PG&E seeks reduction in releases to Eel River due to drought

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

Pacific Gas and Electric Company is preparing to ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a variance that will allow the power company to reduce the amount of water released into the main stem Eel River at Cape Horn Dam in Mendocino County, PG&E environmental scientist Paul Kubicek told the Eel-Russian River Commission at its most recent meeting last Wednesday, Dec. 4.

Protocols, which establish when and how much water must be released into the Eel instead of being diverted to PG&E’s Potter Valley hydroelectric plant and then into the East Branch of the Russian River, require release of 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) beginning Dec. 1 to aid salmon migration.

But Lake Pillsbury, the much larger reservoir 12 miles upstream from Cape Horn Dam, which impounds water from the upper reaches of the Eel, is at critically low levels because of a dry spring followed by what is likely to be the driest fall on record in Northern California.

Only 13,000 acre-feet of water remain in Lake Pillsbury, which has the capacity to store up to 75,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons, the amount of water needed to cover an acre one foot deep.)

PG&E plans to meet with several regulatory agencies, most importantly the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), to hammer out an agreement about how much they can reduce releases into the Eel and still maintain enough flow for upmigrating salmon and steelhead.

When all the parties settle on a number, PG&E will apply to FERC for the variance to the Potter Valley Project’s operating license. The license also requires PG&E to produce a certain amount of electricity and to release water into the East Branch of the Russian River in Potter Valley to meet its agreements to provide water for agricultural, domestic, and fisheries uses in the Russian River watershed.

The Eel-Russian River Commission also heard a presentation by Janet Pauli, chairman of the Mendocino Inland Water and Power Commission and a member of the Potter Valley Irrigation District, on the beneficial uses of water in the Russian River watershed.

Pauli’s talk illustrated how critical water from the diversion is to the economy and culture of Mendocino and Sonoma Counties.

Prior to the construction of Scott Dam and the creation of Lake Pillsbury in 1922, the East Branch of the Russian River dried up in the summer time. After water became available to Potter Valley farmers year-round, "everything changed," said Pauli.

Potter Valley became a thriving agricultural community, which today has nearly 5000 acres under cultivation, producing wine grapes, pears, hay, pasturage for cattle and sheep, and miscellaneous other crops, with a total value of $13.5 million.

Because Potter Valley sits on a "geotectonically fractured watershed" it has no groundwater reserves but is totally dependent on flows in the East Branch, Pauli explained. Additionally, a 1950s study identified five possible sites for reservoirs capable of storing up to 14,000 acre-feet of winter rainfall, but found that they would not be filled three out of every five years.

Following the construction of Coyote Dam and the impoundment of Lake Mendocino, a 122,000 acre-foot reservoir downstream from Potter Valley in 1929, the Ukiah Valley and communities as far south as Healdsburg grew and prospered on the new abundance and reliability of water in the Russian River.

"These are farms... This is a place where people live and raise families," Pauli continued, citing the economic and social benefits of agriculture, related industries and businesses, and recreation and tourism.

She also noted that most communities have established water conservation programs and are looking into new technologies, such as wastewater recycling, to make the best use of the water available.

PG&E’s environmental consultant, Park Steiner, updated the commissioners on fall salmon counts so far.

"It’s been a slow year" because of low river levels, Steiner said. With the Eel River at historic low levels for this time of year and little water in the tributaries as well, a small number of chinook salmon have been "working their way slowly up," Steiner said, but they are not finding enough water to spawn.

Steiner’s crew found two redds (spawning nests) in the upper main Eel in areas where natural "structures" such as logs created an area of increased flow velocity. The crews also counted eight chinook.

As of Dec. 3, the day before the meeting, the Van Arsdale Fisheries Station had counted only 18 fish coming up the fish ladder to spawn in the stretch of the river between the two dams.

On the same day last year the total count for the season was 3400 chinook.

"Once [salmon] enter fresh water they’re on the clock," Steiner said. "They have only so much time to spawn before they die." When the need becomes urgent, the salmon will spawn wherever they are, often in conditions that are far from ideal for survival of the eggs and fry.

Adult salmon turn black in fresh water and develop fungus infections, seen as white spongy patches on their bodies.

Sometimes secondary ocean runs bring more chinook into the rivers in December or even January, but "So far it’s not looking very good," Steiner concluded.

Steiner also reported on temperature monitoring and fish populations in the main stem Eel River during the past summer. Water temperatures in general throughout the season were warmer than normal, to no one’s surprise, peaking as high as 86 degrees in some places.

As a result, Steiner’s crews found only a few steelhead in deep pools, some roach, "an occasional lamprey," and lots more pikeminnow than in recent years.

Steelhead, whose young grow to maturity in fresh water before returning to the ocean, need cold water to thrive and are subject to predation by pikeminnow, which do better in warm water.

Summer 2013 marked the lowest count of steelhead from Hearst, east of Willits, downstream, since Steiner began conducting studies.

