Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The Loss of Lake Pillsbury, a Potential Collapse of Scott Dam—The Latest from the Russian River Water Forum

Scott Dam, part of the Potter Valley Project [Picture via California Trout taken by Mike Wier]

At the most recent meeting of the Russian River Water Forum Planning Group, members discussed PG&E’s “non-binding acceptance in concept” of the Proposal to take over the Potter Valley Project diversion facilities, the importance of Lake Pillsbury, and the seismic vulnerability of Scott Dam and downstream communities.

On October 5 the Russian River Water Forum Planning Group met in Ukiah, facilitated by Ben Gettleman and Jim Downing of Kearns & West. For those who want to catch up on the prior meetings and the Eel River/Russian River issues (see links at the end of this article).

Janet Pauli, Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, informed the group that PG&E has responded to the New Eel-Russian Facility Proposal submitted at the end of July by the Proponant team of MCIWPC, Sonoma Water, and the Round Valley Indian Tribes. PG&E provided a statement including a “non-binding acceptance in concept” of the proposal. The proposal includes two alternatives to the existing Cape Horn Dam. PG&E will include the proposal in its initial surrender and draft decommissioning plan to be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on November 15, 2023. The draft plan will also include PG&E’s proposal to remove Cape Horn Dam and will be posted for public review and comment. 

Pauli said, “We were pleased that PG&E thought enough of our proposal to accept it, non-binding acceptance . . . This is a huge step forward.” The proposal will have to receive support from the National Marine Fisheries Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife and from representative governmental and non-governmental entities from the Russian and Eel River basins. There were questions on which of the government agencies and NGOs were to be included on the approval list. The Proponents will be putting together that list by talking with Planning Group members and the caucuses. Pauli said, “Because PG&E accepted, it’s the beginning of the next phase of the story.”

Issues to be resolved include financing for the project, design studies for the diversion alternatives, and water rights. Grant Davis of Sonoma Water said, “There have only been preliminary meetings with PG&E,” and that water rights are “one of the more exciting parts of the discussion.” A presentation from the Water Rights Working Group is scheduled for the November Planning Group meeting.

Carol Cinquini and Frank Lynch of the Lake Pillsbury Alliance presented their case for saving the lake. They believe dam removal will harm people and ecosystems of the Eel and Russian Rivers. Lake Pillsbury is the recreational gem of the Mendocino National Forest. The lake basin is teeming with wildlife.

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Lynch said that Lake Pillsbury provides immediate access to water for fire responders. Lake Mendocino is 20 minutes away by air for the planes to fill up. If Lake Pillsbury is lost, it could affect domestic wells, as the groundwater is recharged by the lake storage water. There is a huge amount of uncertainty for the community. They would like to see a cost-benefit analysis of dam removal versus dam rehabilitation. Advocates for dam removal point to the successful removal of dams and restoration of habitat on the Klamath River. Lynch said that the Eel and Klamath are not comparable, as the Klamath has year-round flow, while the Eel does not. 

Cinquini said, “In the worst-case scenario, we want to be made whole again. We will aggressively pursue mitigation and compensation for adverse impacts to Lake Pillsbury property owners, homeowners, and businesses. We will continue to work with Lake County and other agencies on mitigation planning where our interests align, and we will actively engage in the FERC decommissioning process.”

Lake County Supervisors Eddie EJ Crandall and Bruno Sabatier showed a video and spoke on the regional benefits of Lake Pillsbury, which they say stores water to support agriculture worth $743 million per year, and supplies drinking water from the Potter Valley Project to 600,000 people downstream in inland Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin Counties. They estimate it could cost as much as $1 billion to remodel the Potter Valley project and restore the habitat of the upper Eel River.

Crandall said that mitigation must be implemented. He wants to establish a fire protection measure, establish water rights, and water storage. If the dam is removed, the restoration of vegetation needs to be done correctly, along with building roads and safety measures. The sediment load built up behind the dam needs to be addressed. Climate change and drought mean water storage is more vital than ever. 

Sabatier said “The fire season is longer by 75 days. . . .It’s very real what we’re experiencing, let’s not fight about what we’re experiencing.” Speaking of water storage, “Right now we have a known quantity. We’re choosing to throw that away and move forward as if it’s a foregone conclusion rather than continuing to have the conversation.”

