Friday, July 19, 2024

Russian River Water Users Face Off with Dam Removal Advocates in Water Forum Meeting

Lake Mendocino at Sunrise [Photo by Monica Huettl]

In 2021 the Sonoma County Water Agency was awarded a grant from the California State Water Resources Control Board (DWR) to establish a water forum to come up with solutions around the future of the Potter Valley Project. The group brings together members from Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties. A portion of Marin County is also affected. The Planning Group consists of representatives from Government, Tribes, NGOs and Environmental Groups, Agriculture and Water Suppliers from both the Eel and Russian River watersheds.

The Planning Group’s mission is to come up with solutions for secure water supplies and environmental restoration in the Eel and Russian River watersheds. This is in response to PG&E’s decision to surrender its hydroelectric license and their stated intent to decommission Scott and Van Arsdale Dams. Planning Group discussions will focus on whether it is possible to keep all or part of the diversion of Eel River water into the Upper Russian River. If the diversion survives, it would have to be run by a new entity. The new entity is not yet formed. The Eel River tribes, environmental NGOs and the Russian River agriculture groups do not see eye-to-eye on the solutions. The Eel River fisheries are in crisis and restoration of the Eel River basin is badly needed. It is presently unknown how all this is going to be paid for. 

The Planning Group met for the first time to review the purpose and charter; discuss members’ interests concerning the Potter Valley project decommissioning process; discuss the role and focus of the Steering Committee and Working groups; and take public comments. 

Ben Gettleman and Jim Downing of Kearns & West facilitated the meeting, attended by over thirty Planning Group members, with other interested parties in the audience and on Zoom. K&W has been working for the past eight months to come up with a framework for the process. They began with interviews. The results of the interviews can be found in this Summary. K&W found strong support for the concept of a water forum, a sense of urgency, and a need for inclusivity and transparency. Also discussed was financing and willingness to pay. They found that community awareness was low. It is doubtful that the average citizen of the five affected counties is aware that big changes in water policy are coming.

These weighty issues result from decisions made over 100 years ago when a diversion tunnel was dug and two dams were installed, to divert water from the Eel River to the Russian River through a tunnel in Potter Valley. This diversion was originally built to provide hydroelectric power, with the side effect of bringing a lot of water to a naturally dry area. This enabled agriculture to flourish in Potter Valley and towns to the south. The diverted water also allowed for vineyards and suburban development in Sonoma County. 

Unfortunately, on the Eel River side, the diversion caused significant environmental damage. According to Glen Spain, the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations, the Eel was once the fourth largest salmon fishery in the country, with 800,000 salmon. After a hundred years of diversion, the Eel contains only about 3,000 salmon. The diversion of water and the drought have had a negative impact on the Eel River. Another cause of the vast reduction in salmon numbers comes from a non-native fish called the pike minnow, now established in the Eel River. Removing the pike minnow and restoring the Eel to health is going to be time-consuming and expensive. Groups such as Friends of the Eel River have been calling for decommissioning of the dams since 1994.

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How do we balance the water needs of southern Mendocino and Sonoma Counties with the need to restore the Eel River watershed and the Tribal fishing rights? The tensions are numerous and they must be addressed immediately. PG&E is in the process of developing a surrender and decommissioning plan for Scott and Van Arsdale dams. 

The RRWF was formed to organize a group to obtain funding and negotiate with PG&E about taking over the diversion facilities, in order to keep some water flowing into the Russian River after PG&E pulls out. Serving on the Planning Group is a volunteer position, members do not get paid by the RRWF. They are all doing this to hammer out a compromise to save their rivers and secure water sources for the future. 

Only about 25% of the organizations that comprise the Planning Group represent the Eel River. The RRWF was formed by Russian River interests. It is an undisputed fact that the Eel needs restoration, but the people who rely on the Russian River will be faced with a severe cutback of water if the diversion is removed. James Gore, Sonoma County Supervisor, said “We all know there’s not enough water for everybody.”

Formation of RRWF Working Groups is underway. They will focus on:

  • Water Supply and Fisheries
  • Finance/Economics
  • Governance/Decommissioning
  • Water Rights

There will also be a Russian River Resiliency Subcommittee. Some of the Eel River representatives expressed their opinion that the resiliency of the Russian River should be a main focus. In other words, some of them feel that users of Russian River water need to figure out a way not to need Eel River water. 

During the meeting, it quickly became apparent that Planning Group members had wildly differing goals for the group. Below is a sampling (paraphrased, unless in quotation marks) of statements made during the meeting:

Mike Thompson, Sonoma Water Agency, said he has three hopes for the Planning Group: 1) that this process will benefit both river basins; 2) that the collaborative approach will be successful; and 3) that we start to build strong bonds.

