PD Editorial: Another chance for North Coast river deal
North Coast residents don’t have a direct stake in Colorado River allocations.
But there are unmistakable parallels between the over-tapped Colorado River and the parched future in parts of Sonoma and Mendocino counties if the upper Russian River is allowed to go dry.
Moreover, a new water-sharing deal that required rival Colorado River users to overcome their differences renews hope that a compromise is possible here in Northern California.
There are vast differences in scale between the rivers, but the stakes are the same – fulfilling a basic human need.
Forty million people in seven Western states depend on the Colorado, yet after almost a quarter-century of drought, the once-mighty river is receding and reservoirs have fallen to perilously low levels, threatening water supplies and hydroelectric power for cities including Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Colorado River water also irrigates about 5.5 million acres of agricultural land, including farms in California’s Imperial Valley that produce two-thirds of the nation’s winter vegetables.
Water rights negotiated in 1922 have long exceeded supplies. To keep the river from collapsing, California, Arizona and Nevada agreed this past week to reduce their draw by 3 million acre-feet — or about 14% — between now and the end of 2026.
As with the Colorado, the timeline for the looming crisis on the upper Russian River dates back more than a century. Since 1908, water diverted from the Eel River has flowed through a mile-long tunnel to the Potter Valley Powerhouse and then into the east fork of the Russian River.
Before then, the upper reaches of the Russian sometimes ran dry during hot summer months. Water from the Potter Valley Project transformed southern Mendocino and northern Sonoma counties, delivering an abundance for cities and farms. However, dams and diversions also reduced flows on the Eel River, harming salmon and other fish species.
In recent years, as the aging Potter Valley Project became a money-losing proposition, PG&E, its owner, offered it for sale. Unable to find a buyer, the utility company plans to surrender its operating license.
Seeing an opportunity to restore historic fisheries on the Eel River, conservation groups are pressing for removal of the Potter Valley Project and an end to diversions into the Russian River.
That would be disastrous for ranchers and growers who rely on the upper Russian for irrigation and cities that draw drinking water from the river. But simply removing the hydropower project won’t guarantee a renaissance for the Eel River. That’s likely to require millions of dollars for environmental restoration.
Government agencies and other interested parties formed the Two-Basin Partnership to explore buying and modifying the Potter Valley Project to increase flows in the Eel River without ending diversions to the Russian. But the group disbanded last year after failing to obtain $18 million for preliminary studies, much less the tens of millions needed for purchase and reengineering.
As we noted at the time, the clock had not yet run out on a deal. And, as Staff Writer Mary Callahan reported, talks convened recently among a new, larger group of stakeholders organized as the Russian River Water Forum.
Finding a consensus won’t be easy, and any agreement will require money and assurances for interests in both watersheds. But, as with the Colorado River, the cost of failure could be catastrophic.
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