Friday, August 19, 2022
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Regulators Dismiss the Concerns of Russian River Users Approving Flow Rate Reduction

The Russian River between Hopland and Cloverdale [Picture by Matt LaFever]

This week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued two decisions that water interests in the Eel and Russian River watersheds have been waiting on for months.

On Wednesday, the Commission approved a drastic reduction in the flow of water through the Potter Valley hydropower project into the East Branch of the Russian River. 

As of 2:00 yesterday afternoon, the water coming out of Lake Pillsbury started to be reduced from 75 cubic feet per second to five cfs. The Potter Valley Irrigation District will continue to receive up to 50 cfs on demand. 

The Potter Valley Irrigation District will continue to receive 50 cfs on demand, but the flow of 75 cfs into the East Branch has been reduced to 5 cfs. The variance is effective immediately, and the change started to go into effect by 2:00 on Thursday afternoon.*

PG&E still owns the project, though it recently submitted a 30-month schedule for decommissioning, which FERC approved. PG&E argued that it needed to reduce the flow in order to preserve the infrastructure at Lake Pillsbury, as well as cold water pools at the bottom of the reservoir for fish habitat.  

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), declared that if the water levels in the lake went down below 30,000 acre feet, the water would get too hot for juvenile salmonids. Though there is no fish ladder at Scott Dam, which impounds Lake Pillsbury, there is a needle valve at the bottom of the dam. The valve releases water into the 12-mile section of the Eel River between Lake Pillsbury and the van Arsdale Reservoir, near the diversion tunnel that directs the water into the Russian River.

Charlie Schneider is the coordinator with the Salmon and Steelhead Coalition, a partnership among Trout Unlimited, California Trout, and the Nature Conservancy. He said early models indicated that, in order to preserve the cold water pools, the variance should have been implemented by July 15.

“We’re glad the variance was finally approved, but I think we need to better understand and look at those models to really see what’s going to happen later this summer,” he said; “to see if it is in fact too late.” He added that conservationists are interested in preserving the 30,000 acre-feet of storage in Lake Pillsbury because in “big, deep reservoirs, the water stratifies, and the water in bottom part of the dam is cooler than the water at the top…the  more water you’re able to retain in there, the more cold water there is in the bottom of the lake. And that’s the water that gets released from the low-level outlet. So it’s really about preserving water temperature in that 12-mile reach between Scott and Cape Horn dams, making sure that water’s a cool enough temperature to be habitable for salmonids.”

Elizabeth Salomone, General Manager of the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, expects drastic changes for human water users on the other side of the diversion tunnel.  “It’s unusual for curtailments to cut into what we call the pre-1914 grouping,” she noted. “We do expect the curtailments to cut back into that pre-1914 category. But we won’t know for sure until the State Water Board issues their findings and curtailment notices.” 

Salomone expects the state will allow Upper Russian River water users enough water to meet human health and safety needs, which is 55 gallons per person per day. Some urban water suppliers have other sources, including groundwater or recycled water. And some farmers as well as urban centers have contracts to divert stored water from Lake Mendocino.  

“So not everyone will go completely without water,” she concluded.

The Commission also delivered an ambiguous opinion refuting the claims of environmental groups that the Commission has the authority to amend the Potter Valley Project’s new annual license to include more protection measures for wildlife. 

The license for the Project expired on April 14. Within days, a group of conservationists and fishermen filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue PG&E under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, Redgie Collins, the Legal and Policy Director for California Trout, one of the coalitions threatening the lawsuit, said that with the expiration of the license, PG&E “can no longer harm, harass, directly kill or injure salmon or steelhead at their project site.” The group wanted a new round of improved mitigation measures, arguing that the Commission had discretion over whether or not it granted the annual license. 

The Commission rejected that argument, saying that it was required to issue an annual license after the old one expired. And, while it also denied the coalition’s call for an Endangered Species Act consultation, it did consult with NMFS to require PG&E to monitor water in parts of the Eel River and Lake Pillsbury.

The utility must pay for two state programs to monitor salmon on the mainstem and middle fork of the Eel River for a period of time. It’s also required to continue collecting data on water quality in Lake Pillsbury and provide that data to NMFS, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the Round Valley Indian Tribes. These are the four entities that PG&E consulted before making its request for the reduction.

