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PG&E sued over Eel River dams, fish

May 25, 2023

A coalition of environmental and commercial fishing groups are suing Pacific Gas and Electric Co., alleging the company is violating the federal Endangered Species Act by harming salmon and steelhead trout populations in the Eel River with the Potter Valley project's two dams.

The Scott Dam and Cape Horn Dam are currently being decommissioned, a process that could take years, and five groups — California Trout, Friends of the Eel River, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Trout Unlimited and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations — argue in a complaint that a decrease in salmon and steelhead population is directly attributable to the dams, which no longer produces power after a transformer issue.

"We expect PG&E to propose the removal of both Eel River dams in this fall's decommissioning plan. Scott Dam faces serious seismic safety concerns and has no fish passage," Alicia Hamann, executive director for Friends of the Eel River said in a release. "But Cape Horn dam is also very problematic for fish and the ecological function of the river. The fishway at the dam harms and harasses fish whose populations are already severely depressed. Fish ladders are really difficult to operate in a sediment-rich river like the Eel and PG&E has been operating this ladder for years despite known risk to these protected species. The best move for PG&E and the Eel River is to remove both dams as soon as possible."

Hamann did not respond for a request for comment by the Times-Standard's print deadline.

PG&E is currently developing an initial draft surrender application and expects to turn it into the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by November of this year. The application will ask for permission to physically remove the dams and river features, barring the possibility of another group offering a proposal for what to do with the infrastructure.

The draft will be available for public comment, and its second form should be ready by May 2024 with a final surrender application submitted by 2025, said Paul Moreno, a spokesperson for PG&E.

"Every so many years, we get a very similar complaint alleging violations of ESA, and they’re never shown to be true," Moreno said.

Moreno added that, in its 100-year history with the Potter Valley Project, PG&E has been ESA compliant and that other factors, such as logging, water diversion and illegal grows contribute to the conditions killing local fish.

Facing dismal spawning seasons, California recently canceled its salmon season, sending ripples across the ladder of communities dependent on the state's fish for their well-being.

"We applaud PG&E for seeking to decommission this project, but in the interim, they need to operate the project in a way that reduces its impact on fish and is compliant with the law," Redgie Collins, legal and policy director with California Trout, said. "We understand that the dams could be out in five years or perhaps even less, but PG&E needs to comply with the law starting today."

In a release, the groups cite a National Marine Fisheries Service statement on May 11 that the Cape Horn Dam facility for fish passage is probably not compliant with their guidelines.

Moreno said PG&E has received the complaint and is reviewing the allegations contained in it.

"We’re confident that our Potter Valley projects operations are in compliance with all environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act," Moreno said.

Jackson Guilfoil can be reached at 707-441-0506

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