Plans to acquire an aging power plant in Mendocino County to ensure a continuous flow of water from the Eel River into Lake Mendocino and Sonoma County have collapsed.
A coalition of organizations from Sonoma, Humboldt and Mendocino counties has abandoned its quest to acquire the century-old Potter Valley hydroelectric facility, saying it could not meet an April 14 deadline to submit an application for a federal license.
The plant, about 80 miles north of Santa Rosa, is owned by Pacific Gas & Electric, which in 2019 announced plans to abandon it and return its license.
Downstream water users maintained that the plant was essential because water from the Eel River is diverted by its turbines to Lake Mendocino and the Russian River. This, in turn, supplies users as far south as Sonoma and northern Marin counties.
Without the option to acquire the plant, stakeholders predict years of uncertainty, contention and ultimately higher costs for water users.
“Nobody has a slam dunk here,” Rep. Jared Huffman said Tuesday. “Everyone is at risk.”
Huffman, D-San Rafael, was largely responsible for forming the coalition known as the Two-Basin Solution Partnership to license the Potter Valley project.
Members included the Sonoma County Water Agency, Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, Round Valley Indian Tribes, Cal Trout, and Humboldt County Public Works.
Their purpose was two-fold: the first was to ensure the continuous transmission of water from the Eel River, some of which was historically channeled through the turbines of the power station to generate electricity. The second objective was to continue the removal of the Scott Dam, a 138-foot earthquake-prone concrete structure that blocks the upstream passage of federally protected salmon and rainbow trout.
The bid effort was derailed, in part, because PG&E funding for at least $18 million in planning and studies was not available, and the partners had not yet formed a regional entity to be the incumbent. license official.
The coalition asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, for more time last fall to prepare its case, but the agency denied the request.
The result seems to end the discussion on acquiring and renewing the license of the power plant, which everyone agrees is inefficient and, for the moment, unusable due to a failing transformer bank. .
It also means partners can focus on ensuring water diversions and dam removal are part of PG&E’s plant licensing and decommissioning process, officials said.
But “it’s not going to be easy,” said Pam Jeane, assistant general manager of Sonoma Water, the region’s leading drinking water wholesaler.
PG&E, whose license expires in mid-April, will be granted annual extensions while the divestiture process unfolds, which could take years, even a decade or more.
The latest developments will likely lead to battles between competing interests, such as environmentalists and agriculture, to ensure that final decommissioning orders include provisions they care about. These could include water rights and the removal of dams.
Huffman noted that the only thing PG&E has of value in the whole deal is the right to water, so they’re unlikely to part with it on the cheap.
But PG&E will be allowed to come up with its own take on what the roll-up should look like first, and federal regulators will make the final decision.
It’s a process, Jeane said, “that can range from putting a padlock on the door and walking away to removing every bit of concrete there.”
This includes the Scott Dam, which holds Pillsbury Lake in Lake County, and even smaller, the Cape Horn Dam, which forms a small reservoir at the entrance to a tunnel over a mile long leading to Potter Valley and the Power Station.
Cape Horn is equipped with a fish ladder that many consider insufficient to help the fish that use it, with features that actually make them vulnerable to predators.
Those advocating the removal of the Scott Dam and even the Cape Horn Dam say a study released in December by the National Marine Fisheries Service offers leverage to persuade FERC to demand the dam be removed.
The study examined conditions in the upper Eel River, California’s third largest salmon and rainbow trout watershed behind the Klamath/Trinity and Sacramento/San Joaquin basins. He has identified many suitable habitats for winter and summer run rainbow trout and fall run chinook salmon.
In addition, said Alicia Hamann, executive director of Friends of the River Eel, the power plant’s license conditions that allow accidental loss of fish listed under the Endangered Species Act leave PG&E vulnerable to litigation. if they no longer hold the license and the fish remain at risk because of the dams.
“We have science on our side, and in fact there is a strong legal case to be made that the owners of the project have a responsibility to correct the century of damage that has been done to the Eel River,” Hamann said. . “The eel is a river of opportunity. This is our last and best chance to protect wild salmon and rainbow trout across the state of California. »
There also remained the Lake County “jokers,” the Lake Pillsbury Homeowners’ Association and its allies who will likely fight to preserve the recreational asset created by Scott Dam, Huffman said.
In addition, considerable work is needed to educate and organize Russian River water users about the upcoming high-stakes campaign to ensure water continues to flow from the Eel River.
A grant of nearly $2 million acquired in December from the California Department of Water Resources will contribute to this effort. Some of the money will go to a “Forum of Russian River Water Users” to help determine who benefits, who should pay and how much, Jeane said.
But the bottom line is that there are no guarantees, Huffman said.
“Yes, the water supply is absolutely at risk, both from an infrastructure and water rights perspective, and Russian River’s interests are going to have to focus on that,” Huffman said. “On the Eel River side, I think there’s a very good chance that PG&E will have to remove at least the Scott Dam, but how does that happen, you know, and what other mitigation requirements are imposed – what that means in terms of a healthy River eel ― I just think there are huge question marks, and if this turns out to be something that’s been fought and contentious for ages decades to come.
“So nobody has a slam dunk script to get everything they want here,” he said.
You can reach editor Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or [email protected] On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.