Sonoma County supervisors eye future of key water diversion project

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Sonoma County supervisors agreed Tuesday to study the possibility of applying for a license to operate a remote Mendocino County hydropower project, marking the first move to maintain a long-standing water transfer deemed critical to residents and ranchers in both counties.

A coalition of five Mendocino County agencies and California Trout, a 50- =year-old environmental nonprofit, are collaborating with Sonoma County’s water agency in the consideration of taking over the federal license for the Potter Valley Project, which delivers 20 billion gallons of water a year from the Eel River into the Russian River basin.

Each of the three partners is putting $100,000 into the study, an amount dwarfed by the potential cost of establishing free passage for the Eel River’s protected salmon and steelhead — likely a requisite step to extend the project’s life.

PG&E, the state’s largest utility now in bankruptcy, surrendered the project in January, upending the license renewal process, and no entity has responded to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) call for a new operator.

The utility, which had owned the project since 1930, said it was no longer economical to operate a plant that generated less than 1 percent of its power.

But the water flowing through the powerhouse is virtually invaluable to the towns and ranches along the upper Russian River from Potter Valley to Healdsburg and is a critical source for Sonoma Water, which delivers water to 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county customers.

“This is a historic day,” Sonoma Water General Manager Grant Davis told the supervisors, calling the interagency collaboration “just the beginning of a long process.”

“We actually have a feasible path forward,” Supervisor James Gore said.

But the $300,000 pledged in equal parts by Sonoma County, CalTrout and the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission for the license study is a trifle compared with the ultimate cost of their goal, touted as a “two-basin solution” for Eel and Russian river interests.

Any new licensee would almost certainly be on the hook for the $55 to $90 million cost of installing a fish ladder at Scott Dam or about $70 million to remove the dam built on the Eel River in 1922 to hold water in Lake Pillsbury and release it to maintain a summertime diversion to Potter Valley.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, under federal law, has the authority to require fish passage at hydropower projects that are either changing hands or shutting down.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, without mentioning those details, noted a “fear factor” involved in the solution should it prove to be “enormously expensive” and beyond the means of water ratepayers.

Asked about that concern, Davis said in an interview that the feasibility study, to be submitted to FERC by April 2020, would include a project plan, fisheries restoration plan and a financial plan.

Asserting that the Eel-Russian river system is on a scale similar to the Klamath and San Joaquin rivers, Davis said he would seek federal and state financial assistance to develop an entity to manage the Potter Valley Project.

“I’m holding out hope we are able to move quickly and engage in the FERC process successfully,” he said.

The local collaborators have until July 1 to officially notify FERC of their intent seek a license.

CalTrout has identified Scott Dam as one of five aging dams it considers “ripe for removal,” especially in the wake of its abandonment by PG&E. Environmentalists see the dam, located in Lake County’s portion of the Mendocino National Forest, as a barrier keeping salmon and steelhead out of spawning habitat in the upper Eel watershed.

Curtis Knight, CalTrout’s executive director, said in a statement Tuesday his group is committed to a solution that “meets the needs of fish, water and people.”

Janet Pauli, a Potter Valley rancher who chairs the water and power commission, said she is comfortable collaborating with the advocates for removal of Scott Dam.

“We made it clear every consideration was on the table,” she said.

The collaborators’ planning agreement is silent on the dam’s fate, Pauli said, noting that “we don’t have enough information to make that determination.”

Gore noted that PG&E, despite its surrender of the federal license, is not free of responsibility for the dam or the sediment amassed behind it for nearly a century.

“Our assessment is they cannot walk way from it,” he said.

David Keller of Petaluma, a director of the Friends of the Eel River, which also advocates removal of Scott Dam, said he was pleased to see the progress made by groups working toward a solution.

But he cautioned that difficulties may lie ahead.

“Nothing’s simple,” Keller said. “Welcome to western water.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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