Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Conservation and Fishing Groups File Lawsuit in Federal Court Over Endangered Species Act Violations at Eel River Dams 

The following is a press release issued by California Trout:

Scott Dam, part of the Potter Valley Project [Picture via California Trout taken by Mike Wier]
On August 15, five organizations working together to protect and restore vital North Coast salmon and steelhead fisheries filed suit against the federal agency that regulates the nation’s hydropower dams. The suit alleges the agency violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by failing to develop license terms to protect native fish while plans are prepared to decommission the Potter Valley Project’s two dams on the Eel River. The groups – California Trout, Friends of the Eel River, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and Trout Unlimited – charge that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is allowing excessive and unlawful “take” of ESA-protected fish species below the dams. 

FERC oversees the licensing of hydroelectric facilities like Pacific Gas & Electric’s Potter Valley Project. As part of the terms for its licenses, FERC requires hydropower project owners to consult with federal fisheries biologists at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to ensure project operations will not lead to the extinction of endangered species. “Take” includes not just the direct killing of endangered species, but also actions that interfere with vital breeding and behavioral activities such as migrating. 

The lawsuit asks the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to modify the Annual License FERC recently issued for the Project, in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act. 

The 50-year license for the Potter Valley Project expired in April of this year. Shortly thereafter, FERC issued an Annual License for the Project following PG&E’s January 2019 announcement that the company would not seek to renew its license due to significant financial losses incurred from maintaining the Project. FERC recently approved PG&E’s proposed 30-month schedule to develop a plan to decommission the Project, and will continue to issue short term Annual Licenses for the Project until decommissioning is complete. 

“This litigation is the first step in making sure FERC and PG&E protect Eel River salmon and steelhead while working toward dam removal,” said Alicia Hamann, Executive Director for Friends of the Eel River. “PG&E operates the fish-killing project, but FERC can change the terms of PG&E’s license to ensure that legally protected salmon and steelhead survive. NMFS has made clear that, as currently operated, the dams are killing and harming far more fish than anybody thought when the current license terms were developed 20 years ago.” 

This spring, before the Potter Valley Project’s 50-year license expired, NMFS asked FERC to modify the license to protect declining fish populations, and to consult with NMFS on the best way to do that. Neither PG&E nor FERC has changed operations as NMFS requested. 

“The Eel River offers perhaps the best hope for recovery of wild salmon and steelhead stocks in all of California. Once the Potter Valley Project dams are removed, the Eel will become the state’s longest free-flowing river. Hundreds of miles of intact stream habitat in the headwaters of the Eel provide cold, high-quality water and habitat conditions – an excellent fish nursery,” said Redgie Collins, Legal and Policy Director for California Trout. “FERC didn’t do its full due diligence in issuing the Annual License for the Potter Valley Project’s continued operations. Business as usual won’t cut it for Eel River salmon and steelhead, and we are committed to make sure the Annual License process addresses known and increasingly severe adverse impacts on fish until these obsolete dams come out.” 

“Salmon and steelhead populations on the West Coast are really struggling right now, and along with them our coastal and inland communities that rely on salmon and steelhead for food and jobs,” said Vivian Helliwell, Watershed Conservation Director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “The science is clear: restoring the Eel River by removing the outdated dams is incredibly important to our fisheries throughout northern California, and restoring the Eel River is not just good for the fish, it’s part of keeping our river systems healthy, which benefits us all.” 

“Our request to the court is simple,” said Matt Clifford, staff attorney for Trout Unlimited’s California Water Project. “NMFS has told FERC that the Potter Valley Project harms salmon and steelhead populations. Despite that harm – which is far greater than previously thought – FERC has allowed PG&E to continue to operate their dams in the same way. We’re asking the court to step in and require FERC and PG&E to do the right thing and protect fish while they are working to decommission this obsolete hydropower facility.”
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  1. Personally I can see both points.
    The Bay area and Mendocino Village people like to power up their electric cars and zoom around and see things.
    Old folks say in Ukiah like air conditioning in the drought hot summer.
    Fishermen like lots of fish.
    Rafters want Open Rivers
    Greens don’t like oil, so get drilling shut down, and energy gets more scarce.
    Yet a majority of items Greens own, even wear are oil dependent or in the products they use,and the vast majority do not walk to the river, they drive.
    Cutting off dams increases energy costs for everyone.
    Would the river even be flowing at what it is now if water wasn’t held in reserve by the dam?
    How does that affect the fish below the dam?
    If gas or electricity gets even higher who can afford to even go recreate at the river.
    You can’t get to nature will people even care anymore?

