SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Although they’re destined to be decommissioned, two dams on Northern California’s Eel River owned by utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric are in such poor shape they're preventing salmon from returning to their spawning grounds and nursery habitat, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The Eel River begins in Lake County and winds across three other counties through the coastal range until it empties into the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino County. It’s currently dammed by two hydroelectric dams, the 130-foot Scott Dam, forming Lake Pillsbury, and the 50-foot Cape Horn Dam, holding back the Van Arsdale Reservoir. Together, they’re known as the Potter Valley Project, initiated in 1900 under the oversight of the Eel River Power and Irrigation Company. PG&E assumed control in 1930.
Once one of the most productive salmon fisheries in California, fishermen in good years could harvest as many as 800,000 fish. In 2004, the Federal Regulatory Commission placed strict limits on just how much water could be diverted. Exacerbated by drought, the amount of water diverted declined by more than 40%. Since then, the utility has released water in late summer in amounts roughly approximating natural flows to mitigate the impact on fisheries.
However, the National Marine Fisheries Services has warned PG&E that keeping Chinook salmon and steelhead trout out of danger of extinction requires immediate changes to how the utility operates the Potter Valley Project. This year, PG&E revealed that Scott Dam, the bigger of the two dams, is “at higher risk of failure in an earthquake than was previously understood.”
PG&E warned subscribers that it would not be closing the spillway gates at the top of either dam, meaning that more water will potentially flow during the spring, meaning “less water will be stored in Lake Pillsbury for summer and fall water releases that support cold water fishery resources” as well as agricultural and recreational activities.
So five organizations — Friends of the Eel River, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, California Trout, and Trout Unlimited — filed a federal lawsuit against PG&E in the Northern District of California. They seek a court declaration that PG&E has violated and continues to violate the Endangered Species Act through the unauthorized "take" of listed Chinook salmon and steelheads.
They are being represented by environmental law firm EarthJustice, and San Francisco-based law firm Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger LLP.
“We expect PG&E to propose the removal of both Eel River dams in this fall’s decommissioning plan. Scott Dam faces serious seismic safety concerns and has no fish passage,” said Alicia Hamann, executive director for Friends of the Eel River, in a statement.
The Cape Horn Dam in particular has been problematic for the fish whose populations are already severely depressed, Hamann said, and given just how sediment rich the river is already, fish ladders set up on the site have caused more problems for the fish.
PG&E, which services roughly 16 million customers, is already in early phases of planning to decommission the dams, according to EarthJustice, but the dams have been harming the Eel River’s fish populations in several ways.
“In addition to blocking the migration of both adult and juvenile salmon, the operation of the Project results in stream temperatures that are too hot for these populations to recover,” said Matt Clifford, California director of law and policy for Trout Unlimited. “We’re asking the court to ensure PG&E operates the facilities in a way that will preserve fish populations so that they will be able to take advantage of dam removal when it occurs.”
In their lawsuit, the environmentalists offer a list of PG&E's mishandling of the dams: Water temperatures below the dams are too high for salmon and steelhead, PGE’s operation of Cape Horn Dam causes serious harm to already threatened species, the dams block access to high-quality habitat up river, making it difficult for juvenile fish to make their way to the ocean.
“Salmon season is closed this year for the second time,” said Vivian Helliwell, watershed conservation director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “West Coast salmon and steelhead populations are really struggling right now, and along with them our coastal and inland communities that rely on these fish for food and jobs.”
Supporters hope PG&E will be forced to address the issues facing the river and its wildlife even before the dams are decommissioned and, eventually, torn down.
PG&E did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
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