In the beginning, the Potter Valley Project wasn’t really about water. It was about electricity.
In 1905, when Ukiah residents depended on a coal plant that only provided seven hours a day of power, a San Francisco resident named W.W. Van Arsdale decided to build an electrical power plant in Potter Valley where the Eel River ran 475 feet above the valley floor.
“He chose that site because it was high enough to make power,” said Janet Pauli of the Potter Valley Irrigation District, who often explains the history of the project for the annual tours the Mendocino County Farm Bureau leads every year through just a small portion of the Eel River watershed.
The river begins on Bald Mountain in Mendocino County and touches parts of Glenn, Lake and Trinity counties before reaching the Pacific Ocean about 15 miles south of Eureka.
Lampreys, coho salmon and steelhead trout depend on the Eel River for their survival. And for the fish, survival is all about the flow of the water: how much, how fast and how warm.
Salmon begin as eggs laid in the river and most head to the ocean when they can. The fish that stay in the river are Rainbow Trout, but the steelhead and coho start their long journey to the estuary — where fresh water meets salt water – near Loleta.
The fish that make it to the ocean to fatten up then head back up the Eel River, hoping to make it to their spawning grounds to reproduce. If they do, they will have gone through the fish ladder at the Van Arsdale Reservoir, which was also built as part of the Potter Valley Project to divert enough water to the powerhouse so it could create electricity.
Fish screens at the facility are designed to keep juvenile salmon from getting caught on their way to the ocean, and the fish ladder is designed to help the returning adult salmon get past Cape Horn Dam. As the fish come through the facility, PG&E representatives explained that, “Every single fish that comes through the ladder is measured and its tail is clipped.”
Pauli said she finds it frustrating that many people “try and blame the Potter Valley Project for reductions in salmon, but at the same time, the only real numbers we have for populations of salmon are from the project.”
The power of water
While the project at first changed the lives of people in the Ukiah Valley solely because of the electricity it created by diverting water, now the electricity has nowhere near the impact that the redirection of water has on both the fish and the people who depend on it.
“For those of you living downstream of Lake Mendocino, this (project) is a really good thing,” said Pauli, and fellow Potter Valley rancher Guiness McFadden agreed.
“If it weren’t for the Potter Valley project, Lake Mendocino would go dry three out of five years,” McFadden said.
But no matter how the project has shaped the surrounding population of humans and wildlife in its more than 100 years of existence, to its owner and operator PG&E, the Potter Valley Project remains first and foremost a power plant.
And strictly as a power plant, PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said, the asset is becoming less and less desirable. Not only is it remote and not cost-effective, Moreno said, reductions in customers’ demand, due to conservation and new competitors like Sonoma Clean Energy, mean his company no longer needs to produce as much electricity, regardless of which plant it comes from.
Because of this, PG&E decided to sell a similar hydro-electric facility in Butte County and is currently fielding offers. He declined to disclose the dollar amounts of those offers, and also declined to estimate how much the Potter Valley Project might be sold for.
He also stressed that no decision had officially been made by PG&E to sell the facility, but it will likely be made “within the next few months.”
In the meantime, McFadden said he hoped “people educate themselves on the importance of the project.”