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PG&E gets annual license; conservationists work on fuel breaks

A group of people sitting on folding chairs in a semi circle in a clearing in the forest.
Will Emerson of the Bell Springs Fire Department (center, with hat), and Pat Higgins, of the Eel River Recovery Project, (far right, with hat) discuss forest health at a Northern Mendocino Ecosystem Recovery Alliance event at Rangjung Yeshe Gomde Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Leggett on Saturday.

The Potter Valley Project is now under an annual license held by PG&E. Two conservation groups are focusing forest health as a way to build fire resilience and revitalize the river.

April 25, 2022 — PG&E is now operating the Potter Valley Project under an annual license, after a mystery applicant was turned down cold.

And forest health enthusiasts gathered at a Buddhist monastery in Leggett over the weekend to strategize how to build fire resilience using grant funding and local labor.

On Thursday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted PG&E a license to operate the project until next April, writing that the Federal Power Act does require the Commission to issue an annual license to the current licensee, “under the terms and conditions of the prior license until a new license is issued, or the project is otherwise disposed of…” The brief notice concluded that “PG&E is authorized to continue operation of the Potter Valley Project, until such time as the Commission orders disposition of the project.”

On Friday, the Commission informed Antonio Manfredini, who had applied for the license on behalf of a business called PVP 77, that it was rejecting his application because it was late; he had not done any of the initial consultations or studies that were required; and the “application patently fails to conform to the requirements of the Commission’s regulations.” The applicant has 30 days to request a rehearing.

UPDATE: Manfredini filed an appeal on Monday morning, arguing that “The License Application submitted continues the process initiated by PG&E (P-77-285) on 4/62017 and continues the process initiated by The NOI Parties (P-77-298) on 6/28/2019.” The appeal refers to PG&E and the NOI parties as “Proxy.” A coalition that included 

The Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, Sonoma County Water Agency, California Trout, and the County of Humboldt, notified FERC in June of 2018 that it was calling itself the Notice of Intent (NOI) Party, and that it intended to file for the license to the Potter Valley Project.

Environmental groups are expecting a further order from FERC to surrender and decommission the project, though very little information is available about what that means exactly or how long it will take.

Clifford Paulin, who is legal counsel for the Potter Valley Irrigation District, was not surprised that FERC granted PG&E the annual license. For him, the remaining uncertainty lies in the big-picture conditions of the drought, as well as details about the pikeminnow reduction program and how additional conditions to the license, if any, will be implemented.

Paulin said that, while the irrigation district’s contract with PG&E entitles it to 50 cubic feet per second, the district’s directors acceded to PG&E’s request to stay on a demand-based system, only asking for the amount the district can sell to its customers. This is calculated in part to protect the infrastructure at Lake Pillsbury and Scott Dam in Lake County. It also means that the only additional water going into the Russian River and Lake Mendocino from the Eel River will be the minimum instream flows required by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect salmonids in the Russian River. Paulin thinks the wild card application may have been part of what caused the delay in FERC’s announcement about the annual license, but said he didn’t “see Manfredini being much of a factor’ otherwise.

Curtis Knight, the Executive Director of the environmental organization California Trout, described the granting of the annual license as “a big step,” which “everyone knew was coming…the only weird note was Manfredini.” CalTrout is one of the parties that was working with Russian River water users to apply for the license, but was unable to raise enough money to pay for the studies. Now it’s signed on to a notice to sue PG&E under the Endangered Species Act, claiming that the fish ladder at Cape Horn Dam causes unauthorized take.

Still, Knight expects that the Manfredini “distraction won’t amount to much;” and is looking forward to a timeline for the surrender of the project. He hasn’t given up on working with Russian River water users, but said “It may have to get a little messy first,” before FERC defines the process of decommissioning the project.

In the north county, two environmental organizations gathered at the Rangjung Yeshe Gomde Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Leggett to brainstorm plans to resist the ravages of climate change and further the vitality of the Eel River through forest management.

The Northern Mendocino Ecosystem Recovery Alliance has joined with the Eel River Recovery Project to push for a major shift in preparing for fire and bringing it back to the landscape.

Eli Rider, of the Leggett Valley Volunteer Fire Department, and Will Emerson, of the Bell Springs Fire Department in Laytonville, are inspired by a $4.9 million grant from CalFire to carve a fuel break into Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in the Red Mountain wilderness, off of Bell Springs road. The grant is being administered by the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District.

In addition to a proviso that would keep the use of heavy equipment to a minimum, Rider says one of the requirements for keeping carbon down is hiring local people. “There’s a large grant in the Red Mountain area and the Usal forest to create shaded fuel breaks,” he said during a pause in Saturday’s activities. “They have written into the grant a triple bottom line, which is trying to lower the carbon footprint of the project. Having a local workforce will accomplish that by not having to truck a bunch of equipment in from far away…we are in the process of a workforce development program to train and hire local workers.”

Emerson hopes the project will expand from what Rider explained was the most obvious place to start. Work on phase one of the project is expected to be performed over the next three years, with planning for phase two scheduled to start next year. “We’re hoping that fuel break will continue over to Bell Springs Road, and then hook in with other projects up and down Bell Springs Road, so we establish some really good fire breaks around our communities and through them, so that we could stop a larger fire that might come through,” Emerson said.

Rider added that Red Mountain was a logical place to start because BLM biologists and staff from the Redwood Forest Foundation Inc. had already conducted the biological assessments and archaeological reviews that were needed before work could begin. “It was ready to be implemented,” he concluded.

Pat Higgins, the Executive Director of the Eel River Recovery Project, is a fish guy who’s been pushing for forest health as key to revitalizing the river for years. He sees enormous potential for the new approach — if it’s done right.

“It’ll be a huge undertaking, to restore forest health in the traditional Indian sense of harmony on the landscape,” he predicted. “And once that happens, you have to use control burns, and you have to stay on it. We’re looking, actually, not just for economic opportunity, but a change in perspective, a commitment to stewardship. And this could happen in a way that is economically viable — depending on how we organize.”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.