Tuesday, October 3, 2023

What Is the Fate of Lake Pillsbury If Scott Dam Is Decommissioned?

Lake Pillsbury [Photo by Mike Nelson]

Continuing our coverage of the Russian River Water Forum efforts to find solutions for Russian River water security and restoration of Eel River fisheries, we are taking a look at Lake Pillsbury. The Eel River groups have wanted to remove Scott Dam and Lake Pillsbury for years. The Russian River groups are mainly concerned with keeping some form of diversion tunnel facilities operational and have not taken a stand on the Lake Pillsbury issue.

The Lake Pillsbury Alliance was formed in 2019, around the time that PG&E was working through the FERC relicensing process. When PG&E decided not to renew the hydroelectric license, the company became unresponsive to hearing from Lake Pillsbury residents. 

Frank Lynch and Carol Cinquini, second and third-generation cabin owners and lifetime recreational users of the Lake Pillsbury area, contacted four homeowners’ associations around the lake and formed a 501(c)(3) organization so that Lake Pillsbury’s interests could be part of the discussions. They tried to get a seat on Congressman Jared Huffman’s ad hoc committee but were denied. The County of Lake tried to join the Two Basin Partnership but was also denied. Lynch says Lake County’s interests have been marginalized for years. 

Lynch said the Ad Hoc, Two Basin Partnership and the RRWF were “stacked with interests against Lake Pillsbury.” All of the Eel River groups are actively advocating for dam removal. The Russian River groups are concerned with maintaining the diversion. Cinquini’s take is that anything concerning Scott Dam and the Lake Pillsbury basin area is considered PG&E’s problem.

One of the many Bald Eagles found at Lake Pillsbury [Photo and permission to use by Walt Leonard]

Lynch said RRWF Planning Group member Eddie Crandall, Lake County Supervisor, was “helpful in getting us a seat on the RRWF Planning Group. Lake County wrote a letter in support of our membership.” Cinquini and Lynch then lobbied for a seat at the table, explaining how their stakeholders deserved consideration because they would be the most directly impacted if Scott Dam was removed. Cinquini added, “We wanted to be part of the process, we respect the process. We know we are a minority voice.”

The studies done by the Two Basin Solution focused on water supply and fisheries, but Lynch and Cinquini assert that none were done to assess the impacts to the Lake Pillsbury basin communities and ecosystems if Scott Dam was removed. The Two Basin Partnership’s Phase II Feasibility Studies are located on Huffman’s Ad Hoc website and earlier Feasibility Studies are located on the Two Basin Partnership website. 

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Cinquini pointed to the various studies and discussions that analyzed capital costs of dam removal and water storage, including possibly raising Coyote Dam at Lake Mendocino, removing Cape Horn and Scott Dams, and building new infrastructure and water storage facilities. The less expensive solution of remodeling and renovating the existing dams was not considered. Cinquini said “None of the studies take a holistic approach to problem solving, looking for win-win solutions for everybody.”

While Lake Pillsbury has few permanent residents, the area is heavily used by the four homeowner communities and other recreational users year-round. The beauty of Lake Pillsbury is its remoteness. It’s off-the-grid, off-the-beaten track, and attracts people who want to be immersed in nature. In the summer, there are thousands of people camping on the weekends, and many families spend weeks in homes and cabins on both private and federal lands. Cinquini said, “Lake Pillsbury is well-used and well-loved.”

Without the lake, would there be continuing resort/camping opportunities in the same location along the Eel River? Perhaps a deep river with big swimming holes, and opportunities to kayak and fish? Lynch says without Scott Dam, the river would probably dry up in the late summer, leaving unconnected pools of water. When Cape Horn Dam and Van Arsdale Reservoir were built in 1907, there wasn’t enough water in Van Arsdale to send through the diversion tunnel, so Scott Dam was created in 1922 to store more water.

There has been talk for years of decommissioning Scott Dam. With the changes that would bring, Lynch said PG&E has not offered any compensation or assistance to business owners and residents if Lake Pillsbury is removed, “PG&E offered zero help. They referred us to FERC.”

Congressman Mike Thompson, representing Lake County, “has shown interests in our position, but no tangible help has been forthcoming,” according to Lynch. Jared Huffman doesn’t represent Lake County, and he hasn’t included any assistance for the Lake Pillsbury community in his statements.

