Saturday, September 23, 2023

Water Talks: Waiting on PG&E to Figure Out Life After the Potter Valley Project


At the first meeting following a proposal for life after the Potter Valley Project, participants talked about money, conservation, water rights, and what to do next, in the absence of key information from the current owner of the project.

At the end of July, Sonoma Water, the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, and the Round Valley Indian Tribes made a proposal to PG&E about how to continue diverting water from the Eel River into the Russian River without Scott Dam and with a new kind of infrastructure where Cape Horn Dam is now. They hope that PG&E will include their proposal in its draft plan for decommissioning the project, which it will submit to regulators in November.

The three groups agreed to form a regional entity that could legally take on the water right and manage the diversion. But the other members of the Russian River Water Forum, a large group of representatives from interests in the Eel and Russian River watersheds, were not involved in negotiations with PG&E. Some, though not all, feel blindsided. 

At a meeting on August 17, Janet Pauli, of the Inland Water and Power Commission, responded to the concerns, saying, “We were not under the impression that there was an alternative to what we did. We believe the discussion with PG&E needed to be on their terms and their timeline. We also believe there is nothing in our proposal that’s at odds with the goal of attaining the two-basin solution as we understood it. Those goals continue to be water supply certainty and fish passage. I really believe that moving forward, we have to find a way to engage with stakeholders and agencies on this. We’ve been attempting to do that, particularly with the agencies at this point. But if we get support from stakeholders and the agencies, the faster the process will move forward — assuming PG&E accepts the proposal they currently have in front of them.”

Matt Clifford, a staff attorney with the environmental advocacy group Trout Unlimited, said he wasn’t sure it’s even worthwhile to continue with the forum. And he questioned the sense of urgency that’s arisen with a proposal that has to hew so closely to the timeline imposed upon PG&E by FERC, the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission. “It’s not a given that this has to take place, even as part of the FERC process,” he argued. “We’ve got a decommissioning schedule now. PG&E can come in now. They’ve expressed a desire to remove everything from the river, but there are alternatives here that allow for a continued diversion after that. There’s no reason we can’t proceed in a way that allows PG&E to carry out its announced intentions. And the question is, how do we build a diversion after that. The idea that this is the one shot, to create the urgency around that, I just don’t think is correct.”

Erica Costa, a lawyer with Berkey Williams, which represents the Round Valley Indian Tribes, laid out her clients’ priorities, declaring that, “Another important piece here is that the fish migration and the diversions will be on conditions mutually agreed upon by the proponents of the proposal that protect the fishing rights and water rights of the Round Valley Indian Tribes.”

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Vivian Helliwell, the watershed conservation director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, is also concerned about fishing. “I see some allowance or recognition for the need for a harvestable surplus for the Round Valley Tribe,” she noted. “I don’t know if that includes a conversation about the huge economic sport fishery and commercial fishery that relied on the fish from this river, and the great economic losses that occurred from those fisheries going down. I don’t know if this is going to be enough,” she concluded. “I don’t know if this forum is going to help us get where we need to go.”
Helliwell, too, was aggrieved about the fact that she didn’t know the negotiation was taking place with PG&E. But Nikcole Whipple, a Yuki member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes and an intern with the conservation group Save California Salmon, said the proposal was foreseeable, even to a newcomer like her. “To me, in the short time I’ve been working on these projects, it’s always been clear to me that the idea to form the two-basin solution moving forward was always about a diversion, and I’ve always known that I’ve been on the opposition…I don’t feel like we’re being blindsided in any way.” She noted that she supports her tribal council.

Matt Myers, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, wanted to make sure it’s clear that his agency has not taken a position at this time.  “Our staff is participating in the technical meetings for the diversion,” he specified; “but that’s from a technical input level. It shouldn’t be extrapolated that there is either support or not support for a particular proposal or diversion.”

Bree Klotter, of Redwood Valley, asked the lawyers for the Inland Water and Power Commission and Sonoma Water the questions that everyone wants answered. “I was just wondering if there’s been any response at all from PG&E regarding the proposal,” she ventured; “and if not, is there any idea what sort of timeframe we can expect? Will we hear something from them before they submit the initial draft?”

Scott Shapiro, the Inland Water and Power Commission attorney, acknowledged that, “PG&E has not told us whether they will include this in their proposal. We have not had an official communication to that. PG&E has indicated that it will start negotiating with the regional entity when the regional entity is formed. Until that time, we hope to have further informal discussions with PG&E to learn more.”

Klotter persisted, asking, “Does that mean they will engage in discussions with an entity if we form one?”

Adam Brand, representing Sonoma Water, informed her that, “They haven’t indicated a timeframe for making a decision on the proposal that we have submitted. And they haven’t given us an answer yet.” 

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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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