Supervisors call for removal of Scott Dam, solidify stance on Potter Valley Project

Sheriff William Honsal gives retire Lt. Ken Swithenbank a Medal of Valor, recognizing his efforts in a case that involved the nonfatal shooting of a deputy. A proclamation was also read for his 27 years of service with the sheriff’s office.
Sheriff William Honsal gives retire Lt. Ken Swithenbank a Medal of Valor, recognizing his efforts in a case that involved the nonfatal shooting of a deputy. A proclamation was also read for his 27 years of service with the sheriff’s office. Ruth Schneider — The Times-Standard

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors cemented its position on the future of the Potter Valley Project on Tuesday morning and stated in a resolution that the end goal is to see the decommissioning of the power plant and specifically the removal of Scott Dam.

“We have to work together on this and we have to stand strong for Humboldt County’s thoughts and concerns,” 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said.

The resolution included in the board agenda underwent a series of tweaks to strengthen language and specify the removal of Scott Dam was “desirable.”

“If we could call out language that speaks to the removal of Scott Dam, I’d be more supportive of this,” 3rd District Supervisor Mike Wilson said.

Fennell replied, “I think we can address the concerns discussed today.”

The resolution, which passed unanimously, states the county “believes that decommissioning and full or partial removal of the Potter Valley Project is inevitable due to the aging infrastructure, low power production, and the high cost of upgrading the facility to comply with current dam safety and environmental regulations.”

The 110-year-old Potter Valley Project supplies water and power to hundreds of thousands of customers in the Potter Valley by diverting water from the Eel River into the Russian River.

“Power generation has gone down,” Public Works Deputy Director Hank Seeman told the board. “There have been significant reductions over time.”

Last month, Pacific Gas and Electric Company announced its intention to auction the plant.

Seeman called the current situation “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to speak for the county’s interests.”

Key among those interests — and something expressed by multiple stakeholders — is the restoration of fish passages.

“The real problem fish face as a result of the Potter Valley Project is one of migration,” Karuk Tribe natural resources policy advocate Craig Tucker said.

The Scott Dam, one of two dams at the Potter Valley Project, does not have a fish ladder.

“I am encouraged by the direction this resolution is going,” said Friends of the Eel River executive director Stephanie Tidwell during the public comment period.

She added that the removal of the Scott Dam was a key priority.

“I would like to see it say more that we acknowledge Scott Dam has to go ... Scott Dam is not just about fish passage, it’s about safety too,” she said.

Wildfire liability

The board pulled an item from the consent calendar at the request of Wilson that looked at whether utility companies request for limit liability in wildfires.

The request for legislative action comes after what has been dubbed as the worst fire season in the state’s history, which in 2017 resulted in 44 lives lost, 245,000 acres of land torched and thousands of buildings and residences being destroyed.

“The utility companies would like to alleviate themselves of some of the liability of fires caused by their infrastructure,” Wilson said, noting that the companies are sometimes referred to as “benevolent monopolies.”

“If they take on liabilities, those are reflected in our rates,” he added.

Both the California State Association of Counties, of which 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass is first vice president, and the Rural County Representatives of California, of which 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn is chair, oppose utility companies’ request for limited liability in wildfires.

“Our concern is that there is an effort underway to preemptively, and potentially retroactively, deny the rights of those who sustained losses from the fires before a full assessment of cause and determination can be made,” states a letter signed by CSAC executive director Graham Knaus.

“I know [utility companies] don’t want fires,” said Bohn. “... We’re going to pay for it one way or another.”

The board voted unanimously to stand with CSAC and RCRC in opposition to the utility companies’ request.

Other business

Retiring Lt. Ken Swithenbank was honored by the board for his service in the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and a proclamation was read recognizing his work.

Fennell read the proclamation and told Swithenbank, “I appreciate all of our history and everything you have done for the community.”

After Swithenbank thanked the supervisors and acknowledged the work of his colleagues, Sheriff William Honsal presented Swithenbank with a Medal of Valor for his participation in a serving an eviction notice to a Southern Humboldt man William “Wild Bill” Nelson, that resulted in one officer being shot in the chest. Nelson was later convicted of attempted murder.

“I applaud Kenny because he led from the front,” Honsal said.

Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.

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