Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell is calling for unity after denouncing accusations that she’s secretly supporting an alleged plan to skirt Eel River fish protection.
The uncertain fate of the Potter Valley Project (PVP) water diversion and hydroelectric facility has led to division that was on full display at the May 15 Board of Supervisors meeting.
Supervisors considered appointing Fennell and Supervisor Rex Bohn as an ad hoc committee to consider the project’s future. It’s in question because the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which owns and operates the PVP, has indicated that it will put the entire facility up for auction this fall.
But the company is alternatively proposing a transfer of the facility to a local or regional public entity.
The Friends of the Eel River (FOER) advocacy group has long opposed the diversion of Eel River water to counties south of Humboldt and in a May 14 press release, the group alleged that Fennell has secretly met with county supervisors from Mendocino and Sonoma counties in an effort to preserve the project’s water diversion facilities.
Fennell chairs the Eel Russian River Commission, which is made up of representatives of Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma and Lake counties. Responding to blog reports on FOER’s press release, Fennell said FOER’s accusations are “nothing short of dishonest fabrications and it does a disservice to the community, the county and even your organization’s own members.”
She added that her work with a variety of people is based on the goal of returning more water to the Eel. “We have a golden opportunity right now – right now – to accomplish that and we will and we can with a united front working together.”
But during a public comment period, Scott Greacen of FOER said a recent Public Records Act request produced a series of meeting notes handwritten by the Sonoma County Water Agency’s general manager.
Eel River water is diverted to Sonoma and Mendocino counties via the Potter Valley Project and Greacen said the meeting notes relate to “the plan that Supervisor Fennell attempts to bring forward here, which she has not discussed.”
Greacen described the alleged plan as one that will “use the Eel Russian River Commission as a new governmental entity” to take over the PVP. Doing so will “short circuit” the federal energy re-licensing that hinges on installation of expensive fish passage mechanisms at Scott Dam, one of the Eel’s diversion points.
“Supervisor Fennell, you are being duplicitous when you deny knowledge of this plan and when you deny to us that the Eel Russian River Commission was meeting in order advance an end run around both the (federal re-licensing) process and Congressman Huffman’s ad hoc process,” Greacen said.
The mention of Congressman Jared Huffman refers to his meetings with stakeholders on the future of the PVP.
Greacen described Fennell’s actions as being contrary to what Humboldt residents want, saying the alleged plan “would undermine our hope for fish recovery in the Eel and across the region.”
He added, “We can draw the obvious inferences from your defensiveness and secrecy – you know it’s wrong but you’re doing it anyway.”
Greacen’s accusations prompted a stern response.
“I am going to set the record straight – you do not know, at all, what my plan is because I don’t know what my plan is,” Fennell told him. “My plan is to listen to the people of Humboldt County and to represent them.”
“I don’t trust you,” Greacen said.
“Well that’s fine, I don’t feel so great about you, either,” said Fennell.
Stephanie Tidwell, FOER’s executive director, said the public records obtained by the group do indeed show an attempt by the Eel Russian River Commission to keep Eel River dams in place. She said, “The fact of the matter is, the record shows that this entity in particular has been by and large controlled by the water interests in Sonoma County.”
Friends of the Eel isn’t the only group that’s concerned. Darren Mierau of California Trout supported Greacen’s comments on the allegedly secretive meetings. He said Fennell should be more forthcoming about them and “make sure that you’re advocating for all of our interests and not private interests.”
Fennell said her goal is only to convene a diverse committee whose recommendations would be presented to the commission. She added, “Sometimes it’s hard to hear your friends say, ‘You did this and you did that’ when you know darned well you didn’t but that’s what you’ve got to live with when you’re in this kind of a position.”
After Supervisor Mike Wilson noted that the county hasn’t developed a policy on Eel River management, the board voted to have Fennell and Bohn form a “policy group” that will develop Humboldt County’s stance on the Potter Valley Project.
The policy committee will likely include members of environmental groups, tribes and commercial fishing associations, whose representatives urged Eel River restoration during public comment.
The committee will have to work quickly, as the goal is to develop a policy stance for presentation to the Eel Russian River Commission at its June 8 meeting in Ukiah.
* * *
IT'S GONNA GET UGLY
Friends of the Eel River has obtained notes using the Public Records Act that show Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell and other county supervisors have been meeting secretly for months to advance a plan environmentalists warn could lead to salmon and steelhead extinction in the Eel River.
“Supervisors Fennell, Brown, and Gore all denied having these meetings. We now know that they did in fact meet. They even went to the trouble of preparing explanations in case they got caught,” said FOER Conservation Director Scott Greacen. “And now we know why they kept their plans secret: they are trying to keep the Potter Valley Project in place, even if it leads to extinction of the Eel River’s salmon and steelhead.”
