Orphaned Dams on the Eel River


Historically, the Eel River had some of the largest runs of salmonids in California. At present, it has no hatcheries and four out of its five forks are undammed. The main fork has two dams in its upper reaches. The lower of the two dams has a fish-ladder that is in dire need of improvement and an out of basin water diversion to the Russian River for residential and agricultural uses. The upper dam has blocked upstream passage to migrating salmonids for nearly one hundred years. April 14th, 2022 is the official expiration date for PG&E’s (Pacific Gas and Electric) license to operate the two dams on the upper Eel River. Numerous unexpected developments have occurred in the five years since the relicensing process began and stakeholder meetings were convened. The two dam project is not a sound financial investment. The power generating capacity of the project is only 9 megawatts and the antiquated state of the facilities necessitates costly repairs. This led to PG&E withdrawing its Notice of Intent to relicense in 2019.

PG&E’s lack of interest in the project created an opening for applications from other groups to take over the project. This led to the formation of a Two Basin Partnership, consisting of five parties, Sonoma County Water Agency, Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, Round Valley Indian Tribes, Humboldt County and CalTrout. The five parties represent stakeholders from the Eel and Russian River watersheds and proposed a “two-basin solution.” The two-basin solution would remove the upper passage blocking dam, repair or remove the lower dam and fish ladder and still provide sufficient water supply to out of basin water users in the Russian River. These were lofty goals, backed by good intentions and our local congressmen, to satisfy the needs of imperiled fish populations, river restoration and human communities in both watersheds. However, the Partnership was unable to secure funds to complete required study plans, and pay for facility retrofitting and dam removal by their deadlines. PG&E declined their request for financial support. It is now inevitable that the Partnership will withdraw their Notice of Intent to relicense the project.

These events put the Eel River dams in the relatively uncharted territory of an orphan/surrender process through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). And to keep things interesting, the main transformer bank at the power generating facility malfunctioned recently, with an 18-24 month timeline to replace at a cost of $5-10 million. PG&E has yet to say whether they plan to complete these repairs or not. This limits the capacity of the out of basin diversion and renders the power generating component of the project nonexistent. It is now up to FERC to decide what will be become of the project that no one wants or can afford to maintain. It has been suggested that the surrender process may be a more expedient means by which to arrive at a favorable outcome for all interested parties. PG&E could be forced to bear the brunt of the costs associated with decommissioning, while leaving room for an out of basin damless diversion. What we don’t want to see happen is FERC’s renewal of annual operating licenses for the project into the foreseeable future. This would equate to maintaining the status quo while the Eel’s native fish species continue to decline and the negative impacts of the dam on the ecosystem are perpetuated. Stay tuned for updates and opportunities to express your concerns to FERC in the near future.




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