Bree Klotter, Redwood Valley County Water District: Redwood Valley is a small, rural community with no secure, reliable source of water. Currently, water is limited to surplus water from the Russian River Flood Control. Ensuring a secure water source is incredibly important.

Vivian Helliwell, from the Institute for Fisheries Resources, said we’ve been talking about this for six years. We need to support the Eel River and ocean fisheries. Humboldt County opposed the diversion when it was built 100 years ago. The benefits to the Russian River came at a cost to the Eel River. The Russian River users need to learn to live within their means. None of us will have enough water. Nobody can afford to keep the dams and build a new fish ladder. There is a possibility that talk of maintaining the diversion is moot. There might not be enough surplus water to divert. This assumption is based on the illusion that there is any surplus water in the Eel.

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Elizabeth Salomone of the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District believes relationships among the parties are important to restore the health of both watersheds. She argued the Russian River Resiliency Subcommittee needs to move up in the timeline.

Alicia Hamann, Friends of the Eel River, hopes to ensure both dams are removed ASAP.

Wyatt Smith, Round Valley Indian Tribes and fisheries biologist said the consortium of tribes have fishing claims and senior water rights on the Eel.

Eddie Crandall, Lake County Supervisor, thinks we can get on the same page to understand each other. He highlighted the fact that the Eel River originates in Lake County.

Charlie Schneider of CalTrout pointed out the Eel River interests are in the minority, the Russian River interests are in the majority in this forum. He wants to make sure that the Eel River representative has a say.

Brandon Axell, Mendocino County Farm Bureau, argued agriculture provides open space, groundwater recharge, and fire breaks. 

Ted Hernandez of the Wiyot Tribe said his people have been reliant on the Eel River since time immemorial. With the salmon no longer there, Hernandez said we need to bring it back to health. He was concerned that if the Eel doesn’t have water, nobody will have water.

Potter Valley Tribe’s Mike Shaver said they have ancestral lands in both the Eel and Russian River basins. We need water conservation, improvement of the fisheries, and a supply of water.

Matt Clifford of Trout Unlimited said his main interest is looking to secure the removal of the dams. He understands the Russian Riverside needs a sustainable solution, sooner rather than later.

Jennifer Burke of the City of Santa Rosa told the forum the City Council policy directive is to support maintaining the diversion, and formation of the entity, and is receptive to contributing funding for the entity.

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Sean White from the City of Ukiah reflected the Potter Valley Project has permanently altered the landscape of the Upper Russian River.

Janet Pauli, a member of the Potter Valley Irrigation District and Mendocino County Inland Power and Water Commission, told the forum the groups she represents are dependent on the water supply from the Potter Valley Project. She is concerned about the water supply and the health of both rivers. During the Two Basin Solution talks, Pauli says participants developed a solution and hopes the RRWF will lead to a larger agency that will fund the diversion and protect the fish.

Glenn McGourty, Mendocino County’s 1st District Supervisor, said the group is attempting to retool a system designed in the 1800s, and doing so will require storing water underground during high flow. It will take a significant investment, McGourty believes, and the state needs to pay for public trust resources. McGourty was concerned riparian habitats in both rivers are in bad shape stating we can’t afford to let species go extinct on our watch.

Tribal Interests. The tribes are critical to this process. K&W prepared this report on discussions with tribal representatives. Some of the main points are: 

  • Inclusivity, contacting all of the tribes and inviting any number of representatives to participate. 
  • Cultural Sensitivity, recognizing that the rivers are sacred spaces.
  • Respect for tribal knowledge and expertise.
  • Acknowledgment of previous harms.
  • Restoring the fisheries is a high priority.
  • The tribes are located in both river basins and may have differing views.

Two representatives of the Lake Pillsbury Alliance attended the meeting and stated that they would like to join the RRWF. Their goal is to save Scott Dam at Lake Pillsbury. The small community at Lake Pillsbury will be greatly affected if Scott Dam is decommissioned.

How much will dam removal cost? The four dams removed on the Klamath River, and restoration of 36 miles of river habitat cost $450 million. The Klamath Dam removals provide a template to use in removing Scott Dam. Removing Scott Dam can be done more quickly. 

PG&E has been notified of the RRWF and its plans. Vivian Helliwell spoke about the damage done by the pike minnow and the need to remove it, as it preys on steelhead and salmon fry. She said PG&E should take responsibility for this as part of dam removal.

