Saturday, 08 August 2020

Casteel: Feasibility study for Scott Dam removal has ‘frighteningly misguided’ conclusions

We have had a chance to review the feasibility study for the removal of the Potter Valley Project’s Scott Dam and find the conclusions used to be frighteningly misguided.

George Santayana must have had the NOI parties – Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, Sonoma County Water Agency, California Trout and the county of Humboldt – in this project in mind when he made the famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The first step in the process of the future of this project should be to consider why it was ever built in the first place.

After the completion of the Van Arsdale Dam, it became readily apparent that a 700-acre-foot impoundment might not be able to provide constant flows during summer months when downstream users of the water appropriated from the Eel River expect 60,000 acre feet every year.

Scott Dam was built to impound the water to ensure adequate flows could be sustained to meet the needs of downstream users during high demand times in the summer, especially during drought years. This will be even more important as our weather patterns become more unpredictable because of climate change.

Granted, Lake Mendocino stores water for this purpose, but those of us who have been here long enough to remember the drought of 1976 to 1978 can tell you very little water was left in Lake Pillsbury or Lake Mendocino during that time. Miles of lake bottom was exposed, and it is impossible to believe adequate water would have been available to users below Lake Mendocino without Lake Pillsbury.

The feasibility study refers to the removal of Scott Dam as a foregone conclusion. The reason being salmon and steelhead are not able to access the spawning grounds above the dam. This area is a small percentage of the overall spawning habitat of the Eel River watershed, and the presence of non-native predators, such as pikeminnow, makes us skeptical of the effectiveness of the results.

Depriving downstream fish of crucial waterflows in the summer does not appear to be a wise tradeoff. A fish ladder around Scott Dam makes much more sense. This would also be much more expensive, but how important is the future of this salmon run?

The only wildlife addressed in this study have been salmon. No mention has been made of the dramatic increase in tule elk on the north shore of the lake, no consideration given to raptors such as bald eagles or osprey, or to the other species dependent on this body of water. Such a lacking wildlife evaluation could only be done by special interests motivated by profits.

Removing the dam will cost less than the required maintenance going forward. It should also be noted that Lake Mendocino has no fish ladder, and two of the members of the NOI Parties – Mendocino and Sonoma counties – control this. Perhaps they should restore spawning habitat in their own Counties before destroying assets in Lake County.

Like most reservoirs, the public gets enjoyment from them through camping, swimming, fishing, boating, etc. Lake Pillsbury is the largest tourist attraction in the Mendocino National Forest. Thousands of people use this lake every year and we would like to encourage the continuation of this use. There are also small businesses near the lake dependent on these tourists for survival.

The Lake County Chamber of Commerce has always promoted outdoor recreation and finds it galling that the NOI Parties are dismissing our concerns and are planning on destroying one of our lakes based on their dubious biological claims.

Lake County has suffered the effects of wildland fire repeatedly in the last five years. Lake Pillsbury is a crucial source of water for fire suppression and removing this source of water will undoubtedly increase the severity of wildland fires in the future. This will increase sedimentation in the Eel River from top to bottom since the headwaters of the Eel River is above the lake. Not to mention the loss of timberland and the wildlife dependent on that.

Page 15 of the report does say, “Analyze mitigation for lost water sources for fire-fighting.” It is impossible to “mitigate” the complete loss of water for fire-fighting. Ask a fireman how he intends to “mitigate” a fire after his firetruck runs out of water!

Page 17, SE-1 socio-economic effects of dam removal. Among these is the changes to property values around Lake Pillsbury. They will be devastated. Local property values will plummet and drag down Lake County’s tax base with them. Many of these homesites will be abandoned and Lake County will undoubtedly bear the cost of this very expensive maintenance.

We have no faith that these residents will be treated fairly by the NOI Parties, especially when Lake County was denied a chance to join the group in June of 2019. The Round Valley Indian Tribes, whose land comes nowhere near water from Lake Pillsbury, was accepted into the group in August of 2019.

It should be noted that of the four Counties involved in this – Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma and Humboldt – Lake County is the only County that does not take water from the Eel River. There are no legal water diversions from the Eel River for agriculture in Lake County, but 60,000 acre feet or more (that’s 20 billioin gallons) diverted for agriculture or residential use downstream every year from the other counties. We appreciate salmon and steelhead as much as everyone else and will do anything (short of sacrificing our lake) to help them.

To get back to the first paragraph, it is impossible for us to believe that the Potter Valley Project can be feasible without the 80,000 acre feet of water stored behind Scott Dam. Not just our opinion, it was proven in the early 1900s.

If the entire Potter Valley Project is to be decommissioned, so be it. Let the fish have their water back and downstream agricultural users can rely on whatever groundwater they can find. But we will not agree to let our lake be destroyed and drained by outside special interests and will pursue every legal means necessary to stop it.

We encourage the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to require any entity acquiring the Potter Valley Project to construct a fish passage around Scott Dam as a requirement to their licensing.

Joe Casteel is president of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce in Lake County, California.

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