Some in the RRWF are saying Lake Pillsbury isn’t needed for fire protection. Lynch said, “Without Lake Pillsbury as a resource, the community around the lake would be 100% vulnerable. Water from Lake Pillsbury has been used to fight fires in five counties. It is used to fill fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and tanker trucks. Without Scott Dam, the river would not be deep enough in fire season for them to dip into. Suggestions that water from Lake Mendocino, Blue Lakes and Clear Lake be used are not feasible. They are too far away from the National Forest.”

The environmental groups have shown concern about pike minnow, an invasive species found in Lake Pillsbury. Lynch said, “The pike minnow is a non-native fish that was introduced years ago. It’s a dominant species that is already found in the Eel River. People blame Lake Pillsbury, but we would like to see the pike minnow gone. Lake Pillsbury is not to blame for the pike minnow’s existence.”

Another expensive problem connected with dam removal is what to do with the sediment. Some estimates claim that half of the 21 million cubic yards of sediment could wash away and clog up downstream habitat if Lake Pillsbury is removed. Lynch said “The costs for removal of sediment are going to be exorbitant.”

The two sides on the Russian River Water Forum are focused on a diversion that represents less than 2% of the Eel River water supply. Once Scott Dam is gone, they are now talking about building a new reservoir in Potter Valley for water storage. Lynch says it would be so much cheaper to modify the existing dams to improve the fish passage. Cinquini asks us to think about the cumulative capital cost of all of the plans.

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Lake Pillsbury is the recreational anchor of the Mendocino National Forest. Lynch has talked to Forest Service representatives, who expressed concern about fire protection and loss of habitat if Scott Dam is removed. Lynch said, “It will change the dynamic of the National Forest and would be a tragic loss.”

Inquiries to the offices of Congressman Mike Thompson, Lake County Supervisor Eddie Crandall and PG&E’s media center, asking for comment about the impact of dam decommissioning on the Lake Pillsbury Community have not received a response.

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  1. This is got to be the all time stupidest shit I’ve ever read or heard of. In a drought situation, you want to get rid of dams for fish? In an energy crunch situation, you want to get rid of hydro-electric dams, which are green energy production, in favor of a possible salmon run? No dammit, don’t let these idiot interests groups (which are just a few selfish individuals wanting something for themselves and not think about the bigger picture) Get the state to open up fish hatcheries that they defunded and demolished in the 70’s and rebuild that structure and build more dams and reservoirs for the state and the nation, this is so frigging twisted in logic I cannot believe these people can generate enough electricity in their own brains to have even a reasonable thought. MORE POPULATION=MORE ENERGY AND MORE WATER USAGE IN FARM AND INDUSTRIES. GET IT TOGETHER PEOPLE. I feel sorry for the Lake County residents because this county is so UNDERREPRESENTED in many ways. You can see it in the roads and in the services.
    We need to pay attention Lake County residents, or they’ll easily screw us. They have been for some time now.

  2. Remove the dam and the salmon runs recover? Cause and effect works both ways. You have to look at what killed the salmon breeding grounds in the first place.

  3. Having followed this issue from afar, has anyone ( wildlife biologist preferred) broached the subject of establishing a viable population of beavers to establish natural ponds to replace the current lake? Possibly expanding their range to the extent of naturally creating a year round water supply to moderate year round water flows into the Eel River watershed. We need a systemic solution that so far has escaped this discussion.

  4. Great article. Thank you. I went to Lake Pillsbury camping with my parents once per year ever since about 1968 until the late 1970’s. Loved it! I went by myself the past few years including the last weekend of August this year, 2023. The lake was half empty, just a bit higher than it was in 2022. Even though 2022 was a severe drought and 2023 extremely wet year. I was hoping it would be more full but the water was intentionally kept low this year by releases. The dam is doomed unfortunately; it’s just a matter of when and how it will get “decommissioned.” Only an approved fish ladder could theoretically allow it to remain but that is impossible to put a fish ladder that meets current “standards.” People who live in the area are quite upset, rallying to save it. Like the fellow who owns the Soda Creek Store. I have such great memories. Like in the early years the logging trucks were running. The truckers would stop for breakfast at the Soda Creek Store, had a counter for food service. Truckers would leave the trucks out front idling. I asked my dad why they left them running; was told it’s easier for the diesels, keeps the engine warmed up. So they idled the whole time the truckers were inside eating breakfast. We also walked up and fished just below the dam where the big water spout is, if you know what I’m referring to. Cool mist all about that area.

    • Cool story, I also have many memories from Lake Pillsbury though not as far back but in the 80’s.
      I’ve always appreciated hearing how things were before my time. I personally would hate to see the lake dry up.

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

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