Eel River tour highlights support for Potter Valley diversion

Humboldt supes call for Eel/Russian Commission meeting

On a two-day tour of the Eel River watershed last week, members of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau explained why they believe continued diversion of Eel River water to operate PG&E’s Potter Valley power plant has no significant negative impact on fisheries in the Eel River.

According to the Mendocino group, not only is the amount of water diverted by the Potter Valley Project minor compared to the total flow of the Eel River system and the overall size of the watershed, but many other impacts that far outweigh the loss of water due to the diversion.

In Humboldt County, local fishery, agricultural, and environmental advocates disagree. While recognizing the need for action on many fronts to save the fish, every drop of water is important, including water from the upper reaches of the Eel River.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors recently asked for a meeting of the Eel/Russian River Commission to review new information and proposed actions with representatives from Mendocino, Sonoma, and Lake Counties. According to Humboldt County Supervisor Jimmy Smith, who represents Humboldt on the commission, Commission chair Paul Kelly of Lake County has agreed to set a meeting date soon.

In the last few weeks, two separate but nearly simultaneous actions by advocacy groups from each side have stirred up this simmering decades-long controversy.

Last week the State Water Resources Control Board (WRCB) denied a petition from Friends of the Eel River calling for a reduction in and possible elimination of PG&E’s right to divert Eel River water. FOER claims that the damage to the fisheries makes the power company’s rights "unreasonable" under state law.

WRCB stated that PG&E’s water rights can be reconsidered only as part of relicensing of the facility by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

"We will continue to pursue our goal of stopping this diversion," FOER executive director Nadananda stated in an email last week.

At almost the same time the Mendocino Inland Valley Power and Water Commission, a joint powers association comprised of several Mendocino agencies including the Potter Valley Irrigation District, filed an appeal with FERC to review flow regimes for the diversion.

While they have been notified that their appeal was received, MIVPWC does not expect a response from FERC for at least two to three months, according to MIVPWC chairperson Janet Pauli, one of the leaders of the Eel River tour.

In an email to the Redwood Times, Pauli explained: "We are concerned with the current flow regime because of what we were assured the flows were going to be and what they actually are. This discrepancy has resulted in much less water being available for storage in Lake Mendocino.

"There is absolutely no way that we will be asking for more water through the PVP beyond what we were promised... after the Biological Opinion and Reasonable and Prudent Alternative produced by [National Marine Fisheries Service] was used for the final FERC order."

Farmers and ranchers throughout Mendocino County, but particularly in Potter Valley immediately downstream from PG&E, rely on water released from the diversion to irrigate their crops.

Water not used in Potter Valley enters the East Branch of the Russian River and is stored in Lake Mendocino just east of Ukiah. From there, water released into the main branch of the Russian River becomes part of the principal water source for Mendocino and Sonoma counties for agricultural, municipal, and recreational uses.

Everyone seems to agree that all three salmonid populations - chinook (king), coho, and steelhead - have dramatically declined in the Eel River basin in the last hundred years, bringing them close to the tipping point for extinction.

The point of controversy is how much the diversion of water into the Eel at Van Arsdale reservoir east of Potter Valley and the construction of Scott Dam above Van Arsdale, which impounds approximately 75,000 acre feet of water in Lake Pillsbury, have contributed to the crisis.

To present its side of the story, the Mendocino Farm Bureau sponsors an annual tour of the Potter Valley Project, held this year on April 22 and reported in the May 3 issue of the Redwood Times. The tour continued on May 5 and 6, taking participants to major tributaries of the Eel River to view conditions in the watershed below the diversion.

Rainfall and snowpack in the Eel basin have been well above normal this season following three years of drought, so all the rivers and streams seen on the tour were flowing robustly. It was noted that salmon and steelhead spring runs are virtually complete for this year.

First stop on the tour was the Eight Mile bridge on Highway 162 going east toward Covelo. One of the longest coho salmon runs in the world occurs here, where Outlet Creek enters the Middle Fork of the Eel.

Coho salmon require colder water than chinook and steelhead, so they prefer waterways fed by snowmelt such as the Middle Fork. According to Pauli, this explains why coho are seldom seen in the upper reaches of the Eel near Van Arsdale.

Statistics from fish counts at Van Arsdale from 1933 to the present rarely include coho. Forty-seven coho were counted in the 1946-47 season, one in 2000-2001, and four in 2001-02.