In the video, Lake County’s Tax Collector, Patrick Sullivan, said “We need a solution that demonstrates concern for Lake County. There is a potential loss of over $40 million in property values, with resulting property taxes, sales tax, occupancy tax, and other entities paying taxes. . . . PG&E should be responsible for the costs, but there is already an effort to evade responsibility.” Comprehensive restoration costs could exceed the costs of dam removal. Adding fish passage might have been more cost-effective. Lake County will face a loss of revenue, an increased burden on a rural county already strained. 

Crandall is seriously concerned about fire danger after talking to fire-fighting hotshots who said they need Lake Pillsbury as a water source during fires. The fire retardant that’s dropped from planes has been the subject of lawsuits, and if CalFire is prohibited from using the fire retardant, then the lake water becomes critical.

Sabatier said there are only two tule elk herds in national forests in California, one of which is the thriving herd at Lake Pillsbury. Without the lake, destination tourism will be lost. 

Crandall wants to know if PG&E is going to restore the habitat. The state has billions to build new water storage. Why remove existing water storage?

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Sabatier said “Lake County is here to plead” for more studies before moving forward. Lake Pillsbury is in Lake County, yet the RRWF is issuing press releases, and making plans without consulting Lake County.

Guinness McFadden, MCIWPC, said “Lake County may be pretty poor financially, but they’ve got a couple of Supervisors who can really speak. I appreciate you guys.” McFadden said PG&E admitted their studies are incomplete. “The dearth of the fish can’t be blamed on Lake Pillsbury. These people have a religious fervor, only a small percentage of the Eel River water is diverted. If you watch the video A River’s Last Chance, it goes through multiple reasons why the salmon counts are down.”

Sabatier said, “We all know the power of PG&E. . . . Currently, PG&E is requesting a rate increase while they plan to do the least possible.” Lake County forgave PG&E $20 million in fines after the fires. The utility uses lawyers to its advantage, for example, the transfer assets to a new entity called Pacific Generation. Sabatier added, “This is something we have to keep an eye on so they can’t sneak away without liability.”

Vivian Halliwell, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, thanked the Lake County group for their presentation and said they raised some issues she wasn’t aware of. But she cautioned that PG&E is right to be concerned about the seismic issues at Scott Dam, as the utility will be responsible if something happens. PG&E wants to get out from under the cost of seismic retrofit on a money-losing project. In reference to the economic concerns, Halliwell said, “It’s pretty bad for everybody. . . . We’ve had fishing closed in the ocean off of the Eel River for about 35 years now, for commercial and very limited sport. That was a really valuable fishery for numerous ports up and down the Coast, including Ft. Bragg in Mendocino County, where I used to fish out of years ago.” 

Halliwell’s colleague, Andy Colonna, questioned why PG&E is not sitting at the table with the Planning Group. With regard to the seismic concerns about Scott Dam, Colonna said “If you look under the Bartlett Fault, it’s underneath that dam, it’s a really big fault. And USGS, not even PG&E, the USGS, has claimed it’s a mega-thrust fault, so it will multiply the effects. So a 6 point whatever will be like a 9 in its impact. I live on the lower end of the Eel. If the feces hits the fan up there, that 65-foot wave of water is realistically going to come right down, all the way into just below Eureka. We’re already sitting on the San Andreas that comes out of Cape Mendocino. . . . So I would love to see the thing stay as it is, but it really isn’t safe. . . . Now you guys are attached to that lake, and I can understand why. I’m also attached to the lower Eel, and you can understand why. I think we’re all going through separation anxiety. . . . “ 

Charlie Schneider, of CalTrout, suggested looking at upstream storage. The Lake Pillsbury area has several opportunities that can be developed into upstream storage that will help recharge the river and groundwater.

Glenn Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the proposal calls for NMFS to require minimum restoration of instream flows. Minimum restoration is not enough. We want and need optimum flows there. How are the Russian River interests going to pay for the Eel River water in a continued diversion? “If there’s going to be a viable agreement to continue a diversion, there has to be a payment that goes into Eel River restoration.” Spain urged the Lake County Supervisors to get in touch with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation to see its successful models for restoring recreational and economic opportunities and for fire suppression. Spain said, “Don’t go into this without a plan.”

