Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A Sense of Urgency at Mendocino Russian River Forum as Leaders Consider Continued Water Release at Lake Pillsbury

Scott Dam that controls the flow coming out of Lake Pillsbury [Picture from the Mendocino County Farm Bureau]

There was an urgent tone to the combined special meeting of the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission (MCIWPC) and the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District (RRFC), and agriculture representatives, held at the County Ag building in Ukiah on March 23, 2023, at 5:00 pm. 

The MCIWPC is a joint powers authority comprised of The County of Mendocino, The City of Ukiah, The Redwood Valley County Water District, The Potter Valley Irrigation District, and RRFC. Janet Pauli, Board Member of the Potter Valley Irrigation District (PVID), and also Commissioner and Chair of the MCIWPC, led the meeting, with much input from Elizabeth Salomone, General Manager of RRFC. 

PG&E announced on March 16 that it would not be closing the gates at Scott Dam in April for seismic reasons, which will result in less water stored in Lake Pillsbury this summer. Flow releases are expected to be similar to those of 2021, at the height of the drought. PG&E also announced that it will not be repairing the damaged transformer at the Potter Valley Power Station. December 2024 is the approximate deadline for PG&E to submit its license surrender application to FERC. A letter to PG&E dated March 28, posted on FERC’s elibrary, stated that PG&E must complete an amendment application, and was not authorized to make the decision to leave the gates open. 

The Potter Valley Project was built as a hydroelectric power plant that began producing power in 1908. PG&E acquired the project in 1930. Water from the Eel River is diverted through a tunnel into the powerhouse in Potter Valley. Water from the powerhouse flows into the Upper Russian River and then into Lake Mendocino, where it is released downstream into the Russian River. 

PG&E has never charged for the water coming out of the project, it was used to generate power. PG&E’s operations at the powerhouse have been losing money for a long time, and they want out. Managers of various water agencies that depend on this water have known about this for several years and have been trying to find a solution. 

The RRFC and MCIWPC are part of the Russian River Water Forum, “a collaborative effort initiated by Sonoma Water and a collection of regional partners with funding from the California Department of Water Resources.” (from the RRWF website). The collection of partners is drawn from the many governmental water agencies, non-governmental agencies, and Tribes in the Eel River and Russian River watersheds. The RRWF, with its broad coalition of interests, is where all the groups are supposed to meet and collaborate on solutions transparently. 

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This is neatly summed up in the report from Kearns & West prepared for the State Department of Water Resources.

The purposes of the meeting were: 1) to give an overview and update on the RRWF; 2) explanation of the process for nominating representatives for the Water Forum Planning Committee; and 3) discussion and nomination of representatives from Mendocino County to the Planning Committee. 

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

Mendocino and Sonoma Counties are part of the Russian River Caucus of the RRWF. (A caucus is a group whose members have similar interests). The following seats on the Planning Committee will be available for Mendocino County: Water Suppliers – 4 seats and 4 alternates; County Representative – 1 seat and 1 alternate; Agriculture and Resource Conservation District – 2 seats and 2 alternates. The time commitment required of these representatives is still to be determined. The meetings will be held in rotating locations in the Eel and Russian River Watersheds. 

The Planning Committee of the RRWF is comprised of representatives from all the caucuses in the RRWF. None of the representatives from any caucus will have voting power, as the Planning Committee’s purpose is to meet for discussion and advisory purposes. Planning Committee recommendations will be conveyed to elected officials from the county, state and federal levels for possible action.

A number of Mendocino County leaders attended, including Darcy Antle, County CEO; Supervisors Glenn McGourty and Mo Mulheren; Deborah Edelman and Joe Scriven of the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District; John Rearden of RRFC; Adam Gaska, Bree Klotter and Cassie Taaning, of the Redwood Valley County Water District; Sean White from the City of Ukiah; former County Supervisor Carre Brown; Ft. Bragg Mayor Bernie Norvell; Frost Pauli, Brandon Axell, Peter Johnson, Tyler Nelson, Tyler Rodrigue, Alfred White, Guiness McFadden, David Koball, and Pete Chevalier, from the agricultural side.

After the meeting, when asked how the RRWF differs from the Two Basin Solution formed in 2018, Janet Pauli said that the Two Basin Solution Partnership was an ad hoc group comprised of California Trout, County of Humboldt, MCIWPC, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, and the Sonoma County Water Agency. The group explored terms for a new license, but could not meet the deadline. FERC directed PG&E to begin the license surrender. The RRWF was formed, in part, to create a new entity that could negotiate with PG&E to acquire the diversion facilities. Grant funding for the formation of the entity and initial acquisition of the facilities has been secured. After that, on an ongoing basis, the facility will be funded by customers who use the water.

After the meeting, Elizabeth Salomone said, “I see the Water Forum as the meeting place for various stakeholders to stay informed and collaborate on water supply and resiliency issues, including the future of the Eel River diversion to the Russian River. This group will inform projects, actions, collaborations, and maybe the venue for securing water for our future. It can provide a venue for shifting our collective perspective to holistic approaches, connecting us, and building relationships in stewarding natural resources.”

The degree of impact will be greatest at the top end of the Russian River watershed, but users south of Healdsburg will also be affected. The Mendocino and Sonoma water agencies and agricultural groups who depend on this water are proactively working to secure water rights for the future.

The goals of the Planning Committee are:

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  1. To form a funded regional entity to secure water rights, to negotiate with PG&E about assuming responsibility for the Potter Valley Project, and to maintain the diversion, as PG&E will not negotiate with a collection of various individuals. The entity needs to be formed and funded by December 2024, when PG&E is expected to announce its license surrender plan. The regional entity would not generate hydroelectric power. It would acquire the diversion element, including the fish screen and the tunnel, and re-engineer the water to bypass the powerhouse, and to flow into the East Branch of the Upper Russian River.
  1. Having a dependency on the diversion is not the final goal. Looking at the watershed as a whole, the amounts of rainfall in wet vs. dry years, finding alternatives for possible water storage, conservation and other measures will be needed to ensure sustainable water availability in the future.

There were two sets of informational slides posted on the meeting agenda, here are links to the first set of slides and the additional slides. RRWF has an email sign up page for those interested in receiving updates.

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Monica Huettl
Monica Huettl
Mendocino County Resident, Annoying Horse Girl.

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