In a landmark moment, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. formalized its plans to tear down two more-than-century-old dams on the Eel River — removing the barrier that forms Lake Pillsbury, freeing the waters of the river and restoring the lake footprint to a more natural state.
The moves are part of a 94-page draft surrender application submitted to federal regulators and made public Friday as part of the utility’s plan to decommission its Potter Valley powerhouse and all the infrastructure that comes with it — including Scott and Cape Horn dams, sited slightly downstream.
PG&E has said work deconstructing the dams could begin as early 2028, depending on regulatory approval and environmental review of the plan.
Scott Dam, built in 1921, would come down first, either in phases or all in one season.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. initial draft plan
The plan fulfills long-held dreams of conservationists and fishery groups to see the cold, clear headwaters of the Eel River, part of the Mendocino National Forest, reopened to migrating fish and to restore natural river flows in hopes of reversing the decline of native fish stocks.
“Dam removal will make the Eel the longest free-flowing river in California and will open up hundreds of stream miles of prime habitat unavailable to native salmon and steelhead for over 100 years,” said Brian J. Johnson, California Director for Trout Unlimited. “This is the most important thing we can do for salmon and steelhead on the Eel River, and these fisheries cannot afford to wait.”
PG&E is still determining which of two approaches to take in removing Scott Dam, primarily related to how to handle sediment accumulated behind the dam and how best to release the stored water to limit its dispersal.
In a win for Sonoma Water and Russian River water users in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, PG&E also has agreed to evaluate a regional proposal to retain enough of smaller Cape Horn Dam, built in 1907, and a mile-long diversion tunnel to allow continued, wintertime diversions from the Eel to the East Fork Russian River.
The idea is to draw off limited water when Eel River flows are high in order to top off Lake Mendocino and prevent the Russian River from running dry in summer, while still allowing salmon and steelhead trout to migrate up the Eel River to its headwaters unimpeded.
Local officials said they were excited to see the proposal included in PG&E’s draft, the first of two that will be circulated for public review over the coming months before a final surrender application is filed in January 2025. Two different approaches are being considered for diversions — one called a roughened channel and the other, a pumpback system involving embedded pumps, requiring less infrastructure in the water to move diversions toward the tunnel.
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore called it ”big deal,“ saying PG&E ”could have taken the easy way out … and moved ahead with a less complex solution — one that doesn’t deal with multiple jurisdictions, partners, opinions, end goals.“
Members of the regional group, which includes the Round Valley Indian Tribes, are in the process of creating a joint power authority to establish the framework for governance and funding of the proposed diversion system, dubbed the new Eel-Russian Facility.
A tremendous amount of work still lies ahead to design, engineer, finance, establish operating protocols and arrange water rights in order to bring the diversion proposal to fruition.
But Gore, many of whose north county constituents depend on Russian River flows for municipal and agricultural use, as do thousands more in Mendocino County, said they knew what was coming and know what’s at stake in ensuring diversions continue, even if it comes at a cost.
“Everybody knows, unless they’ve been hiding under a rock, that the days of free water are gone,” Gore said.
The regional proposal comes with a pledge to move forward without delaying dam removals and promoting restoration of the fishery.
Proponents signed onto the regional proposal include the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Humboldt County, Trout Unlimited and California Trout, whose focus is ensuring improved conditions in the Eel River. Many have long resented the abundance of water removed from the Eel, though diversions have lessened in recent years.
In many ways, the membership reflects the makeup and goals of the Two-Basin Solution Partnership, a stakeholder group brought together by North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman in 2019, after PG&E first announced it would not renew its federal license for the aging hydroelectric project.
The partnership made a bid to acquire the project in order to maintain diversions while restoring fish passage, though it was unable to meet a timetable set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to submit an application.
Huffman, D-San Rafael, has continued to maintain that the dams would come down and that room remained for a two-partnership, win-win resolution.
He said Friday that the new application “is a major step forward to achieving the Two-Basin Solution I’ve advocated for years.”
The impending loss of Lake Pillsbury, a 3 1/2-square-mile reservoir popular with boaters and other recreators, is a tremendous blow to those who have homes along its shore or traditions of visiting and camping there, though Lake County officials continue to fight the proposal.
Four communities totaling about 300 homes and cabin have been built since the dam went in, along with campgrounds, a marina and other amenities, all “built up around Lake Pillsbury being in existence,” Lake County Treasurer/Tax Collector Patrick Sullivan said in a video presentation last month to the Russian River Water Forum.
Dam removal would mean the immediate and ongoing loss of $750,000 in sales and occupancy taxes each year, as well as $40 million loss in property values, Sullivan said.
PG&E alone has five family campground and a group campground it plans to take out.
The entire proposal would eliminate a key visitor destination for the county that Supervisors Eddie “E.J.” Crandell and Bruno Sabatier said in the same video must be addressed through monetary considerations and creation of other economic opportunities.
They and members of the Lake Pillsbury Alliance also have cited concerns about wildlife populations that have grown up around the lake, the longtime use of the lake as a water source for firefighting aircraft, and other concerns.
“There are 300 property owners, ranchers, that have been misrepresented and underrepresented through the process, and they’re underrepresented this moment, in the initial draft,” said Carol Cinquini, a representative of the Lake Pillsbury Alliance, whose grandson is the fifth generation to grow up using the lake.
Cinquini said the review necessary before the full surrender is complete still leaves time “so a lot can happen.”
But PG&E says it has no other plan but removing the dam.
It also reduced the lake level earlier this year due to newly analyzed seismic concerns that will prevent it from allowing the lake to be restored to full capacity in the future.
In the meantime, the utility has put all of the lake basin and the shoreline, and “a wide area” along 11 miles of river downstream of the lake under permanent conservation easement held by the Mendocino Land Trust, protecting the wildlife and prohibiting future development on the land.
The easement allows public access to the area in perpetuity.
Huffman, in September, said “it is going to be a bumpy ride for the next few months, maybe the next year or so,” as stakeholders begin to embrace the reality of decommissioning and tend to the details.
Lake Pillsbury aficionados, in particular, he said, would realize the lake already isn’t what it’s been, with reduced capacity, “boat ramps that don’t go in the water,” and “a big bathtub ring (around the lake) that isn’t as pretty as they would like to see.”
But ultimately, the conversation will “change to the point where a lot of them will realize it’s going to be a beautiful place to be and to recreate and to live, if they choose to do that,” Huffman said.
“It’s just going to be different.”
The draft surrender application is in circulation to the public until Dec. 22, when all comments on referred alternatives are due to PG&E.
Comments can be sent electronically, which is preferred, to PVSurrender@pge.com, or via regular mail to Tony Gigliotti, Senior Licensing Project Manager, Power Generation, 12840 Bill Clark Way, Auburn, CA 95602
A final draft is to be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by June 3, with another round of public comments through July 18.
The final surrender application is due to the federal commission Jan. 29, 2025.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.