Crandall, replied that as a member of the Robinson Rancheria Tribe, he can empathize with Eel River interests need to be made whole, but “We would think the headwaters would be as important as the rest of the Eel River.” He thanked the group for listening to each other with respect and concluded, “PG&E just basically threw the piece of meat on the ground and are expecting everyone to fight over it.”

The next Planning Group meeting is November 2, 2023.

Here is a link to the recording of the October 5 Planning Group meeting.

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Side Note regarding Congressman Mike Thompson’s efforts: Thompson wrote to the US Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, asking both agencies if they have statistics on how Lake Pillsbury is used in fire-fighting, and whether they have contingency plans in place should Scott Dam be decommissioned. USFS replied that they consistently use Lake Pillsbury and water downstream to fight fires, as does CalFire. CalFire replied that it does use Lake Pillsbury, but more often uses Clear Lake to fight fires. CalFire noted that the land around Lake Pillsbury is mostly the responsibility of the USFS and that removing Lake Pillsbury should not adversely impact CalFire’s ability to fight fires in the region. Thompson forwarded his letters and responses to FERC, where they can be found on the FERC E-Library.

Brief report on the Russian River Resiliency Subcommittee kick-off meeting on September 26, 2023: The purpose of this subcommittee is to “develop sustainable project concepts (beyond the PVP) that will improve insight on water availability, address water supply reliability, and reduce demand, with the aim of improving water supply reliability in the Russian River watershed under drought and climate change conditions.” The three co-chairs of the Resiliency Subcommittee are Jaime Neary, Russian Riverkeeper, Jay Jasperse, Sonoma Water, and Adam Gaska, Redwood Valley County Water District. Kearns and West has generated a Matrix of existing water saving projects, as a collaboration hub for the region, and to prevent duplication of effort. The subcommittee will work with the Russian River Confluence on finding grants for water conservation projects and encouraging citizen participation with community outreach activities, modeled on the Keep Tahoe Blue organization. Here is a link to the slides and a recording of the July 26 meeting.

Check out our prior coverage of the Russian River Water Forum:

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  1. No love for pg and e here, but I think this is the wake up call example of white people finally becoming affected by their own sprawl. I am surprised these property owners are surprised. This is a disaster for them yes AND they should be compensated yes.
    But it’s just as was stated in this article; that the Eel dries up in summer naturally. So did the Russian. By keeping these rivers flowing unnaturally throw the dry season, we prevent an exhalation of sorts. The river is holding its breath, suffocating. Pauli and McFadden are rich white land holders. Potter Valley is DRY. Any historical book or reference will tell you that.
    If that diversion is so minuscule as McFadden implies, than what’s the big deal? Give it back to the Eel? But you see, it affects these rich land owner’s bottom dollar so they fight. Potter Valley paradise bubble is bursting.
    Lolsel forever

    • I agree. Lake County should just count itself lucky that the damn exists/(ed) inside its county. PG&E customer dollars subsidizing Lake County property values and rich legacy land owners is not the priority for PG&E. PG&E has to supply safe power to Californians across the state. These communities should really build more urbanized going forward. Use less space, less resources, less water. Maybe change the economy and diversify it to be more than just Ag, black market cannabis, tourism, and a haven for wealthy white flight expats.

  2. The fire stuff is interesting. Lake Pillsbury is not within CalFire’s State Mandated Area of responsibility so yes, CalFire can still meet its regional obligations. However, when CalFire is called upon by the US Forest Service to help fight a wildfire in the Mendocino National Forest, the loss of Lake Pillsbury for aerial and ground attacks will be felt immensely. The nearest large body of water will be Lake Mendocino, 18 air miles away.

    Talk about irony: Divert water from the Eel to the Russian River to fill Lake Mendocino and then become dependent upon Lake Mendocino water to fight fires in the dewatered Lake Pillsbury basin. And what happens when Mendocino drys up in multiple year droughts.

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

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