A group has submitted a plan to remove a Northern California dam which will provide headwaters to ocean access for endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead.
California Trout along with Two-Basin Solution partners, Humboldt County, Sonoma Water, Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, and the Round Valley Indian Tribes have submitted a plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on how the Potter Valley Project on California’s upper Eel River could continue to operate after its current license expires in 2022. The project is currently owned by PG&E.
The plan calls for the removal of Scott Dam, which blocks access for salmon and steelhead to nearly 300 miles of prime spawning and rearing habitat, as well as new facilities to enable continued diversion of water from the Eel to the Russian River.
“Nobody wants to pay to keep Scott Dam,” said Alicia Hamann, Executive Director of the Friends of the Eel River. “PG&E must be held accountable for the damage its dams and reservoirs have done to the Eel River over the last century; they must pay their fair share. The plan suggests a potentially enormous price tag. Getting part way to dam removal won’t do any good for Eel River salmon and steelhead.”
By the time Scott Dam on the Eel River is up for relicensing in 2022, the structure will be 99 years old. It was built to provide hydroelectric power for the growing city of Ukiah, and it forms Lake Pillsbury. Before the dam was installed, the Eel hosted some of the most dramatic salmon and steelhead runs in California. The few remaining fish are now listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Because the dam prevents the normal, seasonal flushing of sediments in the river, the water is considered “impaired” under the Clean Water Act.
According to CalTrout, “The Eel represents perhaps the greatest opportunity in California to restore a watershed to its former abundance of wild salmonids.”
When old dams come due for relicensing, they are required to meet 21st century standards for fish passage. Upgrading these ancient structures comes with enormous cost, so much so that it is often cheaper to just remove the dams entirely. While the environmental benefits of dam removal are quickly realized, it nevertheless presents real challenges to landowners and water users. In the case of Scott Dam, a significant amount of Eel River water is piped over to the Russian River where farmers and winemakers depend on these flows. Northern California struggles with semi-chronic drought scenarios, so dam removal often includes agreements to compensate agricultural interests when there is not enough water to meet their needs.
Although the proposed project plan submitted to FERC is a significant step in the effort to realize a two-basin solution, the process for securing a new license for the PVP is still in the early stages. The Report’s Project Plan must be studied further, including analyzing the effects of removing Scott Dam on the communities around Lake Pillsbury, tribal interests, recreation and other activities on the Eel River.
“It’s encouraging to see the diverse stakeholders in this partnership coming together to support the removal of Scott Dam, which will allow Eel River salmon and steelhead to once again access critical headwaters habitat,” said Curtis Knight, Executive Director of California Trout. “Today’s submittal to FERC makes it clear that we can find a way forward that improves water security for Russian River water users while significantly improving conditions for native fish.”
Additional studies will be required to identify the best way to manage the sediment behind Scott Dam, how to improve upstream and downstream fish passage at Cape Horn Dam and what the ultimate cost of capital modifications of the PVP will be. These and other pressing issues will be addressed through the relicensing studies undertaken as part of the next phase of the FERC process.