Fate of Russian and Eel River flows rests in big fight over small hydroelectric project


Even the record rainfall that dowsed the North Coast this winter, filling reservoirs and streams, will not be enough to head off a looming clash over the water that courses down two of the region’s largest rivers, the Russian and the Eel.

Together, they drain a swath of territory, including cities, forests and vineyards, that stretches from central Sonoma County to Fortuna, in Humboldt County — an area larger than Connecticut.

A key link between the two rivers, a small powerhouse more than 100 years old, is now the focal point in a fight over the water that flows down these rivers. It’s a standoff with many of the main players in western water wars — farmers, environmentalists, water districts serving urban customers and fishermen. And it raises many of the same questions: Who benefits and who loses from water taken for decades from one river — at over 20 billion gallons a year — and funneled into another river?

In this case, it is the Eel River that has been tapped, its water sent down a milelong tunnel through a mountain in Mendocino County, into a PG&E powerhouse and ultimately into a fork of Russian River, which flows down through Sonoma County.

Water drawn from the Eel River sustains Lake Mendocino, the main source of drinking water for residents along the Russian River from Redwood Valley down to Healdsburg.

Turning off that supply could devastate agriculture and diminish that primary water source for thousands of people, according to interests on one side of the tug-of-war.

The vast majority of the more 600,000 North Bay residents who depend on the Russian River for drinking water are unaware of the plumbing arrangement and the controversy that has long swirled around it and two related dams on the Eel River, where once-prolific runs of salmon and steelhead trout have dwindled amid various human impacts, water diversion among them.

But for the partisans — the water managers, environmentalists, public officials, ranchers and scientists — the dilemma of parsing out this water between competing interests, between people and fish, between town and country, is revving up again over the relicensing of the PG&E powerhouse, called the Pottery Valley Project.

“It’s a critical moment,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, the San Rafael Democrat whose North Coast district spans the adjacent watersheds.

Read more at: Fate of Russian and Eel River flows rests in big fight over small hydroelectric project | The Press Democrat