Friday, December 1, 2023

PG&E Unveils Surrender Plan for Potter Valley Project Sparking Debate on Water Diversion, Dam Removal, and Environmental Impact

Cape Horn Dam [Photo by Sarah Reith]

PG&E released an initial plan to surrender the Potter Valley Project on Friday morning. There weren’t a lot of surprises in the 94-page document, which did include a proposal to continue diverting water from the Eel River into the Russian River. In August, a group of Russian River water users and the Round Valley Indian Tribes asked PG&E to consider presenting the plan to FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC will rule on the final decommissioning strategy after it’s submitted in 2025. The draft documents that were released Friday did not go to FERC, but are available for public review and comment until December 22. PG&E will submit the next draft to FERC in May of next year.

That gives the proponents of the continued diversion plan a tight timeline to round out their proposal. Without Cape Horn Dam, which impounds the van Arsdale Reservoir in Potter Valley, water could only be diverted during the rainy season. The two alternatives in the proposal are a 700-800 foot channel built of boulders, or a mechanical pumping method. There is still much to be learned about which approach would best serve the dual purposes of fish passage and water supply, how much they would cost, and how much water can legally be diverted. PG&E has three water rights for diversions at the project and two pre-1914 water rights, including one to directly divert 340 cubic feet per second from the Eel River.

The proponents of continuing some form of diversion will have to form a regional entity “with the legal and financial capacity to be responsible for ownership, construction and operation of the facility,” by the end of next month. 

The original proponents, which are Sonoma Water, the Inland Mendocino County Water and Power Commission, and the Round Valley Indian Tribes, have been joined by California Fish and Wildlife, Humboldt County, and the conservation organizations California Trout and Trout Unlimited. Brian Johnson, the California Director for Trout Unlimited, noted that the proposal includes a commitment from all parties that the new diversion will not delay dam removal. In a statement, he said, “It represents a viable framework for a two-basin solution and we are committed to working with our partners to develop it further.” Congressman Jared Huffman weighed in with his support, saying that, “PG&E’s draft surrender application is a major step forward to achieving the Two-Basin Solution I’ve advocated for years…I’ll be working to ensure that both elements are completed in a way that best protects communities, tribes, and natural resources in the Eel and Russian river watersheds.”

But a joint statement from Friends of the Eel River and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations was skeptical, saying that, “Sonoma’s plan leaves some of the most difficult questions unanswered, such as who will pay how much for diverted Eel River water.” 

Janet Pauli, chair of the Inland Mendocino County Water and Power Commission, one of the original proponents of the diversion, says the money will come from water sales and, she hopes, state and federal grants. “Owning, operating and funding the maintenance and actual functioning of the diversion works is going to be what, regionally, people that are dependent on this water supply are going to need to fund on an ongoing basis. We have yet to understand what kinds of costs we may incur.”

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She added that consultants are studying water storage options for the new seasonal diversion, including, “potential storage sites for a lake or reservoir in the north ended of Potter Valley, (and) analyzing our groundwater storage potential, and we’ve been talking about this for a very long time, the potential to raise Coyote Valley Dam (which impounds Lake Mendocino) and increase storage.”

Pauli said she is “really pleased” that PG&E included the group’s proposal in its initial draft, though she freely acknowledged that a tremendous amount of work remains to be done, if proponents of the diversion want their plan to be considered by regulators.

Alicia Hamann, Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River, is also in an optimistic mood, if for a different reason. “Things are looking really, really hopeful for the Eel River right now,” she said. “Some people worked for their entire careers to get the Klamath Dams removed.And it’s going to happen so fast on the Eel, it will feel like the blink of an eye, compared to the Klamath.” She also feels like the initial draft “is kind of a win. FERC generally tends to do what utility companies ask for…I do think that this is a win for the Eel River, and it’s a potential win for the Russian RIver, too. We just need to see that water users can get their plan together in the short amount of time that we have” before the next draft, which is due in May.

The draft surrender plan also features a third option, which is capping or filling key components of the infrastructure that makes the diversion possible. That includes tunnels, shafts, penstocks and vents. If one of the alternatives in the proponents’ proposal is not implemented, the other equipment around the diversion will be removed, along with both dams.

One sticking point that hasn’t yet become a focus is what to do about the estimated 15 feet of sediment that’s accumulated in Lake Pillsbury. PG&E’s draft plan says that Scott Dam, which impounds the lake, will be removed before Cape Horn Dam . That process will take either two years, for a rapid removal, or three years, for a phased approach. 

