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A special series by Sarah Reith about the financial realities of Mendocino County governance.

Inland water budgeting for water right, study to raise dam

A lake surrounded by mountains and wilderness, seen from above.
Lake Mendocino seen from above on May 20.

The Inland Water and Power Commission calculates it would take $1.6 to $1.8 million a year for the next five or six years to acquire rights to the Potter Valley Project water and pay for a feasibility study to raise Coyote Valley Dam.

June 1, 2022 — As another dry summer heats up, the Board of Supervisors is considering asking voters to approve a sales tax for local fire districts and county-wide water projects.

The tax for Measure B is due to decrease this year, and the Board hopes voters will agree to replace that reduction with the new tax, which is expected to generate about $7 million per year.

At a meeting in mid-May, firefighters and Russian River water users expressed their support for the tax, though details about how to allocate the funds and the exact size of the need were not part of the initial discussion.

The Inland Water and Power Commission is eyeing some of the potential money as it works to take over water rights associated with the Potter Valley Project. The rights are currently held by PG&E, the project’s owner. Commission Chair Janet Pauli is preparing for an expensive and convoluted process

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has directed PG&E to begin the license surrender process. “That is going to be lengthy,” Pauli predicted. “We don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold. We do know there are certain sections of that process that are going to require a lot of our participation, so that we can have a voice in what is going to occur with this project. That is going to require some funding.” Pauli added that there has not been consideration of a CDFW-funded study that examined several possible ways to continue diverting water without the current infrastructure. “If the diversion structure comes out, if that’s the final disposition of the license surrender, then we have a very, very, very serious problem,” she said, citing the conclusion that, without water from the diversion, Lake Mendocino would not fill in eight out of ten years.

The Commission was part of a consortium that tried to take over the license for the Potter Valley Project, though it fell far short of its funding goals. In addition, it was supposed to form a regional entity that would manage the project, a task that is also imperative for acquiring the water rights. The water rights coalition, Pauli said, “would ultimately own and manage and fund the diversion. That entity needs to be formed so that they can negotiate with PG&E regarding acquiring the actual physical infrastructure and securing the water right for the diversion, as well.” The long-term license for the hydropower project has expired, and PG&E is operating it on an annual license. “Now that PG&E is required to surrender the license, the project will no longer produce power,” Pauli reasoned. “Our job is to protect the diversion, to assure that that water can continue to be diverted into the Russian.”

Another long-time goal, a feasibility study for raising Coyote Valley Dam, just got a step closer to the fundraising stage. A press release from Congressman Jared Huffman’s office declared that expediting the study is one of his priorities as the Water Resources and Development Act winds its way towards completion. The Act was approved by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure last month. The Inland Water and Power Commission is the non-federal local sponsor for funding that study, so “When the federal budget allows funding, we need to match it,” Pauli said. “Those costs combined will be about $3 million, over about a three-year period,” starting sometime in 2023. The IWPC is budgeting for its half of that cost, which would be $1.5 million.

But without Eel River water, Lake Mendocino would rarely fill to its current capacity in a rainy year, let alone a millennial drought. Last month, PG&E asked federal regulators to expedite permission to slash the diversion of Eel River water from Lake Pillsbury into the East Branch of the Russian River, which flows into Lake Mendocino, from 75 cubic feet per second to five. The request is being vigorously contested by the Potter Valley Irrigation District and Sonoma County Water Agency.

“The idea of people who benefit from this water supply helping to fund what's needed to get us that water supply is critically important,” Pauli declared. She expects that it will cost between $1.6 and $1.8 million a year, over the next five or six years, to secure the water supply through the diversion and raise Coyote Valley dam. “That’s what our budget outline is showing right now,” she concluded.

The Board of Supervisors plans to review an initial draft of the proposed tax ordinance at its meeting next Wednesday, on June 8th.