Group seeks new ‘regional entity’ to oversee water system
By Shomik Mukherjee, Redwood Times, May 13, 2020
A group of Northern California agencies on Wednesday filed a proposal to acquire the Potter Valley project from the Pacific Gas and Electric Co., submitting a report that includes plans to remove the controversial Scott Dam and form a new authority to operate complex infrastructure at the Eel and Russian river basins.
If an independent federal commission approves the plan, the coalition intends to remove the dam that experts say has threatened fish populations in the Eel River, though ecologists will need to bolster alternative water diversions to continue providing water to thousands of Potter Valley residents.
PG&E has owned the Potter Valley project for decades, but the utility’s bankruptcy declaration last year included relinquishing the costly infrastructure navigating the two basins.
“It’s a very significant acknowledgment by the coalition partners that all of the technical analysis and scrutiny we’ve applied to this project points to removing the Scott Dam as the only way to achieve the fish (population) goal,” Rep. Jared Huffman, the North Coast’s congressman, told the Times-Standard.
Boosting fish populations will require more than just dam removal — there will need to be serious habitat improvements in the Eel River, Huffman added.
“But having that clarity is really important,” he said. “I think many of us went in assuming (dam removal) would be the outcome, because the alternatives that were studied… were just enormously expensive.”
The partnership hoping to acquire the project includes Humboldt County; water districts in Sonoma and Mendocino counties; the environmental group Cal Trout; and the Round Valley Indian Tribes.
The agencies have different interests, but, at Huffman’s guidance, will work to acquire the project under the ethos of a “two-basin solution” that protects fish but keeps water supply stable.
Included in the project’s feasibility study are plans to manage sediment buildups, expand a separate water diversion and improve a fish ladder at Cape Horn to create safe passage for Eel River salmon threatened by invasive species like pikeminnow.
But questions remain around how the coalition would pay for any of these costly infrastructure upgrades, especially since the ongoing coronavirus pandemic stands to take a chunk out of available state funding.
“We really are going into uncharted waters,” said Estelle Fennell, Humboldt County’s 2nd District supervisor. “We don’t know when our economy is going to rebound. Somewhere along the line, there is a potential for stimulus out there that we could definitely explore, but as of now, we really don’t know.”
And while the modifications are a start, it will take “additional comprehensive watershed restoration efforts” to “substantially increase fish populations to levels that fully utilize available habitat, sustain tribal, commercial, and recreational fisheries, and restore and protect cultural resource values,” the official study states.
The plan will now be reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will make a decision after a 45-day public comment period. If the commission rejects the proposal, then PG&E will likely decommission its Potter Valley infrastructure, leaving the project with no clear oversight.
Shomik Mukherjee | firstname.lastname@example.org |