After the meeting the participants were invited to visit CDFW’s Van Arsdale Fisheries Station, where biologist Scott Bauer demonstrated how salmon are captured, counted, measured, and released to resume their journey to spawning areas between Cape Horn and Scott Dams.

"What we do here is so simple - all we do is count fish," he said.

Although only 15 chinook had been counted for the season as of the previous day, on the day of the visit Bauer had 25 in the trap partway up the fish ladder where the counting takes place.

"We sent them a memo. We told them to show up for the visitors," quipped a PG&E employee.

Bauer’s job may be simple, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Donning waders, he entered the trap, up to his waist in water that he told the group was 44 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly 10 degrees colder than usual at this time of year.

He "herded" the salmon in the long narrow pool by pushing a grate-like gate slowly through the water until all the fish were confined in a small area. With a large fisherman’s net he scooped up a few fish and then held the net out of the water for a minute, propping the heavy net against the gate frame. The fish thrashed wildly in the net. "It calms them down," he explained.

He grabbed one of the fish at the base of its tail and tried to catch it near the head with his other hand as it twisted and struggled, splashing Bauer and everyone nearby with icy-cold drops.

When the fish was slightly subdued, Bauer’s co-worker snipped a small piece from its tail fin for laboratory analysis. Bauer laid the fish out briefly on a centimeter scale and called out its sex and length for his helper to write down.

Then he tossed the fish over the side of the trap into an adjoining extension of the fish ladder, where it could resume its journey upstream past the dam, possibly a bit shaken but none the worse.

Bauer continued the process until all 25 fish had been counted. His goal is to count, measure, and get tissues samples of every fish that comes up the ladder.

"Last year, when there were 3400 salmon here, I was done," he said emphatically.

At the fisheries station the Redwood Times caught up with Kubicek, the PG&E scientist.

"At the current rate [of river flow at Cape Horn Dam] we could continue to release 100 cfs [into the Eel River] for several months," Kubicek said in response to our question.

PG&E’s concern is that unless they conserve water in Lake Pillsbury now, if the drought continues through the winter, they will run out of water by the spring, and it will be too late to conserve.

Earlier during the meeting, commissioner Mike McGuire of Sonoma County said he had been told by National Weather Service personnel that no major storms are predicted for December. Kubicek had responded that PG&E had to plan for "lack of significant rainfall in the short term, if not the long term."

The protocols under which PG&E operates the system are designed to cover as many years and conditions as possible, Kubicek said. They include different schedules and amounts of releases depending on whether the water year (July 1 through June 30) is classified as very wet, wet, dry, or very dry.

Nevertheless, occasionally a year is distinguished by extremes not accounted for in the protocols, and 2013/14 seems to be one of those years.

Kubicek said he had not seen conditions like these since the year he began working for PG&E, 1977, the year of the worst drought in California history (so far). Although he was not working on the Eel River then, he remembered the difficulty of dealing with extremely low water levels in Lake Oroville on the Feather River.

The Eel-Russian River Commission is comprised of one county supervisor and an alternate each from Humboldt, Mendocino, and Sonoma Counties. The commission is primarily a forum for the members to discuss their concerns, provide information, and facilitate cooperation among them.

Second District supervisor Estelle Fennell represents Humboldt County on the commission, but was absent from last week’s meeting. The alternate commissioner, 1st District supervisor Rex Bohn, explained that Fennell had just returned to work after a lengthy illness and would attend the next commission meeting.

"She took a lickin’ but keeps on tickin’," Bohn said.

The commissioners agreed to meet in the spring, probably in April. Among other items on the spring agenda will be a report from the National Marine Fisheries Service on a program to improve weather predictions, a critical component of planning for releases from dams.

The commission has recently established a website on which meeting dates, agendas, and minutes of past meetings are posted. See www.eelrussianriver.org for details. The website includes a place to fill in your contact information if you wish to receive notification of meeting dates and agendas.

REDWOOD TIMES PHOTOS BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI

1. Standing in 44-degree water, CDFW fisheries biologist Scott Bauer gets ready to measure this struggling chinook salmon at Van Arsdale Fisheries Station. After measuring the fish and taking a small tissue sample from its tail, Bauer releases it so it can continue up the fish ladder, past the dam, and on upstream to its spawning grounds.

2. Cape Horn Dam impounds Van Arsdale Reservoir, where water from the upper Eel River is diverted through a tunnel in the hills to Pacific Gas and Electric’s hydroelectric plant in Potter Valley. Beginning Dec. 1, PG&E is required to release at least 100 cubic feet per second back into the Eel River to maintain flows for fall-running salmon.

3. Record-breaking drought has left this boat launch at Lake Mendocino high and dry. The stream on the left is the East Branch of the Russian River, the principle source of water for the lake. At this time of year virtually all of the water in the East Branch comes from the upper Eel River through the Potter Valley Project diversion.

4. Salmon and other fish migrating upstream in the upper main stem Eel River must come up this fish ladder at Van Arsdale Fisheries Station, where they are trapped, counted, and measured before being released to continue their journey.

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