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The roar of water cascading over a 109-year-old concrete dam on the Eel River in Mendocino County was music to Janet Pauli.

“It should be a welcome sound for everybody on the North Coast,” said the longtime Potter Valley rancher, watching the river run down a remote canyon in the Coast Range, bound for the Pacific Ocean far away near Eureka.

Twelve miles the other way, the gates atop another dam had closed a week ago, and the Lake Pillsbury reservoir was filling fast with runoff from early spring rains, offering strong hope of a normal season after four years of drought for the multitude of people who depend on the Eel River for necessities and revelries, including water, wine grapes and stalking wild steelhead trout.

That group includes the 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties who get their drinking water from the Sonoma County Water Agency, ranchers and residents on the upper Russian River, and people along the Eel River as it courses nearly 200 miles through Mendocino and Humboldt counties, passing through nearly untouched wilderness, giant redwood forests, small towns, popular parks and attractions like the Benbow Inn near Garberville before it flattens in the coastal plain approaching the coast.

Most have no idea how these two dams and a mile-long tunnel through a mountain move about 20 billion gallons of water a year from the Eel River into the Russian River, crossing a geographically narrow but politically wide gap and inciting the North Coast’s version of California’s age-old water wars.

“It’s our chapter of western water (conflict),” said David Keller of Petaluma, a leader of the group that has tried for more than two decades to halt the diversion of Eel River water that has gone on for nearly a century. The dams, diversion tunnel and a powerhouse are known as the Potter Valley Project, operated by PG&E.

Diversion opponents in the sprawling Eel River watershed, an area twice the size of Sonoma County, consider it theft. In Humboldt County, the river disappeared in stretches last summer, and throughout the region salmon and steelhead face the prospect of extinction as backcountry marijuana crops suck small streams dry.

Sonoma County water managers say the imported Eel River water plays a crucial role in protecting fish in the Russian River and providing water to communities from Ukiah to Healdsburg. “It’s all one system. It all has to work together,” said Pam Jeane, the Water Agency’s assistant general manager.

Pauli, 65, who in addition to ranching also serves as a board member on the Potter Valley Irrigation District, said the water transfer has transformed the 7,000-acre valley into an agricultural powerhouse that produces $15 million worth of grapes and pears a year. Distributed through canals to 390 ranches, the water keeps the valley green as the surrounding hills turn gold, an Eden visible from airlines passing 36,000 feet overhead.

“A whole economy, a whole way of life evolved over this water,” Pauli said.

Last year, when drought conditions dropped Lake Pillsbury to its second lowest level in history, emergency rules slashed releases from the reservoir, curbing flows on the Eel and Russian rivers and cutting the productivity of Potter Valley vineyards, orchards and pastures.

This summer another sound will emerge, the buzz of a renewed dispute over the Potter Valley water transfer as one of the key rules for managing Russian River comes up for reconsideration.

Wild and scenic river

The Eel River, which begins from snowmelt and rain on the flank of 6,740-foot Bald Mountain in the Mendocino National Forest, snakes for nearly 200 miles through the Coast Range and some of Northern California’s wildest landscape. The river’s main stem, along with four major tributaries, drains an area of 3,684 square miles, the third largest watershed entirely in California, behind the Sacramento-San Joaquin and Salinas rivers. Most of the drainage is within Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

It is a realm of many facets, with old growth redwood forests, a history of clear-cut logging and devastating floods, the lure of whitewater rapids, great swimming holes, world-class steelhead fishing and, most recently, an unchecked proliferation of marijuana gardens and greenhouses in the heart of California’s Emerald Triangle.

A federally designated wild and scenic river, the Eel system is dammed in just two places: at Lake Pillsbury in Lake County, a recreational reservoir behind Scott Dam, and at the far smaller Cape Horn Dam, 12 miles downstream, which retains water that flows into the Potter Valley diversion tunnel.

The river’s name is a misnomer, based on an 1850 exploration party’s mistaking the prolific Pacific lampreys for eels, as both have smooth snake-like bodies but are entirely unrelated.

But the star attraction of the Eel system is the steelhead, a colorful, ocean-going trout that draws anglers to the main Eel’s lower reach and the river’s south fork, which runs about 100 miles alongside Highway 101, the two most accessible stretches of the river system which mostly runs far away from roads and towns.

“These fish are special; these are the last of the true wild fish,” said Kenny Priest, a Eureka-based fishing guide.

The Eel is the only large river system in California without hatchery-raised steelhead, and Sonoma County anglers like Ryan Henderson, a Petaluma attorney, gladly drive three to four hours to pursue the wild ones.

“Pound for pound they are one of the hardest fighting fish you’re going to find,” he said. Hooked steelhead are noted for their acrobatic leaps and big ones can put up a 20-minute fight, he said. Like any good angler, Henderson, who’s been fishing the Eel for 15 years, declined to say exactly where he goes in search of the steelhead, which are all catch-and-release on barbless hooks by law.

