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Russian River Water Forum Planning Group meets

A dam with water gushing into a river. A cloudy sky and green trees in the background.
Scott Dam, which impounds Lake Pillsbury in Lake County.

A group of diverse water interests is preparing for life after the Potter Valley dams.

A planning group for the Russian River Water Forum, which is preparing for life after PG&E decommissions the Potter Valley Project, met for the first time yesterday in Ukiah. PG&E said in a town hall last month that its version of decommissioning means removing both dams. That’s unless an entity that is capable of running them steps forward before it submits a draft of the decommissioning plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.

Tony Gigliotti, PG&E’s senior licensing project manager, laid out the timeline at a town hall about Scott Dam and Lake Pillsbury on April 27th.

“When we say decommissioning in this case, both dams will be removed as part of that, unless somebody comes forward with a proposal that PG&E looks at and accepts,” he said. “We need to ensure they can operate the dams after we give up ownership. In terms of timelines for the surrender application, there will be an initial draft November, 2023. A second draft, also available for public review, May 2024, and then the final application will be filed with FERC in January, 2025.”

Janet Walther, PG&E’s senior manager of hydro licensing, qualified that timeline a little.

“When PG&E submits our final surrender application to FERC, that would be the point of no return,” in terms of decommissioning, she said. “And really, the draft. We are looking to know, sooner than later, if there’s an entity interested in taking over the dam because that will change our surrender application and what we put in that surrender application. So I think we are looking and would like to see some initial proposals later this year, if there is interest. And we are talking with folks, as we have been since 2016, about potential interest in future ownership of Scott, and/or Cape Horn Dam.”

The Russian River Water Forum, an initiative of Sonoma Water, is coming to the end of a $400,000 grant from the California Division of Water Resources for planning about how to maintain a diversion from the Eel River into the Russian River after decommissioning. Much of that has gone to pay Kearns and West, a consulting firm, to facilitate meetings, draft a charter, and conduct interviews with people who will be affected by decommissioning.

Sonoma Water is also applying for a grant from the Bureau of Reclamation to bring a plan for the diversion up to the point where it will be ready for environmental review. They’re operating under the assumption that Scott Dam will come out, but that the future of Cape Horn Dam is uncertain. Members are encouraged to seek out additional funding sources, be they grants, taxes, or money from water sales.

Tribal governments and environmental NGO’s from the Eel and Russian River basins, water suppliers on the Russian River, and county representatives from Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Humboldt counties are among the thirty or so members of the forum. There is no limit on tribal seats, and members can still be added. The Potter Valley tribe has lands in both watersheds.

Mike Thompson, assistant general manager of Sonoma Water, hopes to affect the decommissioning plan with some viable alternatives.

In 2021, the Two-Basin Partnership, a group whose membership was similar to that of the forum, commissioned a feasibility study of several diversions without dams. Dave Manning, with Sonoma Water, said the agency would be getting more details about costs in the next year or so.

But Matt Clifford, of Trout Unlimited, balked at the idea of being part of a body that would ask PG&E to leave any of its infrastructure in the river. And Vivien Helliwell, representing the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said, “The cost of moving water that may not be available” could be a moot point, considering “the possibility that the assumption is based on an illusion.” The Federation is party to a lawsuit filed against PG&E on Tuesday, claiming the Potter Valley Project violates the Endangered Species Act.

There is no consensus on a starting point. But dates and times for four working groups have been set, and members are gravitating towards the groups they believe suit their expertise. The groups will focus on water supply and fisheries, finance, water rights, and the governance of whatever entity takes over a diversion after decommissioning.

A Russian River Resiliency Subcommittee is expected to convene sometime next year.

But tribal interests in the Eel River basin are not interested in continuing to provide water to the Russian River. Ted Hernandez, the Chair of the Wiyot Tribe in Humboldt County, warned that a continued diversion would continue to harm the Eel, and declared that the tribes, who have relied on the water since time immemorial, have never ceded their water rights and never will.

Don McEnhill, of the environmental advocacy group Russian Riverkeepers, suggested that there are many ways that Russian River water users can increase supply without relying on another watershed, from improved monitoring and reporting to using recycled water and recharging the basin. Nikcole Whipple, a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes and an intern with the environmental NGO Save California Salmon, asked if the Russian River was capable of being resilient without water from the Eel. Sean White, the director of water and sewer for the City of Ukiah, said the Potter Valley Project has permanently altered the hydrology of the Upper Russian River watershed.

The various interests in the protracted discussions over the Potter Valley Project have been having the same fights for years. The forum members had barely finished introducing themselves when Charlie Schneider, of California Trout, said that he believes the forum is set up to minimize Eel River interests. Carol Cinquini, of the Save Lake Pillsbury Alliance, countered that her community would be hit the hardest by the removal of Scott Dam. “We want to create a fish ladder and refurbish the dam,” she said, while petitioning for a seat on the forum. The group agreed to give her a seat at future meetings, because the Lake County Board of Supervisors had also requested that the Pillsbury community be represented.

The costs associated with decommissioning have not yet been quantified.

Lake County Supervisor Bruno Sabatier warned of environmental disaster if Scott Dam is removed without proper restoration. Several forum members chimed in about the lack of enforcement when it comes to illegal diversions for cannabis as well as other purposes, in both watersheds. And controlling the pikeminnow that slipped out of Lake Pillsbury into the entire Eel River watershed is a daunting undertaking. The cost of removing the dams is unknown at this point, but it will be borne by ratepayers.

The Planning Group is scheduled to meet once a month.

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.