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Update on Local Coalition's Effort to Assume License for Potter Valley Project

Lake Pillsbury earlier this year, with elk on the meadow.

July 25, 2019 — The uncertain future of the Potter Valley Project is getting a lot of attention these days, with PG&E’s bankruptcy, ever more stringent environmental regulations, and climate change heightening everyone’s awareness of water and fire.

Last night, the Mendocino County Farm Bureau sponsored an informational event about the project. Janet Pauli, chair of the Inland Water and Power Commission (IWPC), spoke to a largely supportive crowd about a developing coalition’s effort to take over the license for the project, which is owned and operated by PG&E. The company started the five-year process of relicensing the project in 2017, then abruptly reversed course early this year. The IWPC is a Joint Powers Authority representing the Potter Valley Irrigation District, the County of Mendocino, the City of Ukiah, the Redwood Valley Water District, and the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation and Improvement District.

The IWPC is part of a coalition of local interests which also includes the environmental group CalTrout, Sonoma Water, and Humboldt County, trying to take control of the project, with the shared goals of managing it ecologically and maintaining water supply . The group has until April of next year to complete a feasibility study, including a plan for how to pay the yearly costs, estimated at eight to ten million dollars, and eleven million dollars in studies, which were interrupted when the company pulled out of the relicensing process. 

The Potter Valley Irrigation District pays a nominal amount of money for the water it receives from the project. Of course the water is the whole point, but it’s treated as a byproduct of the hydropower generated by the dams, which is why the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is in charge of the lengthy relicensing process. Pauli told the crowd that the people who depend on the water will have to start paying more for it, but that she hopes state and federal money will be available for habitat restoration. 

The financial pressure isn’t necessarily immediate, since the project operated on a year by year basis from 1972 to 2004. The current license is set to expire in 2022. Pauli said she can’t imagine that everything that needs to be done by then will be done, but that the company would be responsible for maintaining it until the new license is in hand. The structure of the coalition seeking the license and even its membership are still in flux, with tribal partners and interests in northern Marin considering their options and being considered.

CalTrout has stated its desire to remove Scott Dam, which forms Lake Pillsbury, though Pauli said she believes Scott Dam is integral to the project at this point. Unlike the downstream Cape Horn Dam, which forms the van Arsdale reservoir, Scott Dam doesn’t have a fish ladder. Studies on fish passage are underway, but none of the options is cheap.

Sonoma County Water Agency commissioned a study estimating it would cost over $70 million to take out the dam and restore the riverbed through Lake Pillsbury, though the possibility of toxic sediments behind Scott Dam is another uncertainty. 

One group that has not been directly invited to join the various commisisons and coalitions, including an ad hoc committee of diverse interests convened by Congressman Jared Huffman, is the community at Lake Pillsbury. We’ll hear an interview with Frank Lynch, president of the Lake Pillsbury Alliance, a newly-formed non-profit organization, to ask about his concerns with the project’s future.


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