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PG&E plans could mean troubled waters for Sonoma County

Seismic concerns prompt potential expedited dam removal

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the utility that owns and operates the Potter Valley Project, is considering speeding up the removal of Scott Dam due to seismic concerns. This could lead to a decrease in the water level of Lake Pillsbury, the reservoir behind the dam, by as much as 26%.

Implications for local water availability

The water availability is expected to be similar to the dry conditions experienced in 2020 and 2021, with the dam gates remaining open. This could have serious implications for local water users, including those in Sonoma County, as the project diverts water from the Eel River into the Russian River.

PG&E's plan for the Potter Valley Project

The utility is in the process of developing a plan to surrender the entire project, signaling a potential end to a system that has been in place for over a century. However, PG&E has not yet submitted a plan to remove the dam and is still in the process of determining how to manage flows out of Lake Pillsbury.

Farmers concerned

Guinness McFadden of McFadden Farm, a pioneering organic winegrower whose farm surrounds the outlet of the Potter Valley Project tunnel and thus the headwaters of the Russian River, is one of many who depend on the Potter Valley Project for irrigation. He expresses concern over PG&E's lack of interest in maintaining the power plant. “PG&E does not want to fix the power plant up. They don’t make any money on it. Most of the money they say they spend is for compliance," McFadden notes, mentioning ”the value of the green electricity generated by the Potter Valley powerhouse (enough for 2,500 to 3,000 homes).“

A nonprofit organization organization called Caltrout is advocating a ”two basin solution“ they say would maintain a winter diversion of Eel River water to the Russian River while restoring migratory access to habitat above the dams.

The impact on the Russian River

The removal of Scott Dam and the potential reduction in water diversion could significantly impact the Russian River. The upper portion of the river is reliant on Lake Mendocino, a reservoir that requires refilling each winter. Any reduction in water flow could affect the health of the river and the economy of the Russian River Valley.

Towards a sustainable future: The Russian River Water Forum

In response to these potential challenges, Sonoma Water has established the Russian River Water Forum. This collaborative group aims to identify solutions to ensure water-supply resiliency while safeguarding tribal interests and supporting the preservation of fisheries, water quality, and recreation in the Russian River and Eel River basins. Sonoma County supervisors have allocated a budget of $350,000 to the Russian River Water Forum for the development of a regional solution to PG&E's planned decommissioning of the Potter Valley Project. This amount is less than ten percent of the funding recently allocated by the county board for seven local water projects.

Awaiting the final decision

The ultimate outcome of this situation is yet to be determined. There is a possibility of things moving fast, with PG&E potentially choosing expedited dam removal as a mitigation measure. However, the utility's plans remain far from definitive, leaving Sonoma County water users in a state of uncertainty.

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