Potter Valley Project: The Saga of Dam Removal

By Caroline Griffith

As anyone who has followed the decades-long efforts to take down Klamath Dams knows, dam removal is a complex process. Oftentimes far more complex than the process of erecting those dams in the first place. In the last year, EcoNews has reported multiple times that the dams on the Eel River are “one step closer to coming down”. But how many steps are left before they actually do? Given the fact that in September the South Fork of the Eel River dried up to the point that it no longer connects with the main stem, it’s imperative that meaningful steps are taken to save Eel River salmon from extinction. In an unexpected turn of events, a September 23 ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) set a clearer deadline for movement on dam removal.

The two dams on the Eel River, the Scott Dam and Cape Horn Dam, are part of the Potter Valley Project, a hydroelectric project with a 9.4 megawatt capacity and a mile-long diversion tunnel that delivers water to Potter Valley and the Russian River. When PG&E declined to renew its operating license for the Potter Valley Project with FERC in 2019, a group called the Two Basin Partnership formed to explore terms for a new license, looking for a “Two Basin Solution” serving the “co-equal goals” of improving fish passage while maintaining water supply reliability to both the Eel and Russian River basins. The best way to improve fish passage is to remove the dams, but the Two Basin Partnership also wants to make sure that the Russian River basin continues to get the water diversion.

The Eel River above the Cape Horn Dam is clear and mostly algae free, most likely due to cooler water temperatures above the diversion. Photo by Adam Canter.

Cape Horn Dam, the first dam you would encounter if you were a fish travelling upstream, was built in 1908 with a tunnel that channels water to a powerhouse in Potter Valley. The water that turns the turbines, basically a byproduct of the power generation process, then travels to Potter Valley to be used for agricultural purposes, and on to Lake Mendocino. Currently, the Project diverts an average of about 62,500 acre-feet of Eel River water into the Russian River basin per year. An acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land (about the size of a football field), one foot deep. 

One of the reasons that PG&E decided to not pursue relicensing is cost: operating the dams and coming into compliance with current environmental laws regarding fish passage vastly outweighed what the project was bringing in from energy generation. According to Alicia Hamann, Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River (FOER), who have been working on dam removal for years, the Project cost roughly $30 for every $1 of energy produced. As the Partnership has studied the different options for a two basin solution, funding has also been a major factor. On September 2, the Partnership filed a report with FERC asking for an abeyance on the relicensing process citing a need to raise funds for studies before moving further, a request that FERC denied on September 23.

The water diversions to the Russian River which are at the heart of the current negotiations to remove the dams are over a century old, and those benefiting from them — agricultural interests in the Potter Valley Irrigation District and customers of the Sonoma County Water Agency — have grown used to the arrangement. However, as Hamann said in a recent press release, “The lack of meaningful support from Russian River interests, which stand to benefit the most from this proposal, means there is yet no proposal to monetize any future water diversions, and thus no way to support the costs of maintaining a diversion.”

Initially, PG&E was supposed to cover the cost of study plans, but it has declined to do so and the Partnership now needs to come up with $18 million, not including the funds that would be needed for dam removal, infrastructure or fish passage. So the partnership asked to have until May 2022 to find funding before moving forward with the relicensing process. FERC’s denial of this request means that if the Partnership doesn’t find the funding by the time the license expires in April 2022, the licensing reverts and FERC can move forward with surrender and decommissioning, a process Hamann says is the “surest and quickest way to secure removal of the Eel River dams and recovery of Eel River salmon and steelhead.” 

The Wiyot Tribe, whose lives have been intertwined with the Eel River since time immemorial and whose name for the river is Wiya’t, agrees that the dams must come down and supports the surrender and decommissioning process. They have not been a part of the Two Basin Partnership, but according to Michelle Vassel, Tribal Administrator for the Wiyot Tribe, they would support the Two Basin Solution if the science showed that fish habitats could be restored. As Vassel says, “We need to figure out how we can have dam removal without completely pulling the plug on the Russian River. We’re pro-river and pro-fish. We don’t want the Russian River to lose fish, but we also recognize that this water partnership is not natural.” Adam Canter, director of the Wiyot Tribe’s Natural Resources Department, echoes this sentiment adding that the diversions aren’t going for subsistence agriculture. “We’re not feeding the masses with this,” he says. “Is it worth cheap bottles of merlot to lose salmon?”  

An open irrigation ditch in the Potter Valley Irrigation District flows past a vineyard. As Adam Canter of the Wiyot Tribe’s Natural Resource Department says, “Potter Valley is one of the greenest places I’ve seen in a long time. Is it worth cheap bottles of merlot to lose salmon?” Photo by Adam Canter.

It is important to note that ending the diversions to Potter Valley won’t entirely solve the problem. There are other factors affecting the Eel River. Though dam removal is the best way to increase fish habitat upstream, and ending the Potter Valley diversions would lower water temperatures and leave more water in the river, the proliferation of cannabis farms along the Eel is affecting water level and temperature, as is the prolonged drought and decades of destructive logging practices. A multi-pronged approach will be needed to save the Eel River. 

For now, the path forward on dam removal depends on whether or not the Partnership raises the necessary funding before the license expires. FOER is cheering the decision by FERC to deny the abeyance request and is encouraging the project to move into the surrender and decommissioning process as soon as possible. As the Wiyot Tribe and FOER point out, removal of the dams is essential if summer steelhead and chinook salmon are to have any real hope of recovery. To stay updated on this process, visit eelriver.org