Five agencies announced a coalition that seeks to restore the Eel River’s wildlife population while maintaining water security for nearby residents.
(CN) — The Eel River is dynamic, shifting slyly from season to season depending on external factors like weather or more fundamental features like geology.
The river carries more sediment than any its size in the United States because of the frequency of landslides that crash along its banks during all times of the year. The Eel River is also the most beautiful in North America, wending like a slippery ribbon through the towering coastal redwoods in some of the most dramatic forests in the world.
The Eel River has historically hosted some of the largest salmon runs and provided ideal habitat steelhead trout that slip in and around the hooks of the expectant fisherman who ply its shallows.
But those times are relegated to history, as engineers built two dams on the Eel — the Scott Dam and the Cape Horn Dam, which substantially restricted fish passage up the river and effectively cut off the headwaters of the Eel River to all fish species.
At the Cape Horn Dam, the river’s waters are diverted through a tunnel that powers a modest hydroelectric facility and also pumps waters into the Russian River basin, which feeds into an extensive swath of agricultural lands including some of the most celebrated wineries in the world.
Pacific Gas & Electric has been operating the water diversion system and hydroelectric system under the name of Potter Valley Project, providing water for about 500,000 Californians located throughout the Russian River system in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties.
However, in 2019, as PG&E grappled with the fallout from the Camp Fire and its bankruptcy, it informed local stakeholders in the area it would not seek to renew a license to operate the Potter Valley Project with the federal agency in charge of hydroelectric facilities and dams — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
PG&E’s exit stage left provided a window of opportunity for local agencies to step in and run the project in a manner more consistent with local values.
With that in mind, five different agencies all centered around the Eel River and Russian River systems announced the formation of a coalition that will seek to execute an ambitious plan to restore the Eel River while maintaining water security for the residents throughout the Russian River system.
The Round Valley Indian Tribes, California Trout, Humboldy County, the Mendocino Inland Water and Power Commission and Sonoma Water have formed a group called the Two-Basin Partnership and announced the filing of a feasibility report with FERC on Wednesday.
“The Tribes believe that this Feasibility Study Report puts us one step closer to achieving the Tribes’ goal of restoring the Eel River fishery to a sustainable and healthy condition,” said James Russ, president of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in a statement issued on Wednesday.
The report calls for the removal of Scott Dam and extensive modifications to the Cape Horn Dam aimed at allowing more fish passage to the headwaters of the Eel River.
“It’s encouraging to see the diverse stakeholders in this partnership coming together to support the removal of Scott Dam, which will allow Eel River salmon and steelhead to once again access critical headwaters habitat,” said Christopher Knight, executive director of California Trout, a sportfishing advocacy organization.
In its natural state, the Eel River was the third-largest salmon and trout fishery in California, behind only the Klamath and the Sacramento rivers. The annual chinook salmon run is estimated to feature as many as 800,000 fish in a given year before dams and other impediments were introduced in the 20th century. In 2019, a paltry count of 2,190 salmon was made on the river, which was down from 3,800 individuals counted the year before.
All parties are hopeful the plan put forward on Wednesday will go a long way to alleviate the dwindling numbers and restore the once abundant fisheries to acceptable levels.
However, the submission of the plan on Wednesday is the initial step in what figures to be a protracted process.
“We still have a long way to go including an extensive study plan, determining an appropriate financial contribution from PG&E, and securing state and federal financial support to reflect the broad public benefits of this plan,” said Representative Jared Huffman, a Democrat from Marin County.
Huffman initially convened an ad hoc committee last year to look at issues pertaining to the Potter Valley Project, from which the Two-Basin Partnership grew, with the members establishing the coalition last fall.
Outstanding issues include what to do with the sediment trapped behind the Scott Dam, always an issue with dam removal projects, along with financing the dam modification projects and conducting environmental analysis of the various downstream and upstream areas of the Eel River.
Capital costs associated with dam removal and river restorations could climb to as high as $400 million, with another $120 million for water supply reliability projects and another $30 million annually to operate.
The coalition plans to address these issues during the relicensing phase with FERC in the coming weeks, months and perhaps years.
“We still have a long road ahead of us,” Russ said. “And the challenges facing the Partnership are real. But there is goodwill among all parties to work together to see if we can keep moving forward to solve this problem.”