Wild and harnessed, Eel River a vital, troubled North Coast watershed
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.