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Regulatory agency approves reduced flows through Potter Valley Project

A river with reflections of trees in its surface.
The Russian River in Ukiah, July 30.

July 29, 2022 — This week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued two decisions that water interests in the Eel and Russian River watersheds have been waiting on for months.

On Wednesday, the Commission approved a drastic reduction in the flow of water through the Potter Valley hydropower project into the East Branch of the Russian River.

The Potter Valley Irrigation District will continue to receive 50 cfs on demand, but the flow of 75 cfs into the East Branch has been reduced to 5 cfs. The variance is effective immediately, and the change started to go into effect by 2:00 on Thursday afternoon.*

PG&E still owns the project, though it recently submitted a 30-month schedule for decommissioning, which FERC approved. PG&E argued that it needed to reduce the flow in order to preserve the infrastructure at Lake Pillsbury, as well as cold water pools at the bottom of the reservoir for fish habitat.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), declared that if the water levels in the lake went down below 30,000 acre feet, the water would get too hot for juvenile salmonids. Though there is no fish ladder at Scott Dam, which impounds Lake Pillsbury, there is a needle valve at the bottom of the dam. The valve releases water into the 12-mile section of the Eel River between Lake Pillsbury and the van Arsdale Reservoir, near the diversion tunnel that directs the water into the Russian River.

Charlie Schneider is the coordinator with the Salmon and Steelhead Coalition, a partnership among Trout Unlimited, California Trout, and the Nature Conservancy. He said early models indicated that, in order to preserve the cold water pools, the variance should have been implemented by July 15.

“We’re glad the variance was finally approved, but I think we need to better understand and look at those models to really see what’s going to happen later this summer,” he said; “to see if it is in fact too late.” He added that conservationists are interested in preserving the 30,000 acre-feet of storage in Lake Pillsbury because in “big, deep reservoirs, the water stratifies, and the water in bottom part of the dam is cooler than the water at the top…the more water you’re able to retain in there, the more cold water there is in the bottom of the lake. And that’s the water that gets released from the low-level outlet. So it’s really about preserving water temperature in that 12-mile reach between Scott and Cape Horn dams, making sure that water’s a cool enough temperature to be habitable for salmonids.”

Elizabeth Salomone, General Manager of the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, expects drastic changes for human water users on the other side of the diversion tunnel. “It’s unusual for curtailments to cut into what we call the pre-1914 grouping,” she noted. “We do expect the curtailments to cut back into that pre-1914 category. But we won’t know for sure until the State Water Board issues their findings and curtailment notices.”

Salomone expects the state will allow Upper Russian River water users enough water to meet human health and safety needs, which is 55 gallons per person per day. Some urban water suppliers have other sources, including groundwater or recycled water. And some farmers as well as urban centers have contracts to divert stored water from Lake Mendocino.

“So not everyone will go completely without water,” she concluded.

The Commission also delivered an ambiguous opinion refuting the claims of environmental groups that the Commission has the authority to amend the Potter Valley Project’s new annual license to include more protection measures for wildlife.

The license for the Project expired on April 14. Within days, a group of conservationists and fishermen filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue PG&E under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, Redgie Collins, the Legal and Policy Director for California Trout, one of the coalition threatening the lawsuit, said that with the expiration of the license, PG&E “can no longer harm, harass, directly kill or injure salmon or steelhead at their project site.” The group wanted a new round of improved mitigation measures, arguing that the Commission had discretion over whether or not it granted the annual license.

The Commission rejected that argument, saying that it was required to issue an annual license after the old one expired. And, while it also denied the coalition’s call for an Endangered Species Act consultation, it did consult with NMFS to require PG&E to monitor water in parts of the Eel River and Lake Pillsbury.

The utility must pay for two state programs to monitor salmon on the mainstem and middle fork of the Eel River for a period of time. It’s also required to continue collecting data on water quality in Lake Pillsbury and provide that data to NMFS, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the Round Valley Indian Tribes. These are the four entities that PG&E consulted before making its request for the reduction.

The Commission also disagreed with a slew of comments by Russian River water users complaining that PG&E was required to consult a drought working group composed of a wide array of stakeholders before requesting such a drastic change in the flows. The Commission wrote that “Establishment of and consultation with the Drought Working Group is not a license requirement; however the Commission encourages licensees to consult with stakeholders and to consider their interests when developing plans for Commission approval.” However, the Commission is now requiring PG&E to consult with the drought working group as it implements the reduction.

Theoretically, the flows could be increased to 25 cfs. But the final decision will be left up to the four entities that supported the reduction to 5 cfs.

Commissioner James Danly concurred with the Commission’s decisions, but asked if it was fair to require ratepayers to finance the studies.

Schneider thinks the solution is simple.“You know, he’s sort of complaining about new operational measures while PG&E is no longer seeking to operate the project,” he reflected. “But the way to solve that is to get your facilities out of the river. Right? To get your dams out of the river, and then there won’t be operational measures for you to need to comply with. He’s sort of arguing like, oh, you guys should just let PG&E kill fish while they’re decommissioning this project. You shouldn’t worry about it. But we actually care about fish every year. Over the next couple of years while they’re decommissioning this project, we want to make sure these fish are in good shape.”

Danly wrote that he thinks “the Commission should ask the following: is it “reasonable” to require Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) — that is, California ratepayers — to pay to comply with new operational measures that are not required by law for a project that PG&E no longer seeks to operate? One must also bear in mind that compliance typically does not immediately follow an order’s issuance. Orders requiring compliance frequently entail compliance plans which can take years to develop, review, and approve.”

But Schneider called out the commissioner by name. “You’re the people that can tell them to do it faster, FERC. Danly,” he exclaimed. “They take years. It’s like, yeah, because you let them take years!”

Cooperation in the allocation of water rights, often referred to as the California water wars, is rare. But on July 1, the state approved a first-of-its kind voluntary program in the upper Russian River, where senior water rights holders agreed to share their water with juniors. That program is contingent on project water that won’t be available under the reduced flows, but Salomone remains optimistic.

“About half of the water that’s represented in water rights in the Upper Russian River signed up for the program,” she reported. “That’s significant. That is a fantastic result for a pilot project. So what will happen now is that the program will essentially go on pause. It won’t be canceled, it will just be on pause. It continues to be a participation tool. All of the participants will receive information on their water allocation, for which most of them, it will now go to zero. But as soon as conditions change, let’s say we get a nice big rainstorm in October, or maybe even September, then the participants will be notified and their water allocation will go up as appropriate. So I am really proud of our Upper Russian River folks. This was a grassroots stakeholder-built program that took about two years to put together. And we are sticking with it, even if we have to hit the pause button. We’re going to use it as a permanent tool in our toolbox, I hope.”
*An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that only 5 cfs will come out of Lake Pillsbury. The water that comes out of Lake Pillsbury flows to both the Irrigation District and the East Branch of the Russian River.

Copyright 2022 Mendocino County Public Broadcasting

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.