Members of local Native American tribes pose for a photo after walking out of a June 17 ad hoc committee meeting regarding the Potter Valley Project. | Photo courtesy True North Organizing Network.

A group of Eel River-adjacent Native American tribes issued a press release Friday saying they’ve been denied a seat at the table as regional stakeholders navigate a deal to take over the hydroelectric dams on the upper Eel.

The press release, which was sent via the True North Organizing Network, says members of the Wiyot and Round Valley Indian Tribes walked out of a June 17 ad hoc committee meeting in solidarity with the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria. The latter tribe had been asked to leave the meeting by Congressman Jared Huffman’s staff, the release says.

But Huffman told the Outpost that the whole kerfuffle was simply an awkward situation caused by a communications breakdown.

“It was very unfortunate; I feel terrible about it,” Huffman said. “But the chair of the Bear River Tribe showed up without reaching out and talking to us about it.”

With PG&E abandoning the 110-year-old Potter Valley Project, a two-dam hydroelectric facility that diverts water from the Eel to the Russian River, Huffman has assembled an ad hoc group of stakeholders working toward what he calls a two-basin solution — that is, something that will improve fish passage and habitat on the Eel while minimizing the adverse impacts to water interests on the Russian.

Humboldt County recently joined with the Mendocino Inland Water and Power Commission, the Sonoma County Water Agency and California Trout to submit a notice of intent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). These agencies hope to take over the FERC license for Potter Valley Project, which includes Scott Dam, Cape Horn Dam, a water diversion channel and a power plant.

The ad hoc committee, which plays an advisory role in these dealings, includes representatives from more than 20 entities, including Humboldt, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties along with environmental groups and tribes. Some of these entities have been at odds for decades — and remain so. The politics can be touchy.

“Maintaining good faith and balance among the stakeholders is really important,” Huffman said, adding that his staff has also had to turn away people from the Russian River basin on several occasions. “But it’s also important to make sure our tribal representatives have a chance to make sure their voices are heard.” 

Huffman said that he spoke with the chair of the Bear River Tribe “for quite some time” the day after the ad hoc meeting and committed to work with him toward getting the tribe a seat at the table. 

He also said that the Wiyot and Round Valley tribes did not walk out, as the press release states. They participated in the meeting, and he spoke with them afterwards about ways that the Bear River Tribe — and any other tribe with a valid interest in the proceedings — can participate in the group.

“I’m frankly at a loss to understand that press release,” Huffman said. He recalled a conference call he had with tribal representatives subsequent to the meeting and said he’s been working toward broadening the ad hoc committee to include representatives from what he called the Wiyot tribes, plural, and, on the Russian River side, the Pomo tribes, plural. He coined these umbrella terms to include tribes from each basin.

“The only thing I ask of everybody on the ad hoc committee is that they agree to the two-basin principles,” Huffman said.

Even this seemingly simple goal was recently complicated when the Lake County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution categorically opposing the removal of Scott Dam in hopes of preserving Lake Pillsbury. 

Huffman said that stance is “absolutely inconsistent” with the two-basin principles. “We’ll have to have a conversation about that,” he said.

The Outpost attempted to contact both Edwin Smith, chair of the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria, and Ted Hernandez, chair of the Wiyot Tribe, for clarification about the apparent misunderstanding with Huffman, but by the time this post went up neither had responded to voicemails.

For plenty more information on the Potter Valley Project, see here.

Here’s the press release:

Eel River Tribes Form Coalition to Support Dam Removal

Tribes Demand a Seat at the Table with Counties and Conservation Groups

Last month, Humboldt County, Sonoma County Water and Power Agency, Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, and California Trout took steps to take over PG&E’s orphaned Eel River dams and diversion to the Russian River (Potter Valley Project or PVP). Absent from this effort are the people who have served as stewards of the Eel River for time-immemorial — the Round Valley Indian Tribes, the Wiyot Tribe, and Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria.

In response, the tribes have formed a Coalition to support dam removal and demand a seat at the table with counties and conservation groups on this issue.

On June 17, 2019 the Wiyot Tribe and Round Valley Indian Tribes walked out of an ad hoc committee meeting in solidarity with the Bear River after Bear River, a federally recognized tribe, was asked to leave by Congressman Huffman’s staff. 

“Our People have subsisted on Eel River fisheries since the beginning of time,” noted Wiyot Tribal Chairman Ted Hernandez. “Any successful effort to restore our River must include the Tribes as full partners or else it is doomed to failure. For the first time in history, our three Tribes are standing together in solidarity to solve a common problem.”

Many fisheries experts have stated that the 130-foot-tall Scott Dam is impassible for salmon, hosts invasive pike minnow that prey on salmon, and harms water quality. The diversion point to the Russian River at the smaller Cape Horn dam is small, but the timing of diversion is important for fish migrations. 

Cal Trout and the Counties filed a Notice of Intent (NOI) with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) laying out plans to create a new ‘Regional Entity’ that would be formed through an act of the California legislature. This new Entity would then submit a full license application. The groups cite mutual goals for the effort that include “minimizing adverse impacts to water supply reliability in both basins” and “improving fish passage and habitat on the Eel River sufficient to support recovery of native anadromous fish populations.” These goals line up directly with the interests of the tribes on this issue. 

To date, the Planning Agreement that led to the Notice of Intent (NOI) included mention of Round Valley Indian Tribe but not the Wiyot Tribe or Bear River Rancheria. In contrast to this exclusion, previously, Humboldt County adopted a resolution that recognized the importance of the Eel River to all three tribes in the Coalition.

“We want to be clear. All of the Eel River Tribes must be treated with the respect that a sovereign Indian Nation deserves in this process,” said James Russ, Chairman of the Round Valley Indian Reservation. “To deny any of us our right to defend our own cultural resources is a continuation of the genocidal policies that Governor Newsom just apologized for just a week prior to this meeting.”

As a federally recognized tribe, the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria is subject to Section 106 Government to Government Consultation. The Coalition states that Government to Government Consultation with Bear River will be required for any agreement to move forward. 

“We are willing to roll up our sleeves and work with Russian River interests on a solution we can all live with, but they absolutely must let all three Eel River Tribes have a seat at the table,” concludes Edwin Smith, Chairman of the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria. A truly collaborative approach is inclusive and balanced. The Coalition is asking our Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and other interest groups to put pressure on the rest of the ad hoc committee to provide Bear River a seat at the table. 

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