PG&E Confirms Plan to Begin Full Removal of Eel River Dams

Published 11/17/2023  |  California Trout

Cover Photo: Cape Horn Dam. Credit: Michael Wier

All in-river facilities to be removed; Eel will be the longest free-flowing river in California

On November 17, 2023, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) released the initial draft (click the documents tab and enter password: PV_Surrender to download) of its plan to remove two dams on the Eel River. The plan calls for the complete and expeditious removal of most of the Potter Valley Project facilities. PG&E must provide the plan to federal regulators as part of the license surrender process triggered by the utility’s decision to divest from the financially unviable Project, which has not generated power since 2021.  PG&E must submit a final Draft License Surrender Application (LSA) and Decommissioning Plan to federal regulators in May 2024, and a Final LSA in January 2025.

“The Round Valley Indian Tribes have relied on the Eel River and its fishery since time immemorial. Today marks a historic first step in restoring this important cultural and natural resource to health,” said Lewis “Bill” Whipple, President of the Round Valley Indian Tribes Tribal Council.

“CalTrout has been a staunch advocate for removing the Eel River dams and restoring this important watershed from headwaters to estuary,” said Curtis Knight, executive director of California Trout. “The draft plan calls for removing Scott and Cape Horn Dams, two of Northern California’s most harmful fish passage barriers, and restoring the Eel River to a free-flowing state.”

“Dam removal will make the Eel the longest free-flowing river in California and will open up hundreds of stream miles of prime habitat unavailable to native salmon and steelhead for over 100 years,” said Brian J. Johnson, California Director for Trout Unlimited. “This is the most important thing we can do for salmon and steelhead on the Eel River, and these fisheries cannot afford to wait.”

The Eel River once supported runs of up to a million salmon and steelhead each year, but those numbers have plummeted to a fraction of historical numbers. Scientists recognize that a healthy and free-flowing Eel River has the potential to play a key role in the rebound of these fisheries throughout the North Coast region.

Scott Dam. Credit: Kyle Schwartz

The Eel River headwaters provide high-quality cold-water habitat.

PG&E’s plan also includes – as an alternative for evaluation – a revised framework proposal from a regional group to negotiate terms for a new diversion facility that could support ongoing limited water diversions into the Russian River watershed after removing the dams, provided such diversions are consistent with the full recovery of the Eel River ecosystem to self-sustaining, harvestable populations. Proponents of the proposal include the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Trout, Humboldt County, Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, Round Valley Indian Tribes, Sonoma County Water Agency, and Trout Unlimited.

“Critically, this new proposal includes a commitment from all proponents that funding, permitting, and construction of a new diversion will not delay PG&E’s decommissioning and dam removal,” said Johnson. “It represents a viable framework for a two-basin solution and we are committed to working with our partners to develop it further.”

“We agreed to work with Russian River water users on this effort because we believe strongly that the best thing we can do for salmon and steelhead is to get these dams out of the river as quickly as possible,” said Knight. “If we can work out a deal, that is the best way to make that happen.”

“The Tribes are pleased to join with their partners in creating a path to a solution that ensures the survival and recovery of our most precious resource,” added President Whipple.

The framework proposal submitted to PG&E lays out critical elements of a deal, including: formation of a Regional Entity with the financial capacity to operate a new project; selection of an engineering solution for the new diversion works; identification of river flows and a diversion schedule that allows water diversions and full restoration of the Eel River; funding for Eel River restoration; and a permitting pathway for the new facility, among other things. Proponents hope to resolve these matters in time for inclusion as a preferred alternative in PG&E’s May 2024 Draft and January 2025 Final License Surrender Application.

Proponents have set a target date for dam deconstruction to begin in 2028, pending review and approval from the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission, which oversees the decommissioning of hydroelectric projects. Provided a final deal can be negotiated, all proponents, including CalTrout and Trout Unlimited, would commit to seeking permits for the new diversion so that it can be built immediately following dam removal to avoid a disruption of water supplies.

The public comment period for the Initial Draft Surrender Application and Decommissioning Plan is open until December 22.

About the Eel River Dams

The Potter Valley Project includes two Eel River dams, a diversion tunnel that moves water out of the Eel River watershed and into the East Branch of the Russian River, and a powerhouse. The Project’s owner, PG&E, has allowed its license for the operation to expire and is currently working with federal regulators to develop a license surrender and decommissioning plan for the facilities.

Located on the Eel River 20 miles northeast of Ukiah, Scott and Cape Horn Dam are over 100 years old. Equipment failures in 2021 caused Project owner PG&E to permanently suspend hydropower operations. Water storage levels in Lake Pillsbury, the reservoir created by Scott Dam, have been reduced by more than 25% due to increased seismic safety concerns with the dam. Scott Dam completely blocks fish passage to high-quality cold-water habitat in the Eel River headwaters. The smaller Cape Horn diversion dam has a faulty fish ladder that needs to be revised to meet current environmental standards.

Conservation and commercial fishing groups have long advocated for a free-flowing Eel River. In 2023, American Rivers named the Eel one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, citing the Potter Valley Project dams as major factors driving Chinook salmon, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey toward extinction.

Removing the Eel River dams would make the Eel California’s longest free-flowing river and would reconnect salmon and steelhead with almost 300 miles of cold-water habitat.

Across the state, California Trout is committed to getting obsolete dams out and reconnecting native salmon and steelhead with the clean, cold water of their native spawning and rearing habitats. We can’t do it alone! Click below to join us in this important work.

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The post PG&E Confirms Plan to Begin Full Removal of Eel River Dams appeared first on California Trout.

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