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Local News

Rights to cold water a hot topic

The tip of a plane wing above a view of blue sky and mountains with a smattering of snow.
The last of the snowpack, northeast of Ukiah on May 20.

Environmentalists claim Potter Valley Project violates Endangered Species Act, while irrigators angle for the water right.

May 25, 2022 — The struggle over the water of the Eel River continues. With PG&E operating the Potter Valley Project on an annual license, environmental groups like Friends of the Eel River are claiming violations of the Endangered Species Act, and asking regulators to reconsider authorizing the annual license. Meanwhile, Russian River water users, whose attempt to take over the hydropower license was stymied by a lack of funds, are now strategizing how to acquire the water rights held by PG&E. “Our job is to protect the diversion, to assure that that water can continue to be diverted into the Russian,” said Janet Pauli, of the Potter Valley Irrigation District and the Inland Water and Power Commission. She added that “The original water rights for the diversion list, as beneficial uses, production of power and irrigation…it’s a matter, though, of acquiring that water right, and making sure that we have control of the diversion itself.”

A view from above of a lake surrounded by mountains.
Lake Pillsbury on May 20, as seen from a small plane.

Alicia Hamann, the Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River, spoke a few feet off the tarmac of the Ukiah airport Friday morning, after taking reporters on an EcoFlight in a six-seater Cessna over the wilderness surrounding the Eel. She says Scott Dam, which impounds Lake Pillsbury eleven miles from the diversion, is thwarting the life history of a unique species. “There are rainbow trout that are trapped up behind Scott Dam in the hundreds of miles of excellent cold-water habitat that exists up there in the Mendocino National Forest,” she asserted. “Those rainbow trout are really, really similar to steelhead. And what genetic researchers have found is that those trout have the alleles, the genetic coding, that would allow them to, one, become anadromous again, so to become steelhead, and two, to adapt the life history that is summer-run steelhead. So, to put it really simply, there are trout up behind Scott Dam that, if given the opportunity to reach the ocean again, their progeny could become summer steelhead.”

There’s a theory that the history of the summer steelhead is closely tied to a special feature of the Eel. Hamann said that a lot of the trout with the summer steelhead alleles can be found just behind a formation called Bloody Rock. “The theory is that back before Scott Dam was in place, when summer steelhead were able to make it up to that portion of the watershed, because they had a head start on their winter counterparts, they would already be in the upper parts of the headwaters when the rains come and when the flows are really high. So they were able to pass this barrier and jump the ten or fifteen feet or so to get up beyond Bloody Rock. But then when their winter-run counterparts got there, the flows were higher and they weren’t able to make it past that barrier. That’s the theory behind why we see the summer-run steelhead genetics in the trout just behind Bloody Rock.”

A river running through mountains alongside a road, viewed from above.
The Eel River at Dos Rios on May 20.

There may not be a lot of water coming through the diversion this year, though no one knows for sure what the future holds for Scott Dam. To prevent Lake Pillsbury from getting too low, PG&E has asked regulators to grant it a variance to release a minimum instream flow of five cubic feet per second, or cfs, into the East Branch of the Russian River, which flows directly into Lake Mendocino. That’s the same as it was last year, but less than the 25 that some water sellers were expecting this year.

The Potter Valley Irrigation District is entitled by contract to up to fifty cfs. Right now, 75 is coming through the powerhouse, which is currently not capable of generating electricity, and Potter Valley is using 19. Pauli said PG&E has requested variances since about 2015, to protect the infrastructure at Lake Pillsbury, which filled this year after heavy winter storms. “They did not convene the drought working group like they have in the past, which is basically all of the stakeholders who are involved in this process,” she said. “They went ahead and filed a variance after consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Round Valley Tribes, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and suggested to FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) that what they wanted to do was to reduce the flows at all of these points in the project from normal…and then they would watch Lake Pillsbury and see how it looked in terms of whether or not it was getting low too quickly.”

There’s not much chance of snowmelt making its way into any body of water, natural or engineered. Last month, snowpack across the state was at 38% of its average for this time of year. On Friday morning, just northeast of Lake Mendocino, only a few of the highest peaks still bore a smattering of snow.

The Eel is a complicated river, flowing through rugged wilderness bearing few signs of human habitation. And it may have a special advantage, when it comes to climate change. Hamann says the cold water, which makes it ideal habitat for salmon, isn’t entirely reliant on snowpack. One of the creeks that flows into the Eel River right near Bloody Rock is called Cold Creek, and another is called Five Springs Creek. “The sources of the cold water in the headwaters aren’t necessarily just from snowpack, but they’re largely from these springs that feed the water,” she said. “And that’s why, as researchers have found, over and over again, and as many of our friends from the Round Valley Tribes and other indigenous peoples know, there is abundant cold water up there, even in hot and dry summers.”

The deadline for public comment on PG&E’s request for a variance is June 9.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.