The Commission also disagreed with a slew of comments by Russian River water users complaining that PG&E was required to consult a drought working group composed of a wide array of stakeholders before requesting such a drastic change in the flows. The Commission wrote that “Establishment of and consultation with the Drought Working Group is not a license requirement; however the Commission encourages licensees to consult with stakeholders and to consider their interests when developing plans for Commission approval.” However, the Commission is now requiring PG&E to consult with the drought working group as it implements the reduction.

Theoretically, the flows could be increased to 25 cfs. But the final decision will be left up to the four entities that supported the reduction to 5 cfs. 

Commissioner James Danly concurred with the Commission’s decisions, but asked if it was fair to require ratepayers to finance the studies. 

Schneider thinks the solution is simple.“You know, he’s sort of complaining about new operational measures while PG&E is no longer seeking to operate the project,” he reflected. “But the way to solve that is to get your facilities out of the river. Right? To get your dams out of the river, and then there won’t be operational measures for you to need to comply with. He’s sort of arguing like, oh, you guys should just let PG&E kill fish while they’re decommissioning this project. You shouldn’t worry about it. But we actually care about fish every year. Over the next couple of years while they’re decommissioning this project, we want to make sure these fish are in good shape.”

Danly wrote that he thinks “the Commission should ask the following: is it “reasonable” to require Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) — that is, California ratepayers — to pay to comply with new operational measures that are not required by law for a project that PG&E no longer seeks to operate? One must also bear in mind that compliance typically does not immediately follow an order’s issuance. Orders requiring compliance frequently entail compliance plans which can take years to develop, review, and approve.”

But Schneider called out the commissioner by name. “You’re the people that can tell them to do it faster, FERC. Danly,” he exclaimed. “They take years. It’s like, yeah, because you let them take years!”

Cooperation in the allocation of water rights, often referred to as the California water wars, is rare. But on July 1, the state approved a first-of-its kind voluntary program in the upper Russian River, where senior water rights holders agreed to share their water with juniors. That program is contingent on project water that won’t be available under the reduced flows, but Salomone remains optimistic.

“About half of the water that’s represented in water rights in the Upper Russian River signed up for the program,” she reported. “That’s significant. That is a fantastic result for a pilot project. So what will happen now is that the program will essentially go on pause. It won’t be canceled, it will just be on pause. It continues to be a participation tool. All of the participants will receive information on their water allocation, for which most of them, it will now go to zero. But as soon as conditions change, let’s say we get a nice big rainstorm in October, or maybe even September, then the participants will be notified and their water allocation will go up as appropriate. So I am really proud of our Upper Russian River folks. This was a grassroots stakeholder-built program that took about two years to put together. And we are sticking with it, even if we have to hit the pause button. We’re going to use it as a permanent tool in our toolbox, I hope.”

*An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that only 5 cfs will come out of Lake Pillsbury. The water that comes out of Lake Pillsbury flows to both the Irrigation District and the East Branch of the Russian River.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. “the water coming out of Lake Pillsbury started to be reduced from 75 cubic feet per second to five cfs. The Potter Valley Irrigation District will continue to receive up to 50 cfs on demand.”..If the water coming out of Pillsbury is reduced to 5 cubic feet per second how does that equate to 50 cfs. for the Potter Valley Irrigation District? Is there that much water coming into the Eel from tributaries ?

  2. This is insanity. Putting the livelihoods, health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy for a fish population that is going to die no matter what anyone does. Climate change has doomed all of us. Let the fish die. How many peoples lives and farms will be destroyed for a few thousand fish. Complete insanity.This was a political decision by FERC. There is 33% more water in Lake Pillsbury today than there was at this time last year. Are extreme liberal chosen representatives have caused this. Most people don’t even know this is happening. This is mismanagement of a resource at it finest. I’m dumbfounded by this decision. I hate living in California and I can’t wait to leave this place. I can’t leave fast enough. It is no longer the place I used to love. California can and will burn in hell.

    • Russian River water users have zero right to keep stealing Eel River water to backfill their unsustainable use. People in the Eel River basin need water too, there is also a drought there. You can point the finger squarely at the people complaining, not anyone else.

      • The total diversion from the Eel into the Potter Valley project accounts for roughly 3% of the Eel’s total annual flow. 20 years ago that diversion was over 8%. The diversion has been going on since around 1910. Potter Valley and Lake Mendocino would not exist as we know it today without this water. People keep saying that Russia River water users have no right to Eel river water. They are wrong. It’s called a prescriptive easement. When someone has been utilizing a resource for so long and have been doing so legally they establish a right to that resource. Especially since the health and well-being of several hundred thousand people depend on that resource. You can’t allow the use of a resource for so long and establish communities based around that resource and then take the resource away. Russian River water users have established a legal right to the water because it has been occurring for 110 years plus.

