Monday, December 4, 2023

Mendocino and Sonoma County Water Interests Team-Up With Round Valley Tribe to Take Over Potter Valley Project

Displaying Cape Horn with sluice.jpg
Van Arsdale Dam [Photo by Sarah Reith]

A group of regional interests has submitted a proposal to PG&E, in hopes of continuing the diversion of Eel River water into the Russian River, after the Potter Valley Project is decommissioned. Other stakeholders are not amused by being left out.

PG&E has stated publicly that it would move forward with plans to take all its infrastructure out of the river, if a third party did not step forward by the end of July with a viable plan to take over the project in some form. Now the Sonoma County Water Agency, the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission and the Round Valley Indian Tribes have drafted a proposal to take over the infrastructure downstream of Scott Dam. That includes the Van Arsdale Reservoir and its facilities, Cape Horn Dam, diversion tunnels and penstocks, the river and diversion gages, access roads and powerhouse facilities, a helicopter landing site, and the 1905 water right owned by PG&E that authorizes diversions from the Eel River.

Because the project no longer generates electricity, the agencies plan to ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to create a non-power license for the diversion. The proposal also includes brief descriptions of two options for continuing the diversion by re-engineering Cape Horn Dam and eliminating the Vvan Arsdale Reservoir. Water would only be diverted during the wet months. A contractor is exploring the possibility of storing water somewhere in Potter Valley.

One option for the diversion is a pump-back station, and the other is an 800-foot channel built of large rocks. An engineering firm is working up the options using a grant that Sonoma Water got from the Department of Water Resources.

The proposal mostly consists of a set of conditions the agencies must meet if they want PG&E to include it in the final license surrender application to FERC, which is due at the end of January, 2025. An initial draft of the plan is due in November of this year. The three agencies plan to begin discussions on a purchase and sale agreement next week.

But some parties that were not included in the negotiations with PG&E feel betrayed. The Russian River Water Forum, which includes many of the same parties that were involved in Congressman Jared Huffman’s Two-Basin ad hoc group, has been meeting to discuss the future of the project after decommissioning. The three agencies have agreed to form a regional entity with the legal and financial capacity to take over the facility.

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While they say they had to act quickly to hew to the company’s timeline, Alicia Hamann, Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River, which has long fought for full removal of the Potter Valley Project, wrote in a statement, “The only reason to leave out conservation organizations, fishermen, and Humboldt County interests would be to advance a plan designed to keep the fish-killing Eel River dams in place as long as possible.”

A previous attempt to take over the license for the project as it stands now failed to get the funding it needed for studies to file an application. California Trout, a fisheries and environmental advocacy group, was a member of that alliance. Executive Director Curtis Knight says this week’s announcement has created “a lot of community mistrust.”

“I think from a process standpoint, having three groups stepping forward with a real lack of consultation or involvement from some others that have been heavily involved, on kind of a partnership level, that was tough. Process-wise, it’s really not good,” he said, the day after Sonoma Water’s public announcement.

Janet Pauli is chair of the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, which includes the county, the city of Ukiah, the Potter Valley Irrigation District, the Redwood Valley County water district, and the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, a water wholesaler.

“I’m sorry that there’s that feeling,” she said. “I believe it’s pretty clear to most people that we had an extremely short timeline to put together any kind of a concept paper or a timeline for PG&E. And since we were constrained by a non-disclosure agreement with PG&E, we honored that. And we moved forward as quickly as we possibly could.”

Pam Jeane, an Assistant General Manager of Sonoma Water, says the fisheries’ interests are integral to the agreement that will be presented first to PG&E and then possibly to FERC. “We need for both the resource agencies and all of the fisheries interests to agree to a project,” she said. “This isn’t going to move forward without their support.”

Lewis Bill Whipple is President of the Round Valley Indian Tribes. He says the proposal is the first step in a long-held goal. “This is one pathway to advancing the tribes’ goal of a restored fishery. This is going to be a long process, and the tribes are eager to get started,” he stated.

Hamann is worried that won’t happen in a hurry. “On its face value, on paper, the proposal doesn’t look too bad,” she acknowledged. “It’s good to see that water users are fully embracing that both dams need to be removed. But there’s a lot of really important questions that are left unanswered by this proposal…It is very likely to result in delays to PG&E’s dam removal schedule, and delays mean additional harms to Eel River fish at this point.”

Hamann says she thinks the Russian River Water Forum is a smokescreen, but Pam Jeane with Sonoma Water is counting on the working groups to fill in some important details, like where the money will come from. “We have some ideas,” she said; “But that is one of the things that we would like the forum to work on. They’re going to have to work fast. But that is one of those pieces that we were hoping one of the working groups for the Russian RIver Water Forum will work on.”

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Mendocino County is in no position to provide funding for an elaborate water project. Supervisor Dan Gjerde laid out some financial priorities. “The purpose of this effort would be to insulate any liabilities to the standalone agencies (like the members of the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission) and further, the intent, and I think it’s fair to say the Board of Supervisors is united in this, is to say that the people who benefit from this water, and there are many people in Mendocino County who benefit, that they would pay in proportion to their benefit.”

Gjerde opposed a recent tax proposal that would have funded water projects, because he didn’t think it was fair for everyone to pay for projects that didn’t benefit everyone.

PG&E is enigmatic about the fate of the proposal, saying only that the company has received it and is reviewing it. But the agencies hope they will have some idea if they have a shot in November, when they see the draft of the decommissioning plan.

We asked Pauli: If the proposal is not included in the plan, is that the end of the story? She laughed as she said, “Oh, I don’t know if there is an end to the story.”

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  1. Wow, what a tangled mess this is. And Mendo county stating they have no money to do anything involving this goes without say, as broke as they are. . The downstream users of this resource should have to pay the bill for whatever they are expecting in return. I can see no end to this fight. Let the water wars begin!

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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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