Approximately 12 million cubic yards of sediment will be flushed down the river, either in one fell swoop, or in increments, during the rainy season. More sediment will be scooped out of the lake and “placed on adjacent PG&E land for future disposal.” Those methods are not outlined in the draft plan.

The deadline to submit comments on the Initial Draft Surrender Application is December 22, 2023. Electronic submittal of comments is encouraged. Please submit comments to: 

Tony Gigliotti Senior Licensing Project Manager Power Generation 12840 Bill Clark Way Auburn, CA 95602 E-mail: PVSurrender@pge.com

You can view the surrender plan under the Documents tab here. The password is PV_Surrender.

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  1. The sticking point is that sediment indeed. Generations of beautiful sediment that our fertile valleys have been deprived of since these dams were built will now be spread upon our land like a great and holy cumming. Let us rejoice and usher in a new age!

    • You have lost your mind. Releasing that sediment will ruin spawning for miles and miles and for decades. It’s called the pool and riffle effect. It is critical for spawning and sediment ruins it for generations. A better and modern fish ladder is the best option. Dynamiting these dams will destroy spawning ground for 30 to 50 years. Because of the sediment they will release downstream. Especially below Scott dam. Maybe not as bad below Van Arsdale. Rejoice all you want but it will be generations until this river system returns to Pre-1904 conditions if they go ahead with removing both these dams. Not only will the fish take generations to recover the Lake Pillsbury community will never recover. Do you realize that there is an entire community and local economy based around Lake Pillsbury that has been there for almost a century. Lake Pillsbury Ranch, Soda Creek Store, Lake Pillsbury Resort, Rice Fork Summer Homes and many more businesses and homes. Probably 800 residents around the lake during the summer. As well as a National Forest ranger station and Lake Pillsbury fire department. And a thousand deer hunters that show up every September. Plus several herds of Tule Elk that number over 500 call that lake home. It has been a center for recreation and hunting for many generations. I have been hunting and camping there since the late 70’s every year. All of the things I have listed will be gone as soon as the lake is gone. And nobody will recover financially. Ecological recovery will take a century after dam removal. The best option is for a conglomerate entity involving all stake holders to take over management of both damns. By installing a modern fish passage system or ladder only can everybody benefit. Removing the dams will destroy the river system by unleashing all that sediment downstream for generations. 12 million cubic yards. That is 400,000 full sized dump trucks. Picture that mud being flushed down the river. How long do you think that will take for the river to flush out? The answer: a century. The tribes and environmentalists will call it a win till they realize the damage that has been caused. The Klamath basin is about to experience this. Not to mention that stopping the diversion into the Russian River watershed will damage water security for over 800,000 people. From Potter Valley ranchers to Redwood Valley to Sonoma and Marin Counties to the Golden Gate Bridge. That is how far south that diverted water flows. I could go on and on. This dam removal project is insanity and PG&E is being completely negligent by abandoning the management of these structures and systems simply because it has become unprofitable. Calling Scott damn seismically unsafe is simply a copout because they can no longer make a profit off of hydroelectric generation. It has survived 119 years of earthquakes. If you have ever stood underneath it you would see how impressive a structure it is. It doesn’t impound that much water. That damn would stand for a few more centuries if let be. This environmentalist mindset drives me insane. And I consider myself an environmentalist. There is no balance any longer in California. That’s why I’m leaving. Blow the dams up. Blow up the rest of California while you’re at it. I’m heading east. You can have California on fire. You won’t miss me. May the door hit me on the way out. It’s no longer the place I grew up in. It’s a place where freedom and democracy are an illusion. Sorry for the rant but I can’t take it anymore.

      • The sediment is bad cuz we built up a dam and accumulated it. Yes releasing that will suck. Just like a blood clot. Pretty irresponsible of a bunch of white people in the past to divert water, artificially control the Russian’s flow, build communities around a “lake” and then sell it downstream with no regard for the future. I’m not even worried about the fish or tribes; I don’t think removing or keeping the dams will actually help either. I’m see rivers as veins. We can’t plug them and rewire them with out loosing a limb. And that’s where we’re at.
        Haven’t the white people heard of Lolsel? The originally dry-ass Valley we now call Potter that is now practically a wetland? Yes I feel for the innocent people who didn’t know they were living on a turtles back, but just like the whites took over Potter without giving a shit for its original inhabitants, well, perhaps we are reaping what we’ve sewn.
        You keep saying you are leaving California, for a magical country where, where, what? Where water poisons communities, where industry damages rivers for the good of consumerism? Go then and see how much California opinions are valued elsewhere.
        And as far as watering grapes downstream goes: I’m against it. Let’s grow food and drink water.