Kay Eichert of Paso Robles, a veteran Sierra trout angler, took her first shot at steelhead on the Main Eel near Rio Dell in January 2015. On a boat with Priest and her daughter-in-law, Eichert landed a 16-pounder, winning $500 worth of fishing gear in a contest.

“Just talking about it, my heart starts palpitating,” she said.

Prime time for catching the winter-run steelhead is January through March, Priest said. Fishing was great in the low, clear water during the recent drought years, while the 2016 season was largely a bust due to bad weather and high, muddy water. “We hope the fish came in, spawned and got out before we had a chance to catch them,” he said.

Jerry Albright, a kayaker and former rafting guide, was captivated by the main stem of the Eel on his first run from Hearst to Outlet Creek in Mendocino County in the 1980s. “I just kept coming back,” he said. He ultimately settled into retirement at home in Hearst with 100 feet of riverfront on the back of his property.

“We can look out the window and see river otters, ducks and deer,” he said.

Albright also can launch his kayak any day he wants, and in 2008 he and a friend paddled from the base of Scott Dam to the ocean in seven days. “Something we always wanted to do,” he said. In March, he paddled with two other kayakers down the Eel River Canyon to Alderpoint in Humboldt County, never seeing another person.

“The isolation,” he said, “it’s invigorating.”

John Pinches, a former Mendocino County supervisor, raises cattle and sheep on a 1,000-acre ranch on the main Eel in the northeast corner of the county, a nearly two-hour drive from Highway 101. “As far as you can get without coming out the other side,” he joked.

Only two public roads — at Dos Rios and Alderpoint — reach the canyon, bracketing a 46-mile stretch of river that passes Pinches’ land overlooking the confluence between the main Eel and its isolated north fork, which flows mostly in Trinity County. For boaters, the canyon offers sandy beaches for camping, a few Class III rapids and, if they’re lucky, a glimpse of a mountain lion high above the river. An abandoned railroad mutely follows the river.

Pinches loves the wild, hilly land “just the way it was 100 years ago,” he said. “The oak trees have gotten older — and so have the ranchers.”

Fishery in decline

As much as people enjoy the Eel River, the fish are reeling from a history of heavy human activity dating back to the arrival of settlers in the 1850s. Steelhead, coho salmon and chinook salmon, all threatened species in the watershed, are “on a trajectory towards extinction in the Eel River basin,” wrote UC Davis biologist Peter Moyle, who has studied California freshwater fish for more than 40 years. Only the winter-run steelhead is abundant enough the “persist beyond the next 50 years,” he said.

The Eel River’s historic fish population, more than 1 million fish in good years, now averages about 2,000 steelhead, 1,000 Chinook and 500 coho salmon, representing a greater than 99 percent decline in numbers, Moyle said. The estimates, he acknowledged, are the best that can be drawn from what he described as “skimpy information.”

Commercial fishing on the Eel began immediately, with canneries at the river’s mouth eventually producing 15,000 cases of canned salmon in the 1880s, representing a peak catch of nearly 600,000 fish a year. Cannery records suggest that historic chinook runs ranged as high as 800,000 fish per year, declining to a 50,000 to 100,000 range in the first half of the 20th century, Moyle said. The canneries were closed in 1912 and commercial salmon fishing in the Eel was banned in 1926.

Logging also began in the 1800s, as accessible groves of large trees were cut and often transported down streambeds to mills or railroads. After World War II, mechanized and largely unregulated logging swept through the watershed, clear-cutting trees and carving roads into steep hillsides, setting the stage for massive erosion during the floods of 1955 and 1964. Heavy rains and flooding, exacerbated by the denuded terrain, deposited massive amounts of sediment in the riverbed, filling in deep pools that had sustained fish.

The results were catastrophic for fish, according to Moyle.

An additional blow was the accidental introduction of Sacramento River pikeminnow around 1980, a voracious salmon predator that quickly spread throughout the watershed, he said.

The Eel system’s decline went largely ignored for decades, likely due to its relatively isolated location, the lack of any urban centers in the basin and the rapid loss of fish resources, a “state of affairs entirely due to human actions,” Moyle said.

A growing threat

State and federal agencies are now collaborating on efforts to restore the fisheries, just as marijuana cultivation is emerging as an alarming and largely uncontrolled threat to the fish and other wildlife.

Using aerial photographs taken in 2012, California Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists estimated a total of nearly 90,000 marijuana plants in gardens and greenhouses located throughout three tributary watersheds in the Eel River. Applying a midrange estimate that each plant consumes six gallons of water per day, their study – published in the journal PLOS One last year – said the pot plants soaked up 535,409 gallons per day.

The demand could exceed the entire low-flow volume of water in three Eel River streams — Salmon Creek, Redwood Creek South and Outlet Creek — and strand and kill an untold number of salmon and steelhead, the report found.

Scott Bauer, lead author of the report and a Fish and Wildlife senior environmental scientist, said Outlet Creek watershed, where nearly 32,000 plants were tallied “has been going dry for a number of years.”

