Cape Horn Dam and Van Arsdale Reservoir on the Eel River, part of the Potter Valley Project. | Photo via CalTrout.


North Coast conservation groups are offering renewed criticism of Pacific Gas & Electric this week after the utility argued against a request from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) aimed at protecting threatened fish in the Eel River.

Three species of fish in the Eel — coho salmon, California Coastal Chinook salmon and Northern California steelhead — are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Their populations have been impacted by PG&E’s Potter Valley Project, a hydroelectric facility that diverts water from the Eel to the Russian River.

In a March 16 letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), NMFS says the Potter Valley Project is causing “take” of these salmonids in a manner that exceeds the incidental amounts authorized via a 2002 biological opinion. The letter goes on to say that this 2002 opinion — and the incidental take authorization it provided — applied only for the duration of PG&E’s 20-year license to operate the Potter Valley Project.

That license expired in April, though PG&E continues to own and operate the project under an annual license that renews automatically. In its March letter, NMFS asked FERC to reinstate formal environmental consultation and to amend the license to incorporate a number of “interim protective measures” aimed at protecting the fish.

But in a 16-page response submitted to FERC earlier this week, PG&E argued that it should not be forced to engage in more environmental consultation nor made to abide by the protective measures recommended by NMFS. In fact, PG&E argued that NMFS’s 2002 biological opinion has no expiration date, and thus its coverage is ongoing.

In the long run, PG&E aims to surrender its license and rid itself of the aging Potter Valley Project, which is slated to be decommissioned, clearing the way for the removal of the Scott and Cape Horn dams. That has long been a goal of fish conservation groups, who argue that PG&E has been dragging its feet and refusing to cooperate with dam-removal efforts.

In a separate filing submitted to FERC on Friday, PG&E proposed a 30-month timeline to file a decommissioning plan for the Potter Valley Project. (Conservation groups derisively refer to this drawn-out process as PG&E’s “plan to submit a plan.”) The clock on that two-and-a-half-year timeline would only start ticking once FERC approves the schedule, and there’s no telling, at this point, how long beyond those 30 months it would take PG&E to surrender its license and file an actual decommissioning plan.

Fish conservation groups lambasted both the length of that proposed timeline and PG&E’s refusal to implement more protective measures for fish.

“PG&E has made it clear they will rid themselves of the 100-year-old Eel River dams, but they seem content to slow-walk the process and continue to kill ESA-listed fish while they take their sweet time,” said Matt Clifford, an attorney with nonprofit Trout Unlimited, in an emailed statement. 

He added that “extensive scientific research” has shown that the Potter Valley Project kills federally protected salmon and steelhead and that the only viable path to recovery is dam removal.

“It’s alarming that despite this evidence, and a direct request from a federal agency charged with protecting endangered species, PG&E says it will take two years just to come up with a plan to remove their obsolete dams and that in the interim they won’t do anything more to mitigate the harms their project causes,” Clifford said.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Friends of the Eel River Executive Director Alicia Hamann agreed, saying the 30-month timeline will only serve to kill more Eel River fish. She recalled the recent efforts of the Two-Basin Partnership, a diverse group of stakeholders who, under the guidance of Rep. Jared Huffman, sought to take over PG&E’s license and decommission the project. The partnership’s plans were stymied last fall when FERC refused to grant the partners more time to form a singular entity that could take over the license.

“PG&E was an unwilling partner in the process,” Hamann said. “Why would we have any reason to think things would be different now? Why would we expect them to get anything done in 30 months that they couldn’t have done in the last five years?”

Like other environmental stakeholders, Hamann pointed to PG&E’s tattered public reputation after the company faced criminal charges and paid tens of millions of dollars in fines for causing wildfires in the state, including the Camp Fire, for which the utility pleaded guilty to felony manslaughter charges in the deaths of 84 people.

“It’s incredible that a major utility company with such a poor public image wouldn’t take advantage of opportunities like this to show they are committed to being a good and responsible corporate citizen,” said Redgie Collins, legal and policy director for CalTrout. 

Hamann said PG&E’s latest stance is actually quite credible. “They don’t care when they kill people. Why should we expect more when they’re killing fish?” she asked.

Friends of the Eel River, CalTrout and Trout Unlimited are all part of a coalition planning to sue PG&E over its alleged violations of the federal Endangered Species Act with the Potter Valley Project. (The other partners are the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources.) Hamann said the coalition is hoping that its lawsuit will lead to a negotiated settlement with PG&E that will speed up the dam removal process.

The Outpost reached out to both PG&E and the National Marine Fisheries Service with questions for this story but did not hear back before publication time. Hamann said she’ll be interested to see how NMFS responds to PG&E’s latest filing.

“If I were leadership with NMFS I would be extremely upset right now,” she said. “Basically [PG&E] called NMFS a bunch of liars.”

Despite the bureaucratic red tape, the hurdles thrown up by PG&E and ongoing pushback from Russian River water users who want to maintain the water diversion, the coalition of conservation groups remains confident in the eventuality of dam removal, which would make the Eel California’s longest free flowing river.


UPDATE, 4:40 p.m.:

PG&E Marketing & Communications Media Rep Deanna Contreras emailed the following response to Outpost questions shortly after this post was published:

PG&E is strongly committed to environmental responsibility, and we are operating the Potter Valley Project in full compliance with the FERC license and the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Biological Opinion (BiOp) and incidental take statement incorporated into the license. If unauthorized take is occurring in excess of the “take” authorized in the incidental take statement, then the federal agency authorizing the license – FERC – is responsible to reinitiate ESA section 7 consultation with NMFS. 

PG&E is not aware of any evidence in the voluminous record associated with the Project indicating that Project operations under the license are causing an unauthorized take of listed salmonids.  There are a multitude of adverse influences along the approximately 160-mile-long Eel River corridor that affect salmonids and PG&E believes its operations benefit salmonids by storing and providing water that otherwise would not be available for release, particularly during dry seasons.

PG&E’s response to FERC supports utilization of existing FERC processes to responsibly address the topics raised in NMFS’ proposed interim measures, including potential modification of existing, FERC-approved license plans on the same topics and potential long-term variance of the flow and storage provisions in NMFS’ biological opinion to ensure acceptable flows and temperatures during critical seasons.

FERC has directed PG&E to submit a plan and schedule for preparing a surrender application, which will eventually result in the surrender of the Potter Valley Project license. PG&E complied with this directive and submitted a plan and schedule to FERC. 

PG&E has not made any determination with respect to its decommissioning proposal, including whether facilities will be removed or remain in place. There are many stakeholders with an interest in the disposition of the Potter Valley Project facilities and PG&E’s schedule provides for opportunity for input from these stakeholders to inform PG&E’s ultimate decommissioning proposal.  

The quoted assertions from advocacy groups, do not reflect the multitude of public interest considerations involved in the FERC surrender process. 

By recognizing the complexity and diversity of stakeholder issues associated with the surrender and decommissioning of the Project, including the residents of Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino Counties, Eel River Interests and Tribes, PG&E is being a good and responsible corporate citizen.