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Fishery groups plan to sue PG&E over Potter Valley plant and related Scott, Cape Horn dams

A coalition of fishery groups has formally notified PG&E that it plans to file suit under the Endangered Species Act, alleging the continued injury to once abundant federally protected salmon and steelhead trout as a result of operations at the utility’s aging Potter Valley powerhouse.

The legal maneuver is part of an effort to expedite removal of Scott and Cape Horn dams, which pose a threat to vulnerable fish species in the Eel River and block access to hundreds of miles of prime habitat upstream.

The plaintiffs contend that last Thursday’s expiration of PG&E’s license for the project means the utility is no longer protected from liability and must be found in violation of the Endangered Species Act — a point the utility disputes.

A formal notice filed Friday by the coalition gives PG&E 60 days to remedy the situation or face litigation. It also echoes comments about project inadequacies made in a March 16 letter from the National Marine Fisheries Service to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in advance of the expiration of the utility’s license.

“Last week was very significant in the long history of this project, which has been a burden for the Eel River for over 100 years,” Brian Johnson, California director for Trout Unlimited, said Monday during a virtual news conference announcing the legal action.

Forthcoming decommissioning of the power plant should include plans to address the health of the fish and the future of the dams with what the plaintiffs see as “a very strong sense or urgency,” Johnson said.

In addition to Trout Unlimited, the plaintiff coalition includes Friends of the Eel River, CalTrout, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources — most of them are longtime critics of the power project’s impositions on the Eel River, from which water is diverted to be used to generate electrical power. .

NOIPG&E.pdf

PG&E said in a statement that the coalition’s claims are “without merit,” however.

The company said the terms of its long-term contract, including Endangered Species Act provisions, remain in effect under one-year contracts that automatically renew until the project is re-licensed or formally surrendered by the federal commission.

The project, which began operation in 1908, uses water diverted from the Eel River, which is then transported through a tunnel more than a mile long to drive the hydropower turbines. It then empties the water into the East Fork of the Russian River, allowing Potter Valley ranchers to irrigate crops and pastures, and contributing to supplies in Lake Mendocino.

The operation includes Scott Dam, a 130-foot-tall structure that impounds Lake Pillsbury in Lake County and ensures year-round water supply for that part of the Eel River. It locks away more than 280 miles of high-quality spawning and nursery habitat in the upper reaches of the Eel River, advocates say.

Meanwhile, Cape Horn Dam, which creates Van Arsdale Reservoir, a smaller storage area at the top of the diversion tunnel, is about 12 miles downstream. It includes a fishway intended to allow upstream passage.

Potter Valley Powerhouse, map
Potter Valley Powerhouse, map

But for a variety of reasons, it instead puts the fish at risk of being eaten by river otters that position themselves at the lower stages of the fish ladder, according to critics. It also is frequently clogged by sediments or debris, especially at high flows, which most often occurs during winter, when peak migrations are likely underway, they say.

“What’s obvious to us is the current fish ladder operation is fundamentally broken,” Redgie Collins, CalTrout’s legal and policy director, said at the news conference.

The facilities additionally contribute to warm water temperatures below Scott Dam, along with interaction and predation between juvenile steelhead trout and invasive Sacramento pikeminnow, as well as changes in timing and volume of river flows for fish already struggling to adapt to climate change.

The dams and the diversions that are part of the Potter Valley plant have long been a sore spot for Eel River interests, given the decline of two key fisheries.

A spokesman for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations said the Eel was once the third largest salmon-producing river in the state, with 800,000 returning adult Chinook at its peak, according to a 2010 U.C. Davis study. Fewer than 1% of that historic number are now believed to return to the river to reproduce.

Substantial declines also have been observed in steelhead populations.

“The Eel is perhaps our last and best chance” to save these wild, native fish, Friends of the Eel River Executive Director Alicia Hamann said Monday.

After PG&E announced in January 2019 that it was not going to renew its license for Potter Valley, advocates for removal of the dams saw hope in the Two-Basin Solution Partnership, a consortium of regional interests that sought to remove Scott Dam and allow fish to access the upstream habitat while preserving Eel River diversions for Russian River water users.

It included the Sonoma County Water Agency, the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, CalTrout and Humboldt County Public Works.

But the group announced earlier this year it was unable to meet the timeline established by federal regulators for completion of studies necessary to complete its project license application, due last week, putting future Eel River diversions in question.

PG&E, which has not been running the power plant since last year because of damaged equipment, has announced it plans to make repairs that will allow generation during the years it takes to surrender its license and decommission the plant.

But no one else stepped forward within the federal timeline to take over the license besides the Two-Basin group.

Hamann said Russian River water users, who include many in Mendocino County and most of Sonoma County, need to decide how much they want that water and what kind of planning and infrastructure they’re prepared to fund going forward.

“There’s still opportunity for an ecologically appropriate diversion, and by that I mean one that operates without a dam and runs during the wet season, there’s water to spare,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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