      • 3% is too much, 0.01% is too much. Based on your “prescriptive easement” approach, I guess local tribes have a right to that water before anyone else. There is no legal basis to force an out of basin diversion to continue and it won’t. Its also complete BS that this water is needed for health and well being. Its needed for cheap water for vineyards and other ag. If people really wanted the water and could afford it, they would have paid to take over the dams when they were up for sale. Running out of water and running out of cheap water are two different things. Vineyard owners are trying to make everyone think the former is happening so they can make sure the later continues and someone else continues to foot the bill.

  3. Well said. But there is enough water for everyone if managed properly. But why was this taken a century to come full circle. I know that people have been wanting the diversion to stop since at least the 70’s because that’s how long I have been reading about this issue. My senior project for my B.A. degree in Geography from HSU was on the Eel and Russian River diversion and watersheds. It has been a fight for a long time. But it’s about more than vineyard owners and pot growers. Russian river water is sold bulk to water districts by Sonoma Co Water Agency all the way to southern Marin Co. It is estimated that over 400,000 people depend on Russian River water. Ukiah’s primary water source are 4 or 5 deep water wells all within 1/2 mile of the river. They are wells, but it is river water. Redwood Valleys water comes directly from Lake Mendocino and is sold to them by Millview water district which has a right to 8,000 acre feet. These communities, my community, will dry up if the diversion stops. There is a massive prolonged drought if you haven’t noticed. And with climate change it’s not going to get better. Securing a safe water supply for everyone is a must. Once again there is enough water for everyone if managed properly. It has mostly worked for everyone for 114 years. The diversion began in 1908. The salmon popular in the Eel has survived with highs and lows for all this time. Why cut off a water source for so many people. Just to try and save a most likely doomed population of fish. The fish aren’t worth the needs of hundreds of thousands of water users. No one will agree with whatever ends up happening. That’s what a compromise is. Somebody will be hurt no matter what. That’s my 2 cents worth. I’m done spitting bullshit on this subject for now. Actually disregard everything I have said. I don’t care anymore because me an my entire family are getting the hell out of California. You can have it and all the insanity that goes with it

    • There is enough for everyone if it is managed properly, totally agree. The problem is users in the Russian are blind to the fact that they benefit from the dams but aren’t burdened with their impacts. Just RR users benefiting is not, in fact, everybody. I have noticed there is a massive drought, its also happening in the Eel, it went dry last year. Did the Russian go dry? Compromise in this case looks like the dams being removed to benefit fish and coastal economies and a winter time diversion into Lake Mendo continuing to support ag in the Russian. But the Whine industry doesn’t want that, they want all the water and fearmonger and blame politicians for not providing them with water welfare and paying for the dams. We don’t need to keep ruining our best remaining salmon rivers and the fishermen that depend on them to maintain water supply, there are better solutions available in 2022. You’re right, there isn’t a solution that will make everyone happy, but the current situation makes people in the Eel unhappy and folks like yourself sure seem to be ignorant to that. Why should we care about you? Let me know where I can donate to your moving expenses.

      • Hah. Right on. Moving 4 generations isn’t turning out to be cheap. I was born in Ukiah and have loved living in Redwood Valley almost my entire life but it’s not worth my liberty anymore. The list of reasons why I want to move would take an hour to list. I don’t have ill will towards people that don’t think like me or that disagree with me. Why do you? If you truly want to put your money where your mouth is to help us move I will give you my contact info. I will take your money.
        I am fully aware of the situation the people north of the Cape Horn dam are experiencing. I travel the Eel and visit swimming holes and fishing spots all along the Eel in Dos Rios all summer long. And have done so my whole life. From Pillsbury to Miranda to Fernbridge. Theirs and your needs are just as valid as anybody else. But cutting one or the other off completely from a water source will not fix anything. It has to be a shared resource. The way it has been. 5 CFS is 32 gallons a second. Not enough for anything. Evaporation and percolation will take most of that. I hope you and yours and every person posting on this topic peace and prosperity but I’m Tennessee bound. I’ve had enough of ridiculous California laws restricting every freedom I have. And the insane cost of living. California, where democracy is an illusion. I’m getting out before Gavin Newsom turns me into a felon.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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