Eel River Dam Removal is Moving Forward. It Will Create California’s Longest Free-Flowing River.

On Thursday, PG&E’s 50-year license for the Eel River Dams expired, with the company opting against renewing the costly Potter Valley Project (PVP). After the license is surrendered and the project is decommissioned, the long road to removing the Eel River Dams will begin, eventually creating California’s longest free-flowing river.

The PVP is a hydroelectric system consisting of two dams, a diversion tunnel and a powerhouse on the Eel River. When old dams come due for relicensing, they are required to meet 21st century standards for fish passage. Upgrading these ancient structures comes with enormous cost, so much so that it is often cheaper to just remove the dams entirely. That’s why PG&E has opted to abandon the outdated structures.

The Scott Dam, siting at 99-years-old, was built as part of the PVP to provide hydroelectric power for the city of Ukiah. Before the dam was installed, the Eel hosted some of the most dramatic salmon and steelhead runs in California. The few remaining fish are now listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Because the dam prevents the normal, seasonal flushing of sediments in the river, the water is considered “impaired” under the Clean Water Act.

According to CalTrout, “The Eel represents perhaps the greatest opportunity in California to restore a watershed to its former abundance of wild salmonids.”

Over the coming months, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will ask PG&E to prepare a process to surrender their license and decommission the project. The decommissioning process will likely take years, mostly due to the environmental and economic impact. A significant amount of Eel River water is piped over to the Russian River where farmers and winemakers depend on these flows. Due to looming drought scenarios, the dam removal will likely include agreements to compensate agricultural interests when there is not enough water to meet their needs.

The Eel River Dam removal project will take place after the removal of the four Klamath River dams, which is set to occur later this year.

The Science Behind Dams

Copco Dam on the Klamath River. Photo: California Trout

There are well over 1,000 dams in California, some more than a century old. Most dams were erected to establish critical water supply, but also for hydroelectric power generation and flood control. If Shasta and Keswick Dams in Shasta County were removed, towns like Redding could literally be washed away during spring flooding season. But there are still plenty of old dams, structures that no longer serve their original purposes, that could be removed to give wild salmon and steelhead access to ancestral spawning habitat.

Dams degrade water quality. They also block the rich nutrients brought into the habitat by spawning anadromous fish. The salmon and steelhead using our rivers for spawning have traveled and fed in thousands of miles of ocean water from as far away as Canada, Alaska or even Russia. When they die after spawning these exotic nutrients supercharge the ecosystem benefiting all forms of life. The reservoirs behind dams warm and broaden the river corridor often providing warm water habitat for destructive non-native species. Even though many dams provide fish ladders allowing passage over the dams, they are largely statistical failures. For reasons known only to the fish, many fish will not use them. This creates a large pod of fish below the dams that will never spawn. The dams also give piscivorous species (fish that eat other fish) like pikeminnows a terrific opportunity to dine on salmon and steelhead smolts that will never make it to the ocean.

Dam removal is about much more than restoring endangered fish populations. If you consider the fact that everything in an ecosystem is connected, you realize you cannot alter one aspect of a river without impacting everything else. Once streams are returned to their natural states, they are able to cleanse themselves, wash out all the sediments that smother aquatic plants, insects and fish. Improved water quality also impacts everything from associated wetlands (and the life sustained there) to coastal beaches and estuaries. 

So, you think California has a dam problem? We are far from alone. According the the US Army Corps of Engineers, there are over 80,000 dams three feet or greater in this country. California is on the cutting edge of a national movement for dam removal where the benefits outweigh the costs for retrofitting century-old structures built in an age where we thought we had an endless supply of good habitat. 

As communities strive to wrestle with all of the complex economic and environmental hurdles involved in dam removal, more are deciding the benefits outweigh the costs. Not all dams are good candidates for removal, but enough of them are to feed a growing national movement to come up with win-win scenarios for fish, ecosystems and human beings. It’s nearly everyone’s dam business.

Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine

27 Comments

  1. Omission of the whole truth is a lie. Why didn’t you mention WHY PG&E says it’s too costly to retrofit? Why don’t you mention that hydroelectric, the first and most efficient green energy in no longer politically correct in Calif? The FACT is, Calif needs that dam and everyone on the Klamath too. Stop thinking about yourselves and think about the countless thousands who will effected by it’s removal, let alone the millions downstream who have relied for generations this am for flood control, irrigation and recreation.

      1. They just built a huge diversion tunnel near the confluence of the delta to send more water to socal. Shouldn’t they be building desalination plants. Rather than drying up the farmers water supply?

    1. Look who’s thinking about themselves – you and your ‘recreation’ and ‘corporate farmers’ … we don’t need these dams. Water for agriculture can be secured in other ways, not with a wasteful dam and reservoir. Salmon cannot survive without water and spawning habitat – the dams impede access to those habitats … what about people and businesses who depend on salmon and steelhead for sustenance and survival … you cannot ‘tame’ Nature and expect there to be NO consequences. The main consequence and legacy of these deadbeat dams is a 4-5% return of historic runs of salmon and steelhead. This, combined with other effects from climate change and over-development are creating a perfect storm for their extinction. We have a chance to fix problems created by ideas from the past – there will be many jobs created before, during, and after the dams removal. And we might just get our fish and rivers back! … learn to think ahead, not from behind

  2. This article seems very one sided! One mention of farmer’s being compensated for less water use. In a State that needs water sources with several years of drought, this does not address the issue of how Ca can continue producing 2/3 of fruits and nuts for the Nation. Ca feeds the Nation and large percentage is exported. Not sure I trust PG&E after all the fires & how they dealt eith issue. I think we are in trouble by removing so many dams!!!

