Coalition’s Proposal Would Remove Eel River’s Controversial Scott Dam

In 2018 we wrote about the ups and downs of the North Coast’s famed Eel River – chronicled in director Shane Anderson’s great documentary A River’s Last Chance. One of the most polarizing themes in the film was the river’s dams, which have been debated for generations. Here’s what Anderson and his co-collaborator Jason Hartwick said when we wrote about their film in September 2018:

Hartwick sees the Potter Valley Project and diverting more water from its Scott Dam onto the Eel as a critical talking point to sustaining the watershed for the long term. But that issue is ongoing as a group of conservationists vie for an opportunity to purchase the project from PG&E and ensure that more of that valuable cold water is diverted to the river. 

Political issues aside, the Eel’s story of excess, decline and rebirth of its wild fish is told beautifully in A River’s Last Chance. Anderson, who despite his deep roots in the Pacific Northwest, has an emotional attachment to the Eel, is filled with a feeling many have lacked or been leery about embracing over the last half-century: hope. 

“I think we’ll get to over 100,000 Chinook. If you look at it there’s no harvest; there are no hatcheries; the timber practices have dramatically changed. There’s a really good chance that (Potter Valley Project’s dam is) coming out, especially now that PG&E has said they’re going to auction it off. And at the very minimum, even if the dam stays there will be better management of it,” he says. 

Now North Coast media outlets are reporting that the Potter Valley Project will be taken over by a group that plans to remove Scott Dam. Here’s more from the Lost Coast Outpost:

For Humboldt County residents in particular, the plan is significant because it calls for the removal of Scott Dam, a 98-year old hydroelectric wall that has had major detrimental impacts to native migratory fish populations, including salmon and steelhead. 

The five entities in the coalition known as the Two-Basin Partnership include the County of Humboldt, the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, California Trout and the Sonoma County Water Agency.

These groups have distinct and sometimes conflicting objectives for the water that’s at stake, with environmental interests clamoring for fisheries restoration while agricultural users in the Potter Valley and water agencies in the Russian River basin have their own uses in mind. Agricultural interests in the Potter Valley and upper Russian River basin want the water to irrigate their crops, primarily vineyards. Sonoma and Mendocino water agencies want it to supply their customers and meet their contract obligations.

But as the Eureka Times-Standard writes, the project’s future is far from a sure thing:

Included in the project’s feasibility study are plans to manage sediment buildups, expand a separate water diversion and improve a fish ladder at Cape Horn to create safe passage for Eel River salmon threatened by invasive species like pikeminnow.

But questions remain around how the coalition would pay for any of these costly infrastructure upgrades, especially since the ongoing coronavirus pandemic stands to take a chunk out of available state funding.

“We really are going into uncharted waters,” said Estelle Fennell, Humboldt County’s 2nd District supervisor. “We don’t know when our economy is going to rebound. Somewhere along the line, there is a potential for stimulus out there that we could definitely explore, but as of now, we really don’t know.”