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Close to Home: What’s next for Potter Valley Project?

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California Trout, Humboldt County, the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission and the Sonoma County Water Agency signaled to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission in June that they are exploring options for the future of the Potter Valley Project.

These organizations, along with the Round Valley Indian Tribes, entered into a planning agreement to advance shared objectives that will set water users in the Eel and Russian river basins on a path toward economic and environmental sustainability.

The Potter Valley Project is a hydropower project on the Eel and Russian rivers just northeast of Ukiah. Its features include Lake County’s Lake Pillsbury, which is impounded by Scott Dam; Van Arsdale Reservoir, impounded by the Cape Horn Diversion Dam; and a tunnel that diverts Eel River water into the Russian River’s headwaters. Diverted water flows south, out of the Eel and into the Russian, where it is stored in Lake Mendocino to provide water for drinking, agriculture and industry in Marin, Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

The planning agreement parties came together after PG&E withdrew its application to relicense the project. Citing the high costs of keeping the project running and upgrading the facility as a likely condition of relicensing, PG&E walked away. The utility’s decision created the opportunity for a regionwide solution that would better serve the people and wildlife in the Eel and Russian river basins.

The planning agreement partners, now working together as the Two-Basin Partnership, have high hopes that they will identify a way forward, but this process is still in an early stage. The partners are undertaking a feasibility study to determine possibilities for the project’s future. The study will explore options for forming a regional entity to take over operations and for pursuing a potential licensing proposal for the project. The partnership plans to have a draft feasibility study completed by January and to finalize it by April.

Exactly what the Potter Valley Project will look like in the future is not set in stone. The partnership is committed to identifying solutions that meet the needs of the communities and wildlife affected by the project’s operations.

Here’s what we do know. Members of the Two-Basin Partnership are committed to shared objectives rooted in the concept of a “two-basin solution” that will meet the needs of water users in both watersheds. The principles that underpin the two-basin concept are an outgrowth of an ad hoc committee process convened by Rep. Jared Huffman, which began the work of developing baseline scientific data to inform the best way forward.

These principles include minimizing or avoiding adverse impacts to water supply reliability, fisheries, water quality and recreation in the Russian and Eel river basins, including improving fish passage and habitat on both rivers to help recover native migratory fish like salmon and steelhead.

The partnership is committed to using the best available scientific and engineering studies when considering options for restoration, water delivery and power generation. Partnership members are pooling resources to fund the necessary studies.

Residents who rely on water supplies affected by the Potter Valley Project should take comfort in the broad range of stakeholder interests represented in the Two-Basin Partnership. These include voices like ours from public agencies, irrigation districts, conservation groups and tribes. Compromise will be required to find a working solution in line with the values that underpin this collaboration. By working together, we seek to identify a realistic, sustainable solution that supports a vibrant future for water users and wildlife alike throughout the region.

Janet Pauli chairs the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, and James Russ is president of the Tribal Council of the Round Valley Indian Tribes. The authors speak on behalf of the Two-Basin Partnership formed to study future options for the Potter Valley Project.

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