        • Yes those damn white people. They ruined everything. So what now? Tear down civilization, deport all the white people back to where they came from. Abandon all the cities and houses and towns, so they can return to the 14th century before white people ever came. What is your solution? 39.4% of California is Hispanic, 1.7% is Native American, 6.5% is African American and 16.3% is Asian American. So 36.1% of California is Anglo or “White.” This civilization we call Northern California was built on top of minority graves. You can’t erase the past in hindsight. we are stuck with what we have, the civilization we have built. With all of the terrors and regrets that come with it. All the crimes and the blood. That’s how civilizations get built. Read a history book for God sakes. Get your information from somewhere besides Facebook. Seriously open a big fat hard bound history book and start reading. One from high school will work. I have many that I have accumulated over the years. You can borrow one.

      • Bradley Beck , the release of that sediment all at once could be a disaster! We can’t predict how much would be washed down stream from say a huge winter rainstorm, which has happened before. Or how much from just “normal” winter rains. Which have been abnormal at times. Destroying reservoirs in California is not a good idea in these times we live in. Droughts have become common place and water is not as abundant as in earlier times. I’m sure efficient fish ladders could help. But it really comes down to how much water will be used by people, too many straws in the water supply will never be conducive to healthy fish populations. Fish need water as much as people but they have a limited vote…

      • And furthermore, there is evidence suggesting that sediment is what the fish “smell” out in the ocean to lead them back to their home rivers for spawning. There are rivers that experienced fish return instantly after dam removal despite the sediment release. If fish are your thing…

  2. Oh man it’s like everyone missed fourth grade science class! Mountain sediment washes down the rivers to create estuaries and lagoons. River mouths are getting fucked without sediment!

  3. God bless you all. You all have great input on this subject. The thing that breaks my heart more than anything is the loss of Lake Pillsbury. The best hunting and recreational spot within 100 miles of Ukiah. That is what I will miss. But I’m hoping to move to Tennessee or Kentucky where they have a lot of awesome lakes and no bleeding hearts. Somewhere in that neighborhood in the next few years so it’s doesn’t matter what my opinion is. I just want to spend my last years and die somewhere outside of California. I will be leaving “my California opinions” behind because I don’t think like a typical leftist Californian. I’m going to find like minded redneck people. After 5 generations here I’m gone. But not till my parents pass. I’m committed to their care here as long as they are alive. So they can live out their lives in the same houses they have lived in since 1968. It very sad to me how this place has evolved into something I don’t even recognize any longer. But I will be here more years than I hoped for. It’s hard to move after your family’s roots have been sunk deep this long. We have so much dang stuff.

  4. In the meantime I’m stuck here ranting and raving till my bloodshot eyes go cross eyed. Speaking in tongues like Cartman from South Park babbling about hippies. God dam hippies. lol Muslims and antisemitists everywhere. Pot growers that ruined Mendocino county. A defunct board of supervisors that couldn’t manage a bake sale. God just let me out of this place before they commit me to the psychiatric ward. I miss the days when ignorance was bliss but Mendo culture affected an old redneck even. In horrible ways.

    • Everyone has their own opinion of what is more important. First we need to agree what is important. The fish have been here the longest, and the animals. Do they have a say? What are we humans without salmon? If we lose the salmon than we lose a part of ourselves. If we can learn to work together then we can solve any problem. There is sooo much love and creativity in this area for humans and the earth to heal. How can we bring our wisdom together

  5. The reason salmon are going is because of severe drought & water diversion from pot grows. And sadly ocean health is a factor. Reminder that star fish, crabs, clam, oysters, and salmon are all suffering at sea. Radiation was released in Fukushima earthquake disaster. Since then..the ocean has warmed and it’s destroying sealife. Salmon are in the sea too. So it’s not because of the dams. Lived here many years. Stealhead used to spawn very well in all the local small streams below lake Mendocino dam. Before the drought. What about the other fish in Lake Pilsburys survival rates? And wildlife that need the resevoir. Can’t fish in Clearlake. So take away the only good fishing lake left around. They seem to be insane to destroy water storage after 7 years on intense severe, tree killing, drought. But money is supposed to go into a trail almost no one will walk. Makes no sense in my opinion. But I love Lake Pillsbury. It’s a beautiful lake. Camped there, grew up appreciating nature there. Hate to see the next generation missing a golden opportunity to be in such a beautiful place. So I am biased.

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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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