Environmental, Fishing Groups Give Notice of Intent to Sue Pacific Gas and Electric to Minimize Harms to Salmon Until Eel River Dams Are Removed

Published 4/18/2022  |  California Trout

Eureka, California – A coalition of environmental and fishing groups has notified Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) that its two obsolete dams on the Eel River are violating the federal Endangered Species Act by harming federally protected salmon and steelhead.

The five groups – Friends of the Eel River, California Trout, Trout Unlimited, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources – sent a letter required by the Endangered Species Act to PG&E last week. The legal notice states the Potter Valley Project dams and diversion are causing take of Chinook salmon and steelhead, and that to the extent PG&E had federal permits to harm listed species, that coverage expired April 14.

Alicia Hamann, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, said the groups intend to take the utility to federal court to seek protections for salmon and steelhead harmed by PG&E’s Potter Valley Project. “A century after Scott Dam blocked passage to the Eel River’s headwaters, PG&E’s license to operate the Potter Valley Project has expired. The Eel River dams must now be removed,” Hamann said. “Until the dams are removed, PG&E must operate the Potter Valley Project to minimize impacts to critically imperiled Eel River Chinook salmon and steelhead.”

Scientists estimate that historically the Eel River saw 800,000 Chinook salmon return in good years, but today, only about 3,000 Chinook come back. Vivian Helliwell with the Institute for Fisheries Resources, a fishing industry group, emphasized the impact low Eel River salmon numbers have on fishing vessels working the Pacific Coast. “The fishing industry didn’t block upstream salmon habitat, PG&E did,” said Helliwell, “but massive losses of salmon from the Eel River have been devastating to coastal fishing-dependent communities. Helping Eel River salmon recover will help restore lost jobs and income for our fishing families.”

Trout Unlimited’s Charlie Schneider noted that for the last 20 years, PG&E has operated the Potter Valley Project under restrictions set by federal fisheries biologists to protect Eel River fisheries. “The National Marine Fisheries Service is clear that the permit ended last week. Now the agency has concluded not only that those protective measures were inadequate, but that the Potter Valley Project is negatively impacting salmon and steelhead in ways the agency never allowed. The Eel is one of the best opportunities for wild salmon recovery in California, until they remove their dams, PG&E must do more to reduce their impacts to fish than continue business as usual.”

While some Russian River agricultural interests have complained about the prospect of Eel River dam removal, Darren Mierau of California Trout says “Our studies have clearly shown that dam removal is what’s best for the health of the Eel River and there are technical solutions that could provide diversions from the Eel River to the Russian without dams. Whether Russian River interests want to invest in a safe, resilient, 21st century water supply is ultimately up to them. Either way, it’s time for Eel River salmon and steelhead to get the protection they need.”

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