  3. This article is entirely incorrect. PG&E has no plans to remove Potter Valley dam. They intend to refurbish the transformers and run on an annual license from FERC.

  4. I’ve watched the eel river and all its forks die. It’s time for a change, I agree we need water, but if the useless damns are removed we have hope. To fish or enjoy. Pillsbury been a mud hole for years. I never want to see any one lose their livelihood or residence. Adjust and let the area be natural again, you’ll see a new and different economy with plenty of opportunities and water.
    Also the elk will adapt.

  5. Our for father’s bolt dams to control flooding. Irrigation. And so forth. They put in dams. And fish ladders so fish could get to the hatcherys. Then close the hatchery then no fish. And the hatchery fish get milked to make the fry. All dams are not bad
    The. dams on Klamath River. Control the flooding down river. I’ve seen the spring Milton come very fast and dams were needed. Plus they produce clean power.

  6. I remember the Christmas flood in the Fifties. If you don’t you can be reminded by the water level signs in towns all along the East Fork of the Eel River. Or talk to old-timers along the Russian River about the years before dams along the Russian River.

    We’re already allowing huge quantities of fresh water to run unchecked to the ocean while we struggle with insufficient residential and commercial supplies. Meanwhile there seems to be plenty of salmon for sale in meat markets where I shop.

    The only animals officials in California seem unconcerned about are the human ones who pay their outrageous taxes.

  7. This article is one-sided. There is no discussion on the importance of the Potter Valley Project for water supply reliability, not just for the Russian River but for the Upper mainstem Eel River fishery, and for the habitat and ecosystems in the Lake Pillsbury area. Lake Pillsbury water storage has benefitted the Eel River fishery by providing year round cold water releases to help spawning and migration. Without Lake Pillsbury, this will no longer be possible.

    The watershed above Scott is 288 square miles, just 8% of the entire Eel River watershed. The actual number of habitat river miles is closer to 50. The area is known to dry up in the late summer and early fall months. This will not going to bring the Eel River fishery back to its glory days.

    For some, it’s dams out no matter who gets hurt. This is a far more complicated issue than this article lets on.

  8. Thank you for your comment Susan. I agree with you it is a bad idea to remove the dam. And it is a one-sided article. And a comment on your distrust of PG&E that is also one-sided article in the media. Nothing is said about the stonewalling of the US forestry Federal and state land management slow walking or stonewalling permits to cut trees out of the right of way of powerlines. Or landowner suing PG&E to keep them from trimming trees on their property to keep them from falling on powerlines onto the right of away of . Also let’s not forget the years of environmental groups protesting any trees being cut down at all.
    All this goes away and just forgotten about when there’s a fire and they’ve got someone Company. who has deep pockets to go after to pay for the damage. This is also one-sided. This is a many faceted problem many groups are responsible!! but their mouth is are shut when something goes wrong. People need to sit back and look at the bigger picture what’s going on and know the history.
    Also side note, look at what’s going on in Page Arizona they’re waiting to remove the Glen Canyon Dam, draining Lake Powell. Which has 2/3 greater capacity of storage than Lake Mead. Lots of hydro Electric and water Storage capacity

  9. The water diversion to the Russian river is not just for “farmers and winemakers “. It supplies drinking water to the cities of Ukiah, Cloverdale, Geyserville, Healdsburg, and most of all the Sonoma County Water Agency.

  10. The most damning thing that can be said about the massive damming of our fresh water systems is that plain as the nose on your face it is not working. Massive drought and catastrophic wildfires will not sustain [us]. Let’s try something new, or old-tried-and-true depending on your perspective: let’s respect the god-given natural world and learn to thrive in conjunction again.

  11. The “media” is salivating over the extended drought in the Columbia River basin. Literally every day there are articles about Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The drought will pass, the political criticism of dams probably won’t.

  12. I agree with most of the comments above. It’s a bad idea to remove the dams. The big problem however, is the fact that the State keeps electing Democrats! All the world knows that the Dems are the source of all Bad ideas in the Country! The only thing that can save California now is the removal & prosecution of all Dems for election Fraud!

  13. Nothing in the article about the carbon free power. Maybe not the deciding factor, but should be discussed…

  14. The dams are destroying salmon and steelhead populations. The economics of farming in a Mediterranean climate is precarious at best. Watering in the ‘desert’ climates creates more poisons in our groundwater. The sediment being blocked by the dams is destroying our coastal beaches and communities abilities to fight rising sea levels … This is all robbing Native American people their rightful resources to thrive and survive … They were here first; the fish were here first; people are not the priority here – Nature should be the priority. Too many have commented in support of these out-of-date, beyond-their-useful-lifespan dams – wake up people before there are no salmon left for anyone! Remove ALL deadbeat dams immediately – starting with the 4 Klamath dams and the entire Potter Valley Project on the Eel River – Let the rivers run free now!

  15. Hmmm…..selfish and self-centered? Salmon have survived floods and droughts long before any dam was built. And 40 years of trying to save fish has a dismal record. With this in mind, a vast majority of the local population tend to think that fresh water for humans and growing food, clean abundant energy for out weight this fallacy of saving fish.

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