Elizabeth Salomone said she hopes that the RRWF can collectively approach PG&E to discuss dam decommissioning with some form of diversion.

Matt Clifford, Trout Unlimited, cautioned not to underestimate the difficulty of reaching a consensus in this group. The decommissioning will eventually be paid for by PG&E customers.

Nikcole Whipple, member of the Round Valley Tribe, advocate with Save California Salmon, and administrative justice instructor at Mendocino College, made a public statement. She clarified her remarks in a subsequent email: While indigenous people refrain from claiming ownership of the land and water, we are the termed ancestral land and senior water rights holders. When you talk about costs, consider, the State of California recognizes the taking of these rights, and the excessive use, exceeds any cost of reparation to the Indigenous people that can ever be paid. This is why RRWF was awarded a grant and Tribal Land back is included in the 30 x 30 Executive Order. Those claiming to be the most impacted today, with loss to the economy need to be aware we have been impacted since the dams were put up. Assimilation is real California history, to keep these dams up is a direct entanglement on our rights to our water and fish, our culture that was intentionally taken in an attempted genocide. Under Public Law 280, California is to care for tribes with their best interest in mind. This is an act of Congress and a federal obligation.

Just before the meeting ended at 3:00 pm, Scott Greacen, Friends of the Eel River, appeared on the Zoom screen, forcefully stating that Friends of the Eel River will accept nothing less than full dam removal. He said, “With respect to the process, this meeting has been shamefully run. Kearns & West has not been transparent. Potter Valley water rights have no proper role in a just water allocation system.” 

With that Gettleman closed the meeting. The next meetings will be of the working groups.

A lot of consensus needs to be reached before January 2025, when PG&E estimates it will submit its final surrender plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. 

To learn more, please see previous MendoFever articles related to this subject:

Discover more from MendoFever – Mendocino County News

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  1. Grape vineyards with sprayed rows are not open spaces or natural, it's private property where industrial practices include poisoning water and exploiting migrant workers Grape vineyards with sprayed rows are not open spaces or natural, it's private property where industrial practices include poisoning water and exploiting migrant workers

    Why do wine-grape farmers get to build giant ponds and pump from the Russian if water is so scarce? Shouldnt we be drinking this water directly? Growing food with it? I know drinking wine is so beneficial to humanity and all….

  2. It’s not difficult to understand what “restore the health” means for the Eel.
    For Potter, RV, and points south – heavily dependent on the current arrangement – that’s not quite so clear.

  3. This is complete insanity. Removing these damns will devastate so many more entities and people than would ever benefit from dam removal. The droughts are only going to get worse. We just had one good winter. California is about to turn into a desert and everyone is doomed. Would you rather save people and their livelihoods or take care of a single species of fish destined for extinction? Lake Pillsbury and the diversion should continue to be operated the way it has been for the last hundred years. The diversion has been reduced to 25 CFS. It should never go below that. This amount is a fraction of what the minimum has been for 100 years. Up till around 15 or 20 years ago the summer diversion flows never went below 75 cfs and winter diversions were maintained at 150 CFS. Up to 500,000 people in Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin Counties depend on this diversion for part of their domestic and agricultural water supply. For some it’s their only source of water, as in Potter Valley. Climate change is just getting started and all living things have been condemned. But taking a well established water source away to benefit Salmon restoration is complete insanity. Humans should not put the survival of a species of fish ahead of the survival of themselves. The tribes have lived with the declining salmon numbers over the past century. I doubt that salmon restoration is even possible if these dams and diversion are removed. Drought and invasive species are here and the salmon are destined for extinction as are we all. I hear the thundering hooves of a pale horse and trumpets from above. It has been getting louder for generations. But we refuse to listen and it is closer than ever. We can’t begin to save a doomed species of Salmon if we can’t sustain ourselves by maintaining a well established water supply. This entire concept of damn removal is insanity. We should be building more. Not removing them.

    • If the fish go extinct it is only a matter of time until the ecology collapses and all humans must depopulate the region.

      What exactly do you think provides all the critical nutrients to the forests we live amongst???
      Only 2 other species even come close to what salmonids provide….the Eels (that the Eel River is named for; not common on the Russian) and the Lichens that capture & convert nutrients from the rain.

      It’s not a simple question of people or fish, it’s a question of people getting their heads out of their asses for their own basic needs.

      The Russian River has long been considered the MOST impacted & degraded watershed in CA by a plurality of Aquatic Biologists.

      Considering that, why would any Eel River residents think that Russian River residents, in general, have the best interests of any river in mind when they’ve fkd up the Russian River so badly?


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

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