PD Editorial: No one will win a North Coast water war
The tap on the upper Russian River turns at the Potter Valley hydroelectric plant.
Since 1908, water from the Eel River has flowed through a tunnel 8 feet in diameter and dropped 450 feet through penstocks to spin the turbines at the Potter Valley powerhouse, in a remote area northeast of Ukiah. From there, the water empties into the Russian River, where it sustains vineyards, ranches and cities in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
But the power plant is no longer profitable, and PG&E is moving ahead with plans to shut it down permanently.
Without the diversions, hydrologists say Lake Mendocino would go dry in roughly two of every 10 years. Other years wouldn’t be much better: Water shortages on the upper reaches of the Russian River would be almost perpetual, with supplies failing to meet demand eight years out of 10.
However, just as the diversions have benefited the Russian River, reduced flows have harmed the Eel River. Some conservation groups and Native American tribes support removal of the Potter Valley project’s plumbing to restore a free flow from Lake County to the Pacific Ocean.
California has a long history of water wars, and another one may be shaping up here on the North Coast.
But no one would benefit from a protracted fight.
While neither state water officials nor the courts are likely to cut off water supplies for thousands of people, battles before regulatory agencies and the courts would eat up time and resources that could instead help people and wildlife in both watersheds.
A proposal forwarded to PG&E last week by Sonoma Water, the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission and the Round Valley Indian Tribes offers a framework for just such a mutually beneficial deal.
Key points include removal of Cape Horn Dam and Scott Dam, which serve the hydroelectric project, as well as decommissioning the power plant itself. Removing the dams would increase flows in the Eel River and restore access for salmon and steelhead to stretches of the river and its tributaries that have been cut off for more than a century.
The tunnel that funnels water from the Eel into the east fork of the Russian would remain. However, diversions would be limited to wet months, when flows are high enough that fish wouldn’t be adversely affected. The plan also calls for efforts to restore salmon and steelhead populations on the Eel.
The goals — ensuring flows in both rivers, limiting diversions, habitat restoration — track with past efforts to find a compromise. Many of the unsettled details remain the same, too — costs associated with decommissioning the power plant, transferring water rights, alleviating economic impacts in Lake County from the loss of Lake Pillsbury, a popular recreation area created by Scott Dam. There’s also a history of distrust and antipathy among the rival interests to overcome, as reflected in skeptical reactions to Sonoma Water’s plan from Friends of the Eel River and Trout Unlimited.
But a looming deadline offers an incentive to turn the framework into a binding agreement to preserve water supplies on the Russian River while restoring fisheries on the Eel River. PG&E plans to submit its plan to mothball Potter Valley and surrender its operating license to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in January 2025. The clock is ticking in two North Coast river basins.
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