Influential California congressman opposes Sonoma County-backed plan to drain Lake Pillsbury

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Guy Kovner, Press Democrat 10/24/2020

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi has filed an official objection to a plan backed by Sonoma County and his House Democratic colleague Jared Huffman to remove Scott Dam on the Eel River and drain Lake Pillsbury, a popular recreation spot for nearly a century.

Garamendi, a fixture in California state politics since the 1970s, sent a letter to federal energy regulators faulting the plan for failing to include Lake County in planning the future of a remote hydropower project that forms a key link in the Russian River system serving 600,000 customers in Sonoma and Marin counties.

“Let me be clear: any decision-making for the Scott Dam and Lake Pillsbury Reservoir must include representatives from Lake County,” he said in a statement. “Anything short of that is simply unacceptable.”

Garamendi and other Lake Pillsbury boosters cited use of water from the 2,300-acre reservoir in the Mendocino National Forest in fighting the million-acre August Complex fire as another reason for retaining the dam.

In May, the Two-Basin Partnership, an entity that includes Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties, filed a plan with the federal agency to take over the PG&E-owned Potter Valley Project, which includes the dam, reservoir and a powerhouse at the north end of the valley near Ukiah.

The cost of taking over the project could run as high as $500 million, with the expense of removing Scott Dam estimated at $70 million.

The partnership’s filing in May was the first step in a complex process that includes establishing a new operator of the powerhouse that PG&E quit seeking a license renewal for because its meager generating capacity was no longer economical.

In his four-page letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Garamendi said he opposed draining the lake “because I believe the parties have intentionally overlooked better alternatives.”

He offered to help seek federal funding for fish passage facilities at the dam rather than removing it.

Huffman, whose North Coast District abuts Garamendi’s Fairfield-based district along part of the Lake County and Mendocino county line, said he was not dismayed by Garamendi’s letter.

“The reality is he represented a group of constituents who want to hang onto this dam,” Huffman said, noting that Garamendi had informed him of the letter.

But Huffman insisted the dam removal plan, the product of a coalition he formed more than two years ago, is inevitable.

“There’s no pathway under which the dam can continue to operate as it has for the last 98 years,” Huffman said. “There will come a point where people in Lake County realize this dam is not long for this world.”

More than 20 billion gallons of water diverted annually from the Eel River flows through a mile-long tunnel and a series of pipes to the powerhouse, enabling the 7,000-acre valley to produce $34 million worth of wine grapes, cattle and other products a year.

The diversion also helps fill Lake Mendocino, the reservoir Sonoma Water relies on to maintain mandated flows for federally protected fish. Ranches and communities from Redwood Valley down to northern Sonoma County also depend on water from the upper Russian River.

PG&E’s decision to give up the project, due for licensing renewal in 2022, opened the ownership door to other parties, and the Two-Basin Partnership submitted the sole response.

Huffman contends the partnership is “the only game in town,” but Lake Pillsbury advocates aren’t satisfied.

Carol Cinquini, of Santa Rosa, vice president of the Lake Pillsbury Alliance, hailed Garamendi’s letter, saying it “brings into focus the shortcomings of the Two-Basin Solution.”

“It seems reasonable that all options for alternative solutions to dam removal should be explored,” she said, adding that Lake County’s exclusion from the partnership was “unreasonable.”

Cinquini’s grandfather secured a federal permit for a Lake Pillsbury homesite in 1941, one of many families that have relished the remote area for generations, she said.

The alliance now represents 450 homeowners and ranchers, local businesses and thousands of campers, she said.

Huffman disputed the idea that Lake County has been shut out of the decision-making process, saying representatives were involved in the coalition’s discussions.

“I reached out to them from day one,” he said. “Lake County has been there from the beginning.”

Eddie Crandall, the Lake County supervisor whose district includes Lake Pillsbury, said the county tried to promote the idea of partial dam removal, but it gained no traction with the coalition.

“They kind of had their minds set,” he said, and Lake County’s representatives thought they were “heavily marginalized.”

Crandall said he had repeatedly lobbied Garamendi for support and was “ecstatic” over the letter the congressman released Friday.

Huffman specifically faulted the letter for asserting that California Trout, a 50-year-old environmental organization that is one of the partnership’s five members, had voted to exclude Lake County.

“This is not acceptable,” Garamendi’s letter said.

Garamendi is a former state legislator, insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor who served as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior under President Bill Clinton.

Huffman said the partnership made the decision by consensus, not based on a vote by Cal Trout. The Humboldt County-based Wiyot Tribe and Friends of the Eel River, an environmental group that has long advocated removal of Scott Dam, were excluded the same way, a Huffman aide said.

Lake County’s representatives “are on record categorically opposed to removing the dam … a disconnect that has been tough to navigate,” he said.

The Round Valley Indian Tribes of Mendocino County, which hold Eel River water rights, are a partnership member.

Garamendi said he was concerned Lake County “has purposely been excluded from this process. It’s of no concern to me as to how that was done.”

The county “needs a full voice and seat at the table but is being denied,” he said in an email.

The Two-Basin Partnership released a statement Wednesday saying it was formed to study the possibility of improving fish habitat in the Eel River basin while maintaining water diversions into the Russian River basin.

“We recognize that Lake County has important interests at stake,” the statement said, noting the county’s involvement with Huffman’s coalition.

“The partnership has been and will continue to meet with Lake County to develop solutions for addressing Lake County’s concerns. Moving forward, transparency and public participation are key.”

Among the studies the partnership is now commissioning is an analysis of the “socioeconomic impacts” of dam removal on Lake County, according to the statement.