‘Beginning of the end’: Potter Valley Project license expires

April 14, 2022

It appears more changes are on the way for the state’s aging water infrastructure on the North Coast, but it could take several years for them to manifest.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s license for the Potter Valley Project ?— a hydroelectric project near Ukiah that includes the Scott and Cape Horn dams, a powerhouse, and a tunnel that diverts water from the Eel River to the Russian River ?— expired on Thursday. Alicia Hamann, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, told The Times-Standard that the only path left for PG&E is to surrender the license and open the way for the dams to be removed.

“The expiration of the license is really the first step to dam removal,” Hamann said. “I’ve been lovingly referring to it as the beginning of the end of the Potter Valley Project because license expiration does not mean license surrender or decommission or dam removal, but it’s the first step that takes us down the path for all of those processes.”

North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman told The Times-Standard that a lot is still unknown at this point.

“It is largely up to PG&E and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to work out the details of this decommissioning,” Huffman said. “Everyone else is going to be watching closely, some will be engaged in the FERC proceedings as intervenors, and there could be a lot of conflict and fighting about the details.”

The Two Basin Partnership, which was planning on acquiring the project and continuing diversions to the Russian River, ended up running out of funds to move forward with its plans, leaving no one willing or able to care for the aging dams.

Huffman said a two basin agreement that would have restored fish passages and created a new diversion system would have qualified for federal funds through the bipartisan infrastructure law. No such agreement exists though and no one knows exactly how PG&E is going to go about the decommissioning process, he said.

“They’re present a plan and a schedule and then FERC will make a ruling as to whether that’s adequate,” Huffman said. “And stakeholders like Humboldt County and Sonoma County and others will be engaged and probably have their own thoughts about the terms and conditions of PG&E’s decommissioning.”

That’s going to take years, Huffman said, and by that time federal funding may not be available.

FERC, which regulates hydroelectric projects, will issue an annual license to PG&E to continue owning and operating the Potter Valley Project as it has been until the agency issues a final order to surrender and decommission it, Paul Moreno, a PG&E spokesperson, wrote in an email.

PG&E is not currently involved in the process to surrender or decommission the project, but the utility expects FERC will soon ask it to provide a plan and schedule for submitting a surrender application, Moreno wrote.

“The surrender process will look like a FERC relicensing process in many ways, including the opportunity for public input,” Moreno wrote.

As a result, the utility is also going to replace a transformer that went out a few months ago since it’s likely the company will recoup the cost in about five years.

“Given the surrender process is likely to take more than five years, replacing the transformer makes economic sense for our electric generation customers,” Moreno wrote. “The transformer will need to be engineered, custom-built, transported and installed, which could take a couple of years.”

The Cape Horn and Scott dams blocks salmon, steelhead, lamprey and other fish species in the Eel River from accessing more than 150 miles of valuable cold water habitat in the upper watershed.

Dam removal would also eliminate the warm water conditions that nourish invasive pikeminnows, which eat juvenile salmon and steelhead.

“The Eel represents one of the best opportunities to recover wild salmon and steelhead in California,” Brian Johnson, the California director of Trout Unlimited, said in a statement. “Our habitat restoration work on dozens of projects in the Eel watershed has provided hard evidence of this: where we take out fish migration barriers and restore habitat complexity, fish come back. Restoring the Eel to its full potential as a wild salmon and steelhead stronghold is one of our highest priorities in California and dam removal is the single biggest step we can take to make that happen.”

The dams have also impacted the ability of the Wiyot Tribe to continue its cultural practices. Adam Canter, the Wiyot Tribe’s Natural Resource director, said in a statement the status quo would sacrifice the health of the watershed and the communities that rely on it, so the license expiration is “a hopeful moment.”

“Wiya’t translates as ‘abundance’ in the Soulatluk language,” Canter said. “The damming of this sacred river, the theft of unceded Eel River water without due protections to our endangered salmon and lamprey, it’s damaging to the Wiyot’s river culture.”

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0504.

By:  Sonia Waraich
Source: Eureka Times-Standard