    Pretty fine balancing act all around. Compromises are in order.

    • “Would the river even be flowing at what it is now if water wasn’t held in reserve by the dam?
      How does that affect the fish below the dam?“

      Research is key, these answers are available to those who look. F those richies in the village and those who built their livelihood on a gov water handout!!

  2. Remove that dam and here is what will happen with worsening climate change and drought that gets worse by the year. The river will be bone dry from August till November from Lake Pillsbury to Dos Rios. The only reason there is water flowing right now is because of that damn. The Gravely Valley, which is Lake Pillsbury, is a small basin. As the lake is a small reservoir compared to others in this state. It doesn’t create much water. And what little it does create is impounded behind the damn and is released all summer and fall. Then the first atmospheric river that comes along will begin the release of up to a hundred thousand cubic yards of sediment that has built up behind the damn. This sediment will take two centuries to flush itself from the Eel watershed. Do you know what excessive sediment does to salmon spawning grounds? It ruins it. Forget about the pool and riffle effect and the sorting of pebbles needed to support spawning fish. It will all be buried under sediment for centuries. 90% of sediment is transported 10% of the time. Less and less major rain events are occurring, so it will take even longer for the river to flush the sediment. It’s basic hydrology. It’s insanity. This happened on the Mad River on a smaller scale when they dynamited the Sweasey Dam in 1970. The river below has still not recovered. Everybody wants to tear down dams everywhere but nobody has seen the damage yet that the sediment will bring to the riverbed. The Klamath Dam removal will soon prove this. Next without the dam, when we get the predicted mega-flood events climatologists are predicting in the future there will be no damn to help hold back the water. These could last a month as predicted. There will be flooding that hasn’t been seen in any of our lifetimes. The dam won’t lessen the flooding resulting from a mega-flood. They happened in 1955 and 1964 along the Eel. And that was with the dam in place. Lake Pillsbury fills up very fast in case you didn’t know. It really doesn’t hold much water compared to other reservoirs. But it helps control flooding below the damn to Dos Rios from smaller atmospheric rivers. Flood control was the primary reason Lake Mendocino was built in the first place. Water supply for agriculture was a secondary reason and much less a priority. The bond measure sold to voters, which paid for construction of Coyote Dam, was advertised as a flood control measure to Sonoma County voters. Lake Pillsbury was built for electricity generation and privately funded. Same with the diversion tunnel which was an afterthought. No one nor any fish species has ever benefited from dam removal. Once they are there they stay. If you want to protect a fish species and have a wild and scenic river then you should never build a damn in the first place. You can’t re-create a wild and scenic river from one that has been so manipulated by man for well over a century. The negative impacts of dam removal on man, on everyone, from fisherman to tribes, to farmers and ranchers, will be massive and last many generations. All to save a small fish population which, because of climate change, is doomed no matter what happens. Remove the dam the fish will be gone. Don’t remove the dam the fish will be gone. How many centuries do humans have left on this planet? Securing a water supply for so many more people is an immediate requirement. Putting a few thousand salmon over our survival in this region is insanity. The fish in the Eel are not going to survive climate change and neither are humans. So who cares.

  3. It’s an agenda
    It’s a way for special interest groups to generate funding
    There is only upper head water running this time of year if there is a heavy multi foot snow pack
    The cold water at the bottom of the dam keeps the fingerling fish alive
    The silt will damage perfectly good nesting grounds if the dam is removed
    You would have more fish if the state would allow seal abatement process at the mouth of the Eel & Russian river

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MendoFever Staff
MendoFever Staff
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