Friends of the Eel River (FOER) filed a lawsuit before the California State Water Resources Control Board (State Board), in an attempt to stop Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), from destroying two northern California rivers essential to the restoration of California’s once-vibrant billion dollar salmon industry.
FOER’s legal action challenges the diversion of almost all of the flow of the Eel River to PG&E’s Potter Valley hydroelectric project (PVP), consisting of two dams and a diversion tunnel. During the dry season, almost 98% of the Eel River flows are diverted into the Russian River.
The action is a result of studies by many of the leading salmon and freshwater experts, including the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), whose data shows that PG&E’s water management system, is drying up the Eel River and over watering the Russian River.
Both are lethal to California’s once teeming populations of Coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead. For millennia these fish spawned in freshwaters of the Eel and the Russian Rivers, regenerating their populations so vital to the survival of a healthy ecosystem and to local economies.
FOER contends that PG&E’s PVP is a “water delivery system” in the guise of a power plant. Eel river water is moved across watersheds and counties, which creates financial and development opportunities for PG&E, agriculture, and municipal water users. This comes at the expense of endangered species, especially the salmon.
Experts state that the amount of energy that PG&E obtains from the Eel River diversions provides, at peak, only 9.4 Megawatts — about the equivalent of four large windmills.
FOER argues that the small amount of energy provided by the dam comes at a high biological and cultural cost to native species, First Americans (Tribes), and the California public at large.
There were over 500,000 salmon in the Eel River Basin before the operation of PG&E’s PVP hydroelectric operations. Last year’s count came in at fewer than 500.
And on the Russian River, the threat to endangered salmon and steelhead is equally dire. During the peak spawning months, the diversion of Eel River water into the Russian River creates flows that have been too high for fish in critical reaches of the Russian River; flows which must be reduced by a mandate of NMFS’ Russian River Biological Opinion 2008.
The Eel River is the third largest producer of salmon, and second largest producer of steelhead in the state. It contributed to what was a billion dollar a year salmon industry in California that is now moribund due to mismanagement of water resources.
The Eel River was considered a world-class fishery, but now sports fishing and its economic contribution to the region is virtually nonexistent. Historically the Eel River fishery also once sustained the First American people on the Eel River, as well as along the North Coast, from Eureka to Bodega Bay.
FOER challenges the State Water Resource Board (SWRCB) to eliminate PG&E’s current water rights for the PVP to protect public trust resources on the Eel River, and prevent unreasonable use of water. This Petition could be granted on its own and in conjunction with the SWRCB’s reconsideration of operations at Lake Mendocino and flows of the Russian River.
This will be an interesting water rights battle to watch in California.