Utility Dodges Suit Over California Dam, Tunnel System

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Pacific Gas and Electric has for now dodged a lawsuit claiming its operation of an irrigation and hydropower system in Northern California harms endangered fish.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed the suit with leave to amend on Wednesday, finding two conservation groups failed to adequately allege how PG&E’s management of the Potter Valley Project in Mendocino County violates the Endangered Species Act.

California River Watch and Coast Action Group sued the utility giant in October 2017, claiming its operation of dams, tunnels and a 109-year-old power plant on the Eel River has killed too many threatened Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, and Steelhead trout.

Alsup said the groups’ complaint was full of “nebulous accusations and conclusory assertions” that fail to specify how PG&E violated the requirements of a 2002 biological opinion and other edicts issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The conservation groups claim PG&E’s actions have reduced water flows, increased water temperatures and created conditions beneficial to the predatory pike minnow, all of which harm endangered salmon and trout.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Edward Yates, of Larkspur, said his clients would likely seek leave to file an amended complaint by the March 7 deadline.

“We believe that both the biological opinion authored by the National Marine Fisheries Service and a study of the Eel River by a specialist named Patrick Higgins both provide the information that Judge Alsup has requested,” Yates said in a phone interview.

A February 2010 study by Higgins, a fisheries biologist, found the Potter Valley project has adversely impacted the survival and recovery of Coho salmon, according to the plaintiffs.

The Potter Valley Project includes a 9.2-megawatt hydropower plant and mile-long water tunnel drilled through bedrock. It also includes Scott Dam at Lake Pillsbury and Cape Horn Dam, where the Eel River meets the east branch of the Russian River.

Last year, PG&E filed its intent to renew its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to run the 110-year-old irrigation and hydropower system. Its existing license expires in April 2022.

Proponents of the project, including the Potter Valley Irrigation District, say its contribution of about 70,000 acre-feet of water for local farms each year is “immeasurable” and has improved the quality of life for more than half a million residents of nearby communities. They also say the 9.2-megawatt hydropower plant produces enough electricity to completely power the nearby city of Ukiah.

But opponents like Friends of the Eel River, which is not a party to the lawsuit, say the project should be shut down because it has blocked endangered fish like Steelhead trout from accessing part of the watershed that once served as a critical spawning habitat.

PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said claims that the company violates the Endangered Species Act are without merit.

“PG&E is strongly committed to environmental responsibility, and we are operating the project in full compliance with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s biological opinion and incidental take statement,” Moreno said in a phone interview.

Moreno said the company complies with or exceeds all minimum flow requirements to protect endangered fish, and that it conducts annual studies on fish populations as required.

He added that the company conducted pike minnow suppression activities in the project area in 2006. The plaintiffs claim the company is required to conduct such activities annually.

As PG&E works to renew its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to run the project, Moreno said the company is working with stakeholders, including conservation groups like Friends of the Eel River.

In an interview last October, Friends of the Eel River conservation director Scott Greacen said he was optimistic his group could work out a deal with PG&E that would lead to decommissioning the project or at least shutting down one or two dams.

Moreno had no comment on any potential changes to the project, and Greacen did not immediately respond to an email and phone call seeking comment Thursday afternoon.



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