Bauer also said the report was already outdated. From 2009 to 2012, grow sites nearly doubled in every watershed the team studied. “Every time we go up in a plane we see new sites,” he said.

All the sites documented were on private land, he said, as opposed to the so-called “trespass grows” on public property. Whether the cultivation was legal under California’s medical marijuana law or not is irrelevant in assessing the impact on waterways.

North Coast streams have been shrinking for decades, Bauer said, a trend that could be related to climate change or to the demand from dense, young forests growing back on clear-cut logging lands. Pot production is also polluting streams with pesticides, herbicides and sediment, the latter a result of clearing trees and building illegal roads to remote grow sites, state officials say.

In all, it makes the restoration of salmon and steelhead a daunting proposition. “How are fish going to make it?” Bauer said. “That’s a big question.”

Engineered system

Depending on where you stand over use of Eel River water, the Potter Valley Project is either a critical piece of the Russian River water system or a bane to the Eel and its fish. Two factions – Friends of the Eel River and their environmental allies on the one side, and the Potter Valley Irrigation District, PG&E and the Sonoma County Water Agency on the other – agree on very little.

The amount of water drawn off the Eel varies with the seasons, and is typically about 70,000 acre feet a year. Pauli and PG&E said that amounts to a mere 1.8 percent of the river’s total flow into the ocean. An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to fill a football field with one foot of water.

Keller, a former Petaluma city councilman, said that timing is what matters. In the critical period from early summer to the start of winter rains, the diversion takes 75 to 90 percent of the flows released from Lake Pillsbury, which he called “terrible for fish and river conditions on the Eel River side of the diversion.”

At the bottom of the tunnel, water runs through a PG&E powerhouse which generates 9 megawatts of electricity — equal to about 1 percent of output from The Geysers geothermal field straddling Sonoma and Lake counties, and enough to power more than 4,000 homes.

When the water spills into Potter Valley, the irrigation district gets about 12,250 acre feet a year to distribute to ranchers. The rest goes into the east branch of the Russian River, which flows into Lake Mendocino, a reservoir near Ukiah.

Lake Mendocino releases water into the Russian River, completing the transfer of water from one river to another.

The Sonoma County Water Agency relies on Lake Mendocino to supply water to people and ranches from Ukiah to Healdsburg and to help maintain mandated summertime stream flows all the way down the Russian River. At Healdsburg, water flows into the river from Lake Sonoma, the agency’s Fort Knox with a two- to three-year supply when full, as it is now.

The problem, Jeane said, only partly joking, is that Lake Sonoma is “just in the wrong spot.” Were it located at Ukiah, the Russian River system would likely be self-sufficient, she said. But as matters stand, the relatively small Lake Mendocino depends on summertime infusions from even smaller Lake Pillsbury, meaning the tail tends to wag the dog in the region’s water system.

When Lake Pillsbury was perilously low last year, streamflow requirements on the Russian River were cut to the lowest allowed level, and Potter Valley ranchers took a financial hit from reduced irrigation, Pauli said.

But the Potter Valley Project was not a so-called water grab, akin to Los Angeles’ notorious channelling of Owens Valley water.

Ukiah, in the early 1900s, turned to San Francisco industrialist W.W. Van Arsdale for an alternative to its coal-fired power plant. Van Arsdale discovered a point in Potter Valley where a narrow ridge separated the upper Eel from the headwaters of the Russian River, about 450 feet lower in elevation. In an era before agencies and environmental regulations, he drilled a mile-long tunnel and the water and power began flowing in 1908.

In 1922, Scott Dam was added to the project to provide a summertime water supply, and the Potter Valley Irrigation District started up two years later.

Rekindled dispute

Friends of the Eel River would like to see much of that engineered system gone, including removal of both dams, thereby ending the diversion and opening spawning grounds in the Eel River headwaters that are now inaccessible to fish.

That improbable scenario could imperil a swath of farmland in southern Mendocino and northern Sonoma counties, cutting off a key water supply. Keller said those growers have long relied on an unnatural system to support their crops, including mostly wine grapes.

“Our job is to show that the Russian River can and must be sustainable on its own watershed,” Keller said. “If you have overbuilt or overplanted – too bad.”

The dispute will be aired this summer when the Sonoma County Water Agency releases an environmental report on proposed changes to a decision by state water regulators who 30 years ago established the minimum streamflow requirements on the Russian River. The water agency intends to hold workshops and public hearings on the report.

For Potter Valley ranchers in particular, an end to Eel River diversion would set them back a century, eliminating the supply they need especially to grow grapes, their most lucrative crop.

Marginal irrigation last year because of the drought meant those ranchers needed to fallow some of their pastures and purchase hay for their livestock. Vines and orchards were kept alive, but harvests were diminished.

Pauli said the combined economic impact of those extra expenses and losses has yet to be calculated. She stressed that Eel River needed to be shared.

“We have to be wise enough to use it properly,” she said.

She also said she believes that a balance can be struck in the tug of war over water use in the two regions.

“I’m convinced we can do it,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.