Nielsen and Bardeen: Eel River dam debate echoes nationally

When we think of river restoration, we assume that those who will be affected are people who can put their feet in the river.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

On paper, California’s Eel River is a prime candidate for restoration.

It’s a remote river that runs through rugged, lightly populated terrain in Northern California. As with many rivers in the region, a combination of logging, overfishing and dams decimated its once-plentiful salmon and steelhead runs. The introduction of a native predator, the pikeminnow, only made things worse.

But some of that could be put to rights: two aging dams in the Eel’s upper reaches are reaching the end of their life span — and one has been declared seismically unsafe. PG&E, which owns the dams, has chosen not to renew their licenses, setting the stage for removal if no new owner steps forward.

Eel River residents overwhelmingly support dam removal, the tribes are adamantly in favor, and a constellation of NGOs is pushing hard for it. If those dams come down, 150 square miles of cold-water habitat will open up to struggling populations of steelhead and salmon, offering needed refuge from the warming climate.

So why is it so hard to get done?

Part of the answer lies in the dam’s history. Part lies in the challenges of coping with a surfeit of aging infrastructure. And part lies in the complexities of who exactly constitutes the river’s community. Finding a solution has implications not just for the state but for the nation.

An engineering decision about a century ago twined together the fates of the Eel River and its southern neighbor, the Russian River, in ways that have made restoration efforts on the Eel particularly tricky today.

In the 1920s, the Eel River Power and Irrigation Company punched a hole in a mountain, creating a tunnel to siphon water from the Eel and send it down the Russian. Soon a small community in Mendocino County called Potter Valley, which had no groundwater or runoff of its own, was flourishing. With tens of thousands of acre-feet of water now flowing through the tunnel in the fall and winter, agriculture blossomed: farmers irrigated pastures for grazing cattle and growing hay. They planted pear orchards, vineyards and row crops and even established a few sheep, horse and goat farms. The dams allowed the water to flow year-round and powered its transport.

Water from the Eel River is redirected through a diversion tunnel to the Potter Valley Powerhouse and east fork of the Russian River. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat, 2017)
Water from the Eel River is redirected through a diversion tunnel to the Potter Valley Powerhouse and east fork of the Russian River. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat, 2017)

One hundred years later, the Russian River is hydrologically dependent on those flows. So are the region’s agriculture and tourism industries — not to mention its residents. Where the Eel watershed is home to some 32,000 residents, the Russian River supports 600,000 people in Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties.

And therein lies the rub: the people who live on the Eel — and on Lake Pillsbury, a Lake County reservoir that would be drained if the dams come down — are only part of the river’s constituency. The tribes are a constituency. The NGOs are a constituency. And so, now, are the 600,000 people who rely on the Russian River. If those dams come down, they lose their water, unless someone steps in to maintain the diversion.

When we think of river restoration, we assume that those who will be affected are people who can put their feet in the river. But California was built on a complex water grid that ferries water all over the state. If you live in San Diego, your drinking water has likely traveled hundreds of miles before issuing from your tap, from sources ranging from the Colorado River to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Eel is not the exception, it’s the rule: like so many other rivers in California, its water travels outside the basin, and a vast number of people benefit from that mobilized resource.

The two dams that make this possible, Cape Horn Dam and Scott Dam, are reaching the end of their life span. This adds urgency to an already fraught dynamic between all those constituencies on (and off) the Eel River.

Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center
Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center

But what some call a liability may in fact be an opportunity to tear down structures that were built long before environmental considerations were a factor. The United States has more than 90,000 dams, and many of them are in a similar state. The problem has loomed so large that in 2020, two traditionally opposed groups — hydropower developers and river conservationists — came together to figure out what to do.

They forged a groundbreaking agreement on how to assess whether a dam should be retrofitted for hydropower, rehabilitated for continued use or removed for conservation. (The agreement came out of the Uncommon Dialogue, led by Dan Reicher and hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.) The agreement, sometimes referred to as “improve or remove,” helped focus the task. And in 2021, key ideas from the agreement became part of the federal infrastructure bill. There’s now funding for this necessary work.

Still, taking down the dams would leave many communities literally high and dry. Many argue that the Eel needs a two-basin solution that meets the needs of all communities in the Russian and Eel River basins. Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, formed the Two Basin Partnership in 2018 to try and hammer out solutions that would be at least palatable. (Its successor, the Russian River Water Forum, formed in early 2023.) It’s been an uphill battle. Yet though what happens on the Eel may seem like a local problem, how the communities handle it will have national implications.

Cameron Nielsen is a Public Policy Institute of California CalTrout Ecosystem Fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center. Sarah Bardeen is communications manager at the PPIC Water Policy Center.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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