Fate of flows in Russian and Eel rivers rests in big fight over small hydroelectric project
Even the record rainfall that dowsed the North Coast this winter, filling reservoirs and streams, will not be enough to head off a looming clash over the water that courses down two of the region's largest rivers, the Russian and the Eel.
Together, they drain a swath of territory, including cities, forests and vineyards, that stretches from central Sonoma County to Fortuna, in Humboldt County - an area larger than Connecticut.
A key link between the two rivers, a small powerhouse more than 100 years old, is now the focal point in a fight over the water that flows down these rivers. It's a standoff with many of the main players in western water wars - farmers, environmentalists, water districts serving urban customers and fishermen. And it raises many of the same questions: Who benefits and who loses from water taken for decades from one river - at over 20 billion gallons a year - and funneled into another river?
In this case, it is the Eel River that has been tapped, its water sent down a milelong tunnel through a mountain in Mendocino County, into a PG&E powerhouse and ultimately into a fork of Russian River, which flows down through Sonoma County.
Water drawn from the Eel River sustains Lake Mendocino, the main source of drinking water for residents along the Russian River from Redwood Valley down to Healdsburg.
Turning off that supply could devastate agriculture and diminish that primary water source for thousands of people, according to interests on one side of the tug-of-war.
The vast majority of the more 600,000 North Bay residents who depend on the Russian River for drinking water are unaware of the plumbing arrangement and the controversy that has long swirled around it and two related dams on the Eel River, where once-prolific runs of salmon and steelhead trout have dwindled amid various human impacts, water diversion among them.
But for the partisans - the water managers, environmentalists, public officials, ranchers and scientists - the dilemma of parsing out this water between competing interests, between people and fish, between town and country, is revving up again over the relicensing of the PG&E powerhouse, called the Pottery Valley Project.
“It's a critical moment,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, the San Rafael Democrat whose North Coast district spans the adjacent watersheds.
While Huffman hopes to carve out a consensus, there's little common ground between environmentalists who want to stop the inter-county transfer of Eel River water, which some consider an out-and-out grab, and those who use that water to support agriculture worth hundreds of millions of dollars along the Russian River in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
“Water is wealth,” said David Keller of Petaluma, a leader of Friends of the Eel, a group that has tried for more than two decades to halt the water diversion for the sake of salmon and steelhead driven toward extinction in the damaged Eel River watershed.
Janet Pauli, a longtime Potter Valley rancher and irrigation district official, adamantly defended the way water has flowed since the early 1900s.
“An economy, a way of life, a quality of life, has evolved with the existence of that water,” she said.
“Your classic water war,” said Josh Fuller, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which will serve, in effect, as a referee in the dispute.
Fish under federal protection are in trouble in both rivers and their fate cannot be ignored, he said.
Federal review begins
The moment Huffman mentioned officially arrived Thursday, when PG&E filed documents with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for relicensing the utility-owned and operated Potter Valley Project.
It will take at least five years and most likely longer for the federal agency to make a decision, and although PG&E's 496-page filing doesn't mention it, decommissioning the project - including removal of the only two dams on the Eel River, ending the water diversion and shuttering the powerhouse - will be on the table.
“There is bound to be controversy,” Fuller said, adding that decommissioning will be part of his agency's assessment of the hydropower project's future.
But Fuller was careful not to pass judgment on decommissioning at this stage, saying his agency “must stay scientifically objective, asking and investigating the right questions.”
David Moller, a director in PG&E's power generation department, said decommissioning is “a possibility to be looked at” in any relicensing case.
“It may well be some participants have an interest in decommissioning,” he said. “Anything about relicensing is hard to predict.”