Since April of 2017, Friends of the Eel River, other conservation and fishing groups, and tribes with treaty rights to Eel River salmon and steelhead, have been participating in the relicensing process for the two dams on the upper Eel River, known as the Potter Valley Project. Since last fall, we have also been meeting with stakeholders in a parallel process convened by Rep. Jared Huffman to try to develop solutions that would work for both the Eel and Russian River interests.
Removing Scott Dam — while still retaining some capacity for winter diversions to the Russian River — would open up hundreds of miles of prime salmon and steelhead spawning grounds. And the FERC relicensing process provides a window of opportunity to forge such a deal. The key lever in securing Scott Dam removal is the requirement in the Federal Power Act that new hydropower dam licenses include fish passage where feasible. It is now clear that such passage is feasible, but would be quite expensive ($50-90 million for a fish ladder that probably would not work very well).
These environmental and economic realities don’t sit very well with either the dam owners (PG&E) or the Russian River recipients of all of the hydro plant’s ‘waste water.’
Last week, PG&E finally publicly announced its intent to auction the Eel River dams/Potter Valley Project off this fall. Also last week, FOER learned through a series of Public Records Act requests that Eel-Russian River Commissioners (including county supervisors Estelle Fennell, of Humboldt County, James Gore of Sonoma and Carre Brown of Mendocino) held a series of at least five secret meetings with PG&E and various Russian River interests over the last year to put together a plan to keep the Eel River dams in place.
This scheme would move the dams out of federal licensing so as to avoid having to provide additional protection for fisheries, especially fish passage.
Under what’s called a “non power license,” they’d operate the project primarily as a water transfer project, but they’d keep the hydropower running as well. They think they’d even get state Renewable Power credit for running fish-killing dams!
Supervisor Fennell is asking the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to move tomorrow to appoint her and Supervisor Bohn to an ad hoc committee that would continue meeting in secret to push this secret plan to avoid protecting Eel River salmon and steelhead (according to the agenda). Nowhere does Supervisor Fennell explain the non power license plan she is clearly seeking to advance. That idea has never been presented to the public and stakeholders in any forum by its proponents.
“It is outrageous that our public representatives have been meeting in secret to undermine the public process seeking a reasonable compromise that would protect Eel River fish and Russian River water interests,” Friends of the Eel River Executive Director Stephanie Tidwell said. “We find it particularly galling that Supervisor Fennell is willing to negotiate the Eel River future’s away, knowing full well her constituency would oppose her if they knew what she was up to.”
As a policy minimum, Humboldt County should be pushing for a solution that would remove Scott Dam and restore fish access to the Eel River headwaters.
But at the most fundamental level, we deserve the opportunity to discuss and debate the positions our elected representatives are taking on our behalf. Democracy cannot function when leaders make policy in secret.
The meeting begins at 9am at the usual location in the Supervisors Chambers in the Humboldt County Courthouse. Appointing Supervisors Fennell and Bohn to continue the secret negotiations is on the agenda.
Handwritten meeting notes FOER obtained through Public Records Act request from the Sonoma County Water Agency show that ERRC commissioners have been actively engaged in putting together this plan since July of last year. This reality flies in the face of the assurances that FOER and others received from ERRC commissioners denying such meetings ever happened.
It is worth noting that in response to our PRA requests, none of the four counties was able to find any evidence that any of these meetings or any of this correspondence ever took place. It’s very clear that their elected officials were actively engaged in these discussions. We look forward to the counties’ explanations of their inability to comply with the Public Records Act.
(Press release from Friends of the Eel River)
* * *
ED NOTE: Fifth District Supervisor candidates have understandably been vague about the looming sale of the Potter Valley Diversion by PG&E. I say “understandably” because only the inland Supervisors pay attention to it and understand what's at stake. Which is lots. I'd like to see at least one Supervisor stand up for a re-negotiation of the shockingly bad deal Mendo entered in with Sonoma County in '54, by which most of the diverted Eel River water piled up behind the Coyote Dam in Ukiah is owned by Sonoma County. Mendo is losing millions of dollars every year by not demanding its fair share of the profits Sonoma County makes on that water, more than 80% of which flows downstream and outtahere, as wine grape farmers siphon off locally what they seem to think is their's by birthright. The discussion of what to do about the Diversion is already dominated by so-called agriculture, i.e., the wine industry. who get what is essentially free water via the Diversion sold to them at what amounts to free prices. Our past and present Supervisors refuse to even discuss water arrangements. Third District Supervisor candidate, Johnny Pinches, who is not afraid to discuss the Diversion deal, remarked in passing one day, "There's more than one way to pump that water over the hill." See the movie "Chinatown" for the implications of that suggestion.