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Lake Pillsbury

Scott Dam was built to hold back water to run a new state-of-the-art hydroelectric power plant. Three quarters of a century later it is a dinosaur in the center of much debate. The dam is still producing 9 megawatts (not very much). Being a hydropower project means that the water used is "abandoned" after it runs through the damn and is almost free for those downstream.

But Lake Pillsbury is not about just water and electricity. Pillsbury is also a famous recreation area. Voters, campers, hikers, hang gliders, motorcycles, 4x4s, hunters and fishermen all used his lake. And on top of all that Lake Pillsbury has at least a couple hundred houses around the lake, some are full-time residences.

I personally know many people who make a living from all the activities going on around the lake. More than once I have been southbound on the Golden Gate Bridge and I’ve seen a really dirty car or truck and I yell, "Hey, Lake Pillsbury?!" And the people yelled back, "Yeah, how did you know?"

To me this means that money is flowing into this area from outside. People from Santa Rosa, Willits, Laytonville, Covelo and many other cities and towns are spending their time and money here! 

Once a year there is a big motorcycle rally -- dirt motorcycles. From the Central Valley all the way to the coast this is hundreds of motorbikes all spending money -- gas, food, hotels, etc. My friend Bruce Baker is the head of the service department at Motorsports of Ukiah and he works on Saturdays instead of being home with his family because so many people come up and have emergency repairs necessary to continue their weekend activities. We even joked about how unprepared people are.

The same kinds of things are going on out at Lake Pillsbury. 

My wife and I have a couple of long-time friends who run the Soda Creek Store near the lake. It is supposed to be a convenience store but it is way more than that! I lived up on Mount Sanhedrin with my wife for four years and anytime we needed anything it was straight down to Soda Creek. Nick and E.D. have run the store for many years and have always had a family member or worker on-site in case of mechanical breakdowns or fire repairs or a million other things that can go wrong way out there. Nick and E.D. have helped us more times than I can remember!

Yesterday my daughter Millie and I drove up to Lake Pillsbury through Upper Lake. The road is fine until you get to the CC campground. From there it is screwed up till you get to the top of Elk Mountain, then it is perfect almost all the way out to Lake Pillsbury. Elk Mountain is badly burned and looks very different now. The Elk Mountain hotshots must be shaking their heads about this.

When we got out to Lake Pillsbury we were pleasantly surprised to see the lake area did not burn. We drove around to sunset and the hometrack and I am glad to report that again everything is mostly intact.

Hull mountain has been cooked a couple times over in the last 20 years and this time it burned all the way over to Mount Sanhedrin in the northwest over to the Covelo area. Boardman Ridge looks passable when the Forest Service opens that road up again. The Snow Mountain wilderness burned completely and looks ugly! Once again Lake Pillsbury is in good shape though!

There is a lot of discussion about Lake, Scott Dam, the Potter Valley diversion, Van Arsdale Dam, and Coyote Dam (Lake Mendocino).

Here are some of the issues: water rights, economics, environmental concerns, people's investment in lakefront homes and homes with views of Lake Pillsbury (landowners).

I don't know what to say about this but here are some opinions that other people have shared with me.

Ukiah business owner: "Leave the dam alone. All our other resources are depleted and water is all we have left."

Santa Rosa retired dentist and avid fisherman: "Sonoma paid for the dam and should be allowed to continue using the water from Lake Pillsbury."

Novato custom motorcycle shop: "Leave it alone. We need all the water we can store.” He added "If you want to go swimming, backfill your swimming pool, plant something and go to the Lake."

Willits business owner: "Leave the dam alone."

Navarro business owner: "Leave the dam unless they know the fish will return."

Santa Rosa manager of a tile store: "Take it out, replace it with smaller dams with fish ladders. Power companies built these dams and now they have paid off their shareholders and they, like PG&E, want to wash their hands of the whole thing. All through the 70s and 80s PG&E saw exactly what was happening and covered their asses and now they're bankrupt! Who will be paying to restore these estuaries and wildlife habitats? PG&E should be liable for all costs and losses public and private, but they are going to dodge the bullet with their dirty deals and criminal connections to government regulators!"

Ukiah tire shop manager and two coworkers; all three said, "Leave it, we go up to Lake Pillsbury all the time."

Lake Pillsbury homeowner: "Leave it, we need all the water we can save, build more dams that don't have negative impact on our environment."

Game warden: "People don't fully understand the ramifications of leaving or removing this body of water. More exchanges of information would be prudent."

Lakeport business owner: "I have my own lake and I don't care too much what they do with Lake Pillsbury."

I would like to suggest that any anyone who cares or has an interest in Lake Pillsbury read Mark Scaramella's "Mendo’s Water Mafia” in the October 28, 2020 AVA. Then you will at least have some honest input about who is who.

PS. To Janet Pauli: I'm crying hard, you poor poor girl!

PPS. There is actually a strain of pot called “Scooby Snacks.”


  1. Kathy December 6, 2020

    Who will pay the cost for mandated seismic retrofitting of this dam?

  2. Dave December 6, 2020

    If you really care about the fish leave the dam and spend that money making the river steelhead safe and fix 100 years of abuse from loggers, growers, and mother nature. Thousands and thousands of humans use Lake Pillsbury every year and this group is proposing tearing the dam down just because they don’t want any dams in CA. It would only free up <5% of the river and there is no evidence that there are any steelhead even trying to get past the dam anyway. Leave the dam alone! Especially considering most of those fighting to take it down have never even been to lake county much less Pillsbury or the Eer river! Stay out of our backyard!

    • Ryan December 7, 2020

      The group proposing to remove the dam includes the water users that rely on the water to actually grow things. It makes zero economic sense to maintain a dam that isn’t needed for water supply. The people who rely on the water say they don’t need it, PG&E says they don’t need it, the only people that want to keep it are the lake house owners (who couldn’t possibly begin to afford it’s costs). Maintaining a big, expensive, fish killing dam just so vacation cabin owners can drive their speedboats around is ridiculous.

      • George Hollister December 7, 2020


      • Dave December 10, 2020

        Ryan, sadly you do not have your facts straight, as is the case with most of the supporters of tearing down the dam. The dam is not killing fish it is supporting them by allowing cold water to be released throughout the year and supporting the fish downstream. Go up there and look if the dam was not there today the river would be all but dry. The world has changed, global warming is real and water storage is a solution not a problem. WRT the smart ass comment about homeowners clearly you are another visitor who does not spend time at the lake itself. Also, the water users are not behind this initiative, they are doing everything they can d to hold on to whatever rights they now have. So you are saying it makes economic sense to spend $500M to tear down a dam rather than reduce the operation to a minimum for a minor fraction of the cost. Not sure I follow your math there…

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