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Eel-Russian diversion faces permitting hurdles

Water pours out of a dam.
Cape Horn Dam at the Van Arsdale reservoir, where proponents hope to build a facility that will continue a seasonal diversion from the Eel River into the Russian after the dams are removed.

The plan to continue a diversion from the Eel River into the Russian after the Potter Valley dams are removed hit a snag last week, when PG&E balked at the proposed permitting strategy. PG&E owns and operates the hydropower facility, and is eager to get rid of it in the wake of mechanical failures and a report of earthquake hazards at Scott Dam, which impounds Lake Pillsbury. But a regional coalition of local governments, CDFW, and conservation organizations is planning for life after dam removal by designing a method to continue diverting water when the Eel River is high.

There are two partially designed alternatives for the diversion facility, one of which has garnered an open legal threat from a national river conservation non-profit.

Proponents of the diversion are trying to cajole PG&E into including their plan as a possible alternative when the utility submits its decommissioning plan to FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The proponents had hoped that PG&E would ask FERC to grant them

a non-power generating license to build the diversion, at the same time that PG&E was removing the dams, also under a FERC permit.

But in a meeting at the end of January, PG&E announced that the utility won’t include the request for a non-power generating license in its decommissioning proposal. PG&E did include the initial plan for the diversion in its draft decommissioning proposal to FERC late last year, along with an outline of its own proposal to remove all the hydropower infrastructure.

Last week, at a meeting of the IWPC, outside counsel Scott Schapiro told anxious water users that he doesn’t think this is the end of the line for the diversion proposal.

“The meeting with PG&E has been characterized by some as the end of the earth, and I don’t think that’s what it is,” he opined. “What PG&E determined was that there were aspects of our proposal which did not align with their goals of timing. In particular they were concerned that the non-power license mechanism would ultimately slow down the permitting for their dam removal. For that reason they don't want to include the non-power license in their proposal…They still want to collaborate with us on permitting. But they don’t want the non-power license to be part of their proposal,” possibly because it is more complicated for the utility to pass costs along to ratepayers without a direct order from FERC.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s California Salmon Strategy for a Hotter Drier Future mentions the removal of the Eel River dams, saying, “Dam removal could reopen hundreds of stream miles of prime salmon and steelhead habitat.” It also mentions the diversion plan, which is backed by CDFW, California Trout, Humboldt County, Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, Round Valley Indian Tribes, Sonoma County Water Agency, and Trout Unlimited. While the report focuses on restoring habitat for salmon, Schapiro found encouragement for Russian River water users, as well, because he thinks the governor’s plan includes preserving salmon in the Russian River as well as the Eel.

But he said that under the permitting pathway now under consideration, proponents of the diversion will have to seek permits from state agencies, which he fears could result in a delay between PG&E taking out the dams and proponents building the diversion. He presented a scenario.

“The simplest way to do this project, not the best for us, but the simplest, is that PG&E gets permission from FERC to decommission the project completely,” he told the assembled members of small water districts. “FERC gives a series of rules on how that’s done and what the end conditions have to be. PG&E takes that order to the CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission), and says here’s what we’re going to do. Please make sure we can collect money from our ratepayers. The PUC says OK. PG&E then goes and does all the work…Then step two, we come in, and we apply to all of the state agencies that we need to get permits from to build our project. That’s the easiest way. It doesn’t involve us having to touch anything until PG&E is done. We’re not involved in any federal permitting. The problem is, it creates a lot of space between PGE& taking its facilities out and us having our facilities. It also subjects us to a permitting process that could be a year or ten years, or state regulators who never approve our permits, and as a result, the diversion never starts up again.”

Tom Johnson, a consultant who is working with the IWPC on negotiations with FERC and PG&E, gave a presentation on the two diversion alternatives, which are designed by the Arcata-based firm McBain Associates. Sonoma Water received a $2 million grant from the Bureau of Reclamation to bring the designs to a certain level of detail. Decision makers will receive a draft copy of McBain’s report on February 23, and on March 19, they will decide which alternative they want to have fully designed. Neither design has received a comprehensive geotechnical analysis or sediment modeling at this early stage. Johnson gave a very rough preliminary cost estimate.

“They’re both around $40 million,” he said. “However, at this early phase of design, there are big uncertainties attached to this cost,” from minus 50% to plus 100%, putting the estimate in the $20 million to $80 million range.

One of the potential designs is a roughened channel within the riverbed, lined with large boulders. It would be about 800 feet long, and, at a 3% grade, would deliver water into the tunnel using gravity. A day after the IWPC meeting, Scott Harding, a stewardship associate with American Whitewater, a river conservation organization, wrote to FERC objecting to the roughened channel, claiming that it violates the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by interfering with the free flow of the river by altering the makeup of the riverbed. He cited a legal case from 2019, where the California Attorney General sued Westlands Water District over its participation in planning to raise Shasta Dam, adding that, “This precedent suggests that departments and agencies of the state and local governments involved in planning of the roughened channel alternative for the New Eel-Russian Facility may have similar legal exposure.”

The other alternative is a pump station, which would be just upstream of where Cape Horn is now. Johnson expressed confidence that both diversion designs would be able to handle the powerful flows of the Eel River in wintertime. And he was careful not to come out in favor of one or the other.

“There is no silver bullet,” he warned. “Both of these options will have drawbacks. They’ll be either more difficult to construct or more expensive or more expensive to operate or something. What is a benefit of one will be a drawback of the other, and vice versa. Neither will be perfect.”

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.