Freeing the Eel

Published 8/25/2022  |  Trout Unlimited

Mainstem Eel River. Photo by Michael Weir, CalTrout

TU and partners sue to protect endangered salmon and steelhead as California dams await decommissioning

The Eel River is the last, best hope for recovery of wild salmon and steelhead in California. But two old, fish-killing dams on the Eel block access to over 200 miles of high-quality spawning and nursery habitat in the headwaters and, a major factor in the decline of anadromous fishes in California’s third largest watershed.

Scott Dam. Photo by Kyle Schwartz, CalTrout

Trout Unlimited is committed to “freeing the Eel,” in the words of Charlie Schneider, former president of TU’s Redwood Empire Chapter and now TU’s North Coast Steelhead Coordinator. TU is working in partnershipwith Friends of the Eel River, California Trout, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources to recover the Eel’s legendary salmon and steelhead runs.

Recently, this partnership determined it was necessary to do something TU rarely does: file a lawsuit. In this case, the complaint is against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Eel River steelhead. Photo by Friends of the Eel

Here’s why: in April of this year, the operating license for the Potter Valley Project—two dams, a diversion tunnel and a powerhouse—expired. PG&E, the project’s owner, informed FERC that the utility doesn’t want the facilities anymore.

PG&E eventually must decommission most or all the infrastructure. Until they do, the project continues to decimate anadromous fish populations — and PG&E wants to take two and a half years to decide what to do, and make no changes in its operations to better protect salmon and steelhead in the meantime.

“This is the Eel River dams problem in a nutshell,” Schneider says. “The dams are obsolete, lose money and block fish access to some of the most important habitat in the basin. PG&E wants to be rid of the project, but isn’t moving as quickly as they could to get those dams out of the river. In the meantime, dam operations are killing listed fish and PG&E is doing as little as possible to fix that.”

Eel River Hollow Tree Hatchery barrier removal project. Project managed by TU’s North Coast Coho Project.

NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for protecting salmon and steelhead, informed PG&E and FERC earlier this year that the project is now causing unacceptable levels of harm to fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act, and that the utility must adjust operations to comply with the agency’s permit for “take,”—harming or killing listed species.

NOAA Fisheries asked FERC to modify the operating license for the Potter Valley Project to protect declining fish populations, and to consult with NOAA on the best way to do that.

“This litigation is the first step in making sure FERC and PG&E protect Eel River salmon and steelhead while working toward dam removal,” said Alicia Hamann, executive director of Friends of the Eel River. “PG&E operates the fish-killing project, but FERC can change the terms of PG&E’s license to ensure that legally protected salmon and steelhead survive. NOAA Fisheries has made clear that, as currently operated, the dams are killing and harming far more fish than anybody thought when the current license terms were developed 20 years ago.”

Eel River LWD project on tributary to the upper Eel below Lake Pillsbury. Project managed by TU’s North Coast Coho Project.

After negotiations with PG&E went nowhere, TU and our Eel River partners filed a formal complaint against FERC for issuing PG&E an annual license to continue operating the Potter Valley Project without imposing new terms that would protect salmon and steelhead.

Eel River historic salmon and steelhead fishing.

Schneider says, “The Eel offers one of the best opportunities for wild salmon recovery in California, thanks to intact habitat above the dams and the improvements in habitat quality and connectivity TU and our restoration partners have done throughout the watershed. Dam removal is the single biggest action we can take to help recover the Eel and rebuild its legendary salmon and steelhead fisheries.”

Given the precarious state of California’s native salmon and steelhead, and the high potential for their recovery in the Eel, the status quo won’t cut it.

PG&E must act immediately to eliminate the Potter Valley Project’s harm to the Eel’s native fish.

Learn more about TU’s work to restore the Eel River. TU’s perspective was covered recently in reports by several media outlets. Read them here, here, and here.

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