PG&E gets OK to continue low flow releases into Eel, Russian Rivers

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has granted Pacific Gas and Electric Company's request for a temporary variance in the amount of water PG&E is required to release from Scott and Van Arsdale Dams into the Eel and Russian Rivers as long as current drought conditions continue. (See related story in our Jan. 14 issue, "PG&E seeks more flow reductions....")

In an order issued Feb. 3, FERC agreed with PG&E's assessment of the condition of the Eel River and the salmonid populations it supports, and likewise agrees that conserving the remaining water in Lake Pillsbury behind Scott Dam will benefit fisheries more than releasing larger amounts of water now.

Last December FERC granted a variance allowing PG&E to significantly reduce required releases into the Eel from Cape Horn Dam, below the tunnel which diverts Eel River water to PG&E's Potter Valley hydroelectric plant. Releases into the East Branch Russian River below the plant were also reduced.

FERC consulted with representatives of the National Marine Fisheries Services, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Round Valley Indian Tribes, who signed the agreement that established the flow release protocols ten years ago. FERC also received written comment from four organizations and 16 individuals. Most of the comments supported continuing the variance.

Although they continued to support releasing reduced flows into the Eel River, the Round Valley Tribes recommended that no more water be diverted into the Russian River until conditions in the Eel improve. The tribes also objected to PG&E's request to eliminate buffer flows intended to make certain the amount of the release remains above the minimum even when the amount of water available fluctuates.

"Under the present extreme and extraordinary circumstances, Friends of the Eel River concurs that FERC should immediately grant the extension requested by PG&E," FOER executive director Scott Greacen wrote to FERC on Feb. 2.

"... Extremely low water levels in the Lake Pillsbury reservoir and the continuing severe drought make it very unlikely [that normal flow releases] could be sustained through even the spring of this year.

"Raising water levels and then dropping them sharply may risk greater additional harm to fish populations likely already to be severely affected by this year's conditions than would maintaining some flows through the spring," the letter continues.

FOER's letter notes that their support for PG&E's request is limited to the current drought crisis, and reminds the commission that FOER still believes that diversions to the Russian River are "unjustified given the relative importance of flows for salmonids in the mainstem Eel River."

Finally, FOER's letter requests a FERC hearing later this month to "clarify several serious questions raised in this matter." The three issues FOER would like FERC to examine are: conditions that will allow the variance to be lifted, how flows will be allocated in the spring, and evidence showing that continued diversions to the Russian River this year, with the drought expected to continue, outweigh the need to protect "critically imperiled cohorts of salmon and steelhead" in the Eel River.

FERC's order allows PG&E to continue the reduced flows until the water year category at the Eel River below Scott Dam and at the East Branch Russian River can be upgraded from "critical" to "dry." Likewise, at Cape Horn Dam on the Eel River below the diversion, the variance can continue until the water year category can be upgraded from "exceptionally low inflow" to "dry."

PG&E must also file monthly status reports on the amount of water flowing into Lake Pillsbury, the actual minimum flows released at the three release points, and an estimate of when PG&E thinks the variance will no longer be necessary.