Eel River was never meant to be a “Two Basin Solution.” Solution for whom? The wine industry and there frost protection which is glutenous by any standard of water rationing. A solution for green energy? has any one received power from the Hydro-plant at Van Arsdale in recent years? what about the environmental impact down stream on the Eel river? for years that river has been dying and the Native Species have been left to the demands of municipalities never intended to be part of this water shed… man made solutions are always based upon financial gains and not about whats best for our environment, if so it would be easy to recognize the best solution would be to allow this tributary to return to her natural flow.

  2. No matter what is done it will impact all involved. There are several important questions that should be thought about. As much as we would would like the people who 150 years ago dammed the rivers and cut the redwoods to not have done so it happened. To try to restore a river now, will never take it back to the way it was. As the climate warms and it will drive salmon and trout to extinction and then select for other species. We can wish this would not happen and plant all the trees we want but unless China and India are on board it will be happening. If the dam is removed it will reduce the amount of cold water reservoir left to lower water temperature for downstream fish in summer. If the dam is removed it will make it so fish can migrate. No matter what is done it will have long term impacts. If the lake is gone it will reduce the fire fighting ability. If it is there it will allow Calfire to use that water for fire fighting. Remove the lake and you influence property values from around the lake. People who are all romantic about restoring the river have to realize that no matter what is done it will not look like it did 50 or more years ago and never will. As much as the water may be abused by people such as the “Wine industry” we should not make a decision based on such a simple dislike of who uses the water. In the end no matter what is done it will help someone and hurt someone, it will hurt some animal populations and help others.

    • The diversion has allowed airbnb explosion on the Russian while weott and Myers are boarded up. Just because something has been done for 100yrs doesn’t mean we should keep doing it! You are right there will be repercussions but the eel has felt the repercussions of this theft for too long.

  3. I am surprised that Mr. LaFever even published this Op-ed because is full of errors and faulty logic. I am glad that Delbar is no longer a Supervisor. First, tearing down Scott Dam does not equal to “dismantling the Potter Valley Project.” This is just tripe. Under both scenarios, PG&E tears down the dam or the Two-Basin Solution, water will still be piped from the Eel River to the Potter Valley. Regarding the supply of water for two river systems for fish, either outcome would still supply water to both rivers – with or without the dam. You state, “that without Scott Dam and Lake Pillsbury, there is no water supply to run through the Eel River in the summer.” This is just totally false. If that’s the case how did summer steelhead survive for thousands or millions of years? Furthermore, biologists have traveled (hiked in person) above Scott Dam in the summer (contrary to falsehoods propagated by the Pillsbury Lake Alliance) and confirmed there are pools of water that are sufficiently deep enough and cold enough to allow salmon fry to develop. The Two Basin Solution would also still “supply water to homes, farms and economies on the North Coast.” PG&E is not going to tear down the Cape Horn Dam and closing the tunnel through the mountain. Also, do the math. Dams and reservoirs don’t manufacture water. So, there will be the same amount of water coming down that hill – if we keep the dam – PG&E destroys the dam or the Two Basin Solution takes over. The water flow will not be as consistent, but the Two Basin Solution plans to store it in Lake Mendocino. Why should PG&E be forced to keep a dam that will probably not last another 50 or 100 years anyway? PG&E is free to make its own decisions. If you think that should keep the dam for your good because the government says so? Why don’t you move to Communist China or Russia or some place where governments force companies to make uneconomic decisions? That is ridiculous. If you are sooo brilliant and you think that it is sooo important, why haven’t you come up with an alternate solution? Why hasn’t the Lake Pillsbury Alliance? You all just sit around crying in your soup. Regarding the sediment behind the dam, maybe you should read this research – https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-the-worlds-rivers-are-losing-sediment-and-why-it-matters. The sediment will be dispersed down the river. Furthermore, based on the Two Basin Solution plans, the Two Basin Solution are going to take over the license for the Potter Valley Project. Janet Pauli is part of the Two Basin Solution, she has vineyards in Potter Valley – do you really think that she is just going to turn off the water to those vineyards? I am not a fan of Congressman Huffman, but I do not see where he says that the Potter Valley Project will be decommissioned, I have spent hours searching the web and his social media, and I cannot find a post like that, but I have found letters from his office supporting the Two Basin Solution AND the Potter Valley Project. Regarding electric power generation, this is what PGE says, “We weren’t making money off the water; we wanted it for the power generation but the markets for renewable power have changed to the point that this project is no longer economical for electric customers.

    “We can get cheaper electricity from other sources; the grid is interconnected so if you have one source of power unavailable, the other sources that are tied into the grid can provide power.”

    I have as much dislike for Congressman Huffman as you do, but that dam in not being destroyed at his whim. It is being destroyed because it is no longer useful and will eventually become a huge liability and there are now better uses for that water and land. It’s time that we do all we can to restore the Coho Salmon run. Furthermore, the Eel River above the dam would return valuable new spawning ground to the salmon. I don’t want to see folks on Lake Pillsbury lose their lake-side living, but no one has put forth a better solution. And you are not helping with letters like this that run the gamut from distorting the truth to complete falsehoods.

  4. This is not rocket science, it’s simple and straightforward water project that has functioned for over 100 years! Just rebuild it! Reenstate a modern hydropower plant. Rebuild the hatchery to help restore the Eel fish run. Do not bend to the misguided so-called environmentalist whimes! It is extremely lmportant to Lake, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties interests to keep both dams operational! Can’t see how it would benefit Humboldt county either way down river. Several other forks that feed down stream! So simply fix and improve a good system that has worked for over 100 years! Stop the politics it’s obviously simple and straightforward what is needed! Does not need endless studies, fix the existing infrastructure!

  5. The project has been wisely designed and served its good purposes for a century. With such a foundation in place, it’s only sensible to reinforce and modernize it minimally. Losing the hydroelectric benefits would be a major loss; and the distribution system has supported the adjacent counties well: see profitable agricultural and recreational activities. Hard-working volunteers have put studied input into the public eye and that should be recognized.

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