‘Bring Down the Eel Dams’

by Daniel Mintz, March 17, 2010

“Bring down the dams” has been a rallying cry in the Klamath watershed and now the concept is being advocated by those who are fighting for more water in the Eel River.

Support for a new challenge to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Eel to Russian River water diversions for its Potter Valley Hydroelectric Project was described at the March 9 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The Friends of the Eel River (FOER) has filed a petition asking the State Water Resources Control Board to “protect public trust resources on the Eel River and prevent unreasonable use of water” by reducing or eliminating PG&E’s water rights. And after hearing requests for the county to become involved as a supporting party, supervisors showed interest in doing so.

The petition states that Eel River fisheries “have nearly vanished” and “a primary cause of the collapse is PG&E’s operation of (the Potter Valley Project).” Damming and diversion of Eel water blocks fish access to cold water habitat that’s ideal for spawning, the petition states.

The Potter Valley Project is operating under a license from the Federal Regulatory Energy Commis­sion (FERC), but the state has the authority to modify water rights. The Water Resources Control Board will decide whether to consider the FOER’s petition and Nadananda, the group’s executive director, asked supervisors to lobby for it.

“It’s very weak to do just a petition to the water board,” she said, adding that her group is rallying to “give the Eel River its own standing.” She told super­visors that several tribes are supporting the petition.

Fisheries biologist Pat Higgins worked as a consult­ant on research associated with the petition and he said river recovery in the form of dam removal has a limited window of opportunity.

He said that scientists are predicting a drought later this decade and “if we don’t take the dams out until 2030, I think the prospects for (fisheries) recov­ery will be pretty poor.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service has deemed that the Russian River is taking in too much water, Higgins continued. “So the time for action is now — we can’t wait for FERC, we’ve been FERCing around with them for too long.”

Dr. Denver Nelson is a longtime Eel River advo­cate and he said he proposed a water rights challenge 15 years ago. It was turned down, he continued, but he added that “I think it’s worth doing now, I really endorse this whole idea.”

Supervisor Jimmy Smith has also been a longtime supporter of the Eel and he said Don Tuttle, the county’s former staffer on Eel River issues, will work on developing county participation in the FOER’s legal action. Smith said the county could “enhance” the petition action.

Since the discussion happened during the meet­ing’s public comment section, no action could be taken. But Smith said he will soon bring a proposal to participate in the FOER’s filing before the board.

Supervisor Jill Duffy, who was the county’s lead negotiator in the Klamath Settlement, said joining the petition is “the best doorway to become engaged.” But she added that with that comes staff expenses and she recommended finding a source of funding.

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