Water Issues Remain Top of Mind Among Sonoma County Concerns
Whether it is a lack of rain before and during fire season, threats from rising sea levels, ground water sustainability, flood control concerns or having enough water for residential and commercial use from the Eel and Russian Rivers, water issues top the list for Sonoma County residents.
This vital topic was revisited at the November 6 Sonoma County Alliance general membership meeting as three panelists provided an update on efforts acquire and transfer control of the Potter Valley Project to a Joint Powers Authority (JPA), following PG&E’s announcement in January that it would not seek to relicense this project that contains the Scott and Cape Horn Dams, a hydroelectric plant, Lake Pillsbury and the VanArsdale reservoir diversion system that uses a tunnel to redirect about 90,000 acre-feet of Eel River water to Lake Mendocino and on to the Russian River.
Panelists included Janet Pauli, Chair of the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission (MCIWPC), a JPA that oversees the Mendocino water supply including the Potter Valley Project (PVP); Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, and Curtis Knight, executive director of California Trout, Inc. These three entitles formed the initial partnership group working on a new PVP plan and were later joined by Humboldt County and other entities.
Pauli is working with a broad coalition in Mendocino County and Ukiah Valley organizations including interest groups, residents and farmers who rely heavily on irrigation for local agriculture as well as electricity provided by PVP to help sustain the region’s economy in a tri-county area encompassing Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma Counties.
“The road ahead for Sonoma County is not simple,” said Pauli, who previously described the PVP situation to SCA members last June. “The JPA is one of two basin partners that includes both the Eel River and Russian River watersheds. When PG&E announced that it would not renew its license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), MCIWPA filed a Notice of Intent with FERC to license PVP on June 28th (before the July 1 deadline) as a preliminary step prior filing a license application next year.”
PG&E’s license expires in April 2022, requiring a new license application by April 2020. Pauli noted that the JPA’s NOI outlined the partner’s intent to develop a feasibility study evaluating options and recommendations in keeping with five basic goals described below:
- Prepare a description of a regional entity that will be formed and will apply for the new license; (including the original partners – MCIWPA, Sonoma Water and Cal Trout);
- Prepare a project plan showing proposed capital modifications, as well as operations and maintenance required, to provide the continuing delivery of water and generation of hydroelectric power,
- Prepare a fisheries restoration plan, with measures to be implemented over the term of the new license,
- Prepare a proposed study plan detailing additional studies necessary for the development of the new license application, and
- Prepare a financial plan, including the specific sources of initial funding and subsequent revenues to fund licensing capital improvements, as well as operations and maintenance of the project under a new license.
“We must complete these plans by April 2020,” Pauli added. “All of these goals are required to establish a two-basin solution for the future.”
“Since 1971 Cal Trout we have been working throughout California to balance the needs of fish as well as people. The inter-basin transfer of water with endangered species presents a lot of complex resource issues. We’re trying to resolve these issues within the FERC relicensing process that is very procedural steps leading to the feasibility study due next April.
Congressman Jared Huffman formed an ad hoc committee of 50-70 people attending his regular meetings and to keep everyone on the same page. Knight said one of his organization’s goals is to improve conditions on the Eel River. Cal Trout was part of an assessment of all 32 kinds of trout and steelhead salmon in the state. The results were startling. In the next 50 years we could lose half of those fish if current trends continue.
Knight said it’s not just about losing the fish, it is what they represent. “In 50 years, we could have unhealthy rivers affecting the quality of life, the drinking water supply, water for agriculture, water for commerce as well as water for fish. It’s a trend that should concern all of us. One of the strategies to reverse that trend is to take rivers that are good and make them live up to their true potential. The Eel River presents a rare opportunity to do this.”
He said improving the upper watershed in the Northern region is one of the big issues out there. The Eel River is the third largest watershed in our state, behind Sacramento and Klamath, it still can produce an abundance of fish – but that’s doesn’t happen much anymore. Some of the problems there include fish passage issues, abandoned rail lines, marijuana growing, drought and climate change, among other factors.
According to Knight, “This area has high elevation and is home to cold-water loving fish that need access to cold water. Climate change is having an impact on this. Passage of fish is Important. The FERC relicensing process requires fish passage above Scott Dam. The Scott Dam blocks the Eel River. What are the options? Build fish ladders, put them in a truck and transport them over the dams or modify the dams to get fish beyond the dam. Cost is a big part of that. One thing challenging us is how to develop a project that works for multiple interests and how to pay for it. The fact that PG&E is no longer involved forces us to figure this out. We’re optimistic.”
Everything Janet Pauli laid out in June has occurred, Davis said. “The partnership is growing – we don’t agree on everything – but we are united in having a two-basin solution. Part of my job is to make sure the process is founded on best available science, and to make sure that Sonoma Water is doing all we can to make our region more resilient.”
He recalled that the SCA was founded primarily on making sure Sonoma County had a more secure water supply through the establishment of Lake Sonoma as its primary reservoir. “People are concerned about the condition of our water supply, how we get our water, how we work with our contractors and manage related wastewater treatment resources.”
He pointed out that during the recent fire, Sonoma Water was able to keep the pressure up on the water supply even though this organization was evacuated to our Sonoma Valley treatment plant.
“We all need to be mindful of the fact that our water supply to a degree depends on the Russian River watershed that is, in fact, connected to the Eel River watershed. Both basins are critically important. We have to remember this as we become fully engaged in this process with our partners and stakeholders. So how do you grab hold of such a facility and put it to use to achieve our goals without breaking the bank? The challenge for us is that the Potter Valley facility must be maintained as an energy source. We need to create something new, as a regional entity to fulfill multiple requirements.”
He said, at the same time, we’ve got to elevate this project and the real importance of this region to our state and have it seen in a more prominent way. Davis noted that there are other watersheds going through a similar relicensing competing for attention.
“This is one theme we will be asking you — as the leaders of the county — to help us highlight the importance of the Russian and Eel Rivers in this project.”