Pauli explained that all salmonid species include occasional "strays" that do not return to the same watershed in which they were spawned. These natural occurrences help to protect a species from extinction by diversifying the gene pool in all watersheds.

Participants viewed the confluence of the Middle Fork and the main stem of the Eel at Dos Rios, then went up the Middle Fork to observe its confluence with the Black Butte River. The Middle Fork, which drains 753 square miles, is the largest fork of the Eel.

The tour then continued north from Covelo on Mina Road to observe the North Fork from a bridge just south of the Mendocino/Trinity line. This is the only place on its 33 miles that the North Fork can be reached by a public road. There are no gauges to measure flow on the North Fork, which drains 286 square miles.

Although the North Fork was full from snowmelt in early May, according to an Environmental Protection Agency study done to determine sediment loads, the North Fork dries up "intermittently" by midsummer.

Traveling north through rugged country, the tour made a stop on Hayman Ridge for a spectacular view of the North Fork and Kekawake Creek drainages. Island Mountain on the Main Stem was due west, hidden behind a ridge.

From east to west, the entire Eel River watershed at this point is approximately 40 miles wide. "But if it was spread flat, it would touch Hawaii," retired Louisiana Pacific forester and longtime Mendocino resident Bill Smith told the group.

After a well-earned ice cream break at the Kettenpom store, the tour briefly left the Eel River watershed to take a look at Ruth Lake and the Mad River, then crossed over a mere 300-foot crest into the Van Duzen River Valley. The Van Duzen, which joins the Eel at Alton, is 75 miles long and drains 429 miles, although its confluence is only a few miles from the mouth of the river.

On the second day of the tour, the group went out to the Eel River estuary a few miles west of Loleta, where Pauli, who has a doctorate in zoology, gave a talk on salmonid biology and history.

On the final leg, participants followed the South Fork along Highway 101 from its confluence with the Main Stem at Dyerville to a point south of Leggett where Rattlesnake Creek joins the river and the highway veers southeast.

Draining 689 square miles in Humboldt and Mendocino counties, the South Fork is the second largest fork of the Eel. Its headwaters are a group of springs and creeks near the town of Branscomb southwest of Laytonville.

Throughout the tour the Mendocino County speakers emphasized that the amount of land drained by the Eel above Scott Dam, which has no fish ladder and therefore blocks passage to the uppermost reaches of the river, comprises less than 10% of the entire watershed.

Furthermore, they contend that without the water impounded in Scott Dam, which is released gradually into the river from the bottom portion of the lake where the water is coldest, the river would be too warm and shallow to support the young steelhead who stay in the watershed all summer.

The much smaller reservoir at Van Arsdale was a prime habitat for juvenile steelhead for just that reason until the accidental introduction of the predatory pikeminnow into Lake Pillsbury in 1979. Since then warm water throughout the Eel watershed has favored the pikeminnow.

In addition to pikeminnow predation, supporters of the diversion also pointed out other factors contributing to the decline of salmonids. To begin with, the canneries that sprang up along the north coast in the mid-1800s encouraged enormous takes of fish that so decimated the salmonids that by 1880 the industry collapsed, but fish populations never regained their historical levels.

Ocean fishing by countries like Russia and Japan, as well as natural changes in ocean conditions about which little is known, have also had significant impacts.

Since hunting of pinnipeds like seals and sea lions has been banned, predation on salmonids waiting in the estuary for favorable river conditions has greatly increased.

The 1964 flood impacted fish in the Eel River and many other rivers in northern California, ripping out so much riparian habitat that over 100 million tons of debris were washed out to sea.

Retired forester Bill Smith, among others on the tour, cited forests as a major cause of water loss in the Eel River system. Trees suck up groundwater that otherwise would percolate into watercourses, and then that water is transpired into the air through foliage at the tops of the trees.

On the other hand logging, starting with the demand for redwood and Douglas-fir to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, was cited as an important contributor to the decline of fish in the Eel.

According to Pauli, except for the Department of Fish and Game fish counting station just below the diversion at Van Arsdale, there have been no reliable counts of fish in other parts of the river. Therefore, it is impossible to know how impacts other than the diversion have affected fish populations in the majority of the watershed that lies downstream from the diversion.

Humboldt County supervisor and fisherman Jimmy Smith questioned this assertion. "The effect of the diversion on the Eel River depends on the dynamics in the upper tributaries. It may not be huge, but it is significant."

(Part III in the Redwood Times coming soon)

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