Craig Tucker, a natural resources consultant (foreground, left), explains what may lie ahead for the Potter Valley Project. (Shomik Mukherjee — The Times-Standard)
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A system that transfers and diverts water from the Eel River basin has been in Pacific Gas and Electric’s control for over 35 years, but the utility’s bankruptcy filing in January — coupled with its interest in either selling or abandoning the project — has Humboldt County officials intent on closely following what happens next.

For more than 100 years, the Potter Valley Project has seen Eel River water directed to the headwaters of the Russian River, providing water and power to thousands of Potter Valley residents. But researchers and scientists say the diversion has threatened fish populations, including the Chinook salmon and the Northern pikeminnow.

Inclement weather, including this past winter’s conditions, can clog up the dams. Teams of divers have had to clean out the portions of the basin that have silted over and disrupted water flow, said Craig Tucker, natural resources policy consultant.

There are several different strategies for dealing with fish passage issues, Tucker said at today’s Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting. They include everything from removing the dams altogether to building fish ladders to help salmon populations pass through barriers, he said.

“To me, a surprising finding in this effort is that you could remove the dams and have very-little-to-no impact on the Eel River,” he said. “But maybe more surprising is you could remove the Scott Dam or Pillsbury Dam and still meet the Sonoma County water agency’s needs.”

PG&E had originally tried to sell the project off in the fall, but following its bankruptcy announcement in January it may choose to decommission the project altogether, leaving others to build a new project in its place.

“Odd things can happen during bankruptcy procedures,” Tucker said. “Certainly, PG&E’s goal in entering bankruptcy is to rid itself of as many liabilities as possible. I have a fear they may try to rid themselves of the obligations with this project.”

Janet Pauli, chair of the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, said at the meeting that Mendocino County agencies had closed in on acquiring the project from PG&E just days before the utility announced it would withdraw its project license altogether.

“There are several issues that face us in the Russian River, including water supply,” Pauli said.

Rep. Jared Huffman has reportedly favored a two-basin solution, one that would work toward both dam removal and sufficient Russian River water supply in the summer months. Fifth District Supervisor Steven Madrone strongly supported the initiative.

“If we’re going to remove the diversions, what can we do to increase water storage?” he asked, referring to the county’s discussions over how to save water for drier seasons.

A speaker from the Wiyot Tribe said the dams must be removed to restore fish populations for the Native American tribes who built communities on the river’s banks.

“The Eel River needs to come back to health, it needs to come back to the people,” he said. “That is our bloodline, that is what kept us alive for many years.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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