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PG&E Botches Eel River Project Accord

By John Driscoll/The Times-Standard
November 19, 2006

Company diverted more water than allowed from 2004 to 2006

The Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for nearly two years has diverted substantially more water from the Eel River to the Russian River than is allowed in a license agreement negotiated over two decades.

The discrepancy wasn’t discovered until this summer, when the California Department of Fish and Game reviewed the schedule of diversions made by the company’s Potter Valley Project. PG&E fessed up to the problem, and even recently contacted the media about the conversation taking place among regulators.

Unlike nearly every other river diversion system in the West, the Potter Valley Project does not have real-time gauges that show how it’s being operated. That information isn’t made public until a year later. Such a monitoring system won’t be in place until December 2007 at least, and only the agencies have immediate access to the information.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission amended PG&E’s license for the project in 2004, after about 20 years of wrangling over diversions to the East Branch of the Russian River for grape growers and flows to the Eel River for salmon and steelhead. The commission is now looking into the compliance of the project since 2004.

“We’re reviewing the allegations,” said FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller.

Between 5 billion and 13 billion gallons of water that would have flowed down the Eel River were instead diverted through the project, on average about 33 percent more than was allowed. The past three years have been wet, however, and there were no apparent adverse effects on the river’s salmon. But the excessive diversions could have drawn down Lake Pillsbury above Scott and Van Arsdale dams to levels that would have threatened the Eel if a drought set in.

PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer said the snafu was the result of a misinterpretation of FERC’s license conditions.

“It was an honest mistake on PG&E personnel’s part that has been taken very seriously and has been corrected,” Eisenhauer said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which set flows meant to at least partially mimic natural flow conditions in the Eel through the license, said it’s not likely to pursue penalties against the company. That’s because PG&E managed to meet the required flows to the Eel River, said Dick Butler, area office supervisor for the service.

“I think they were confused and made some assumptions on how they were operating,” Butler said.

Butler said PG&E has recently done an analysis to show how Lake Pillsbury has filled in with more sediment than it previously believed, and so holds less water. The company may be paving the way to press for changes in the fisheries service’s requirements for the project, he said. That is a “non-starter,” Butler said, since the service has predicted how much the lake will fill in all the way out until 2027.

Humboldt County Supervisor Jimmy Smith said that charts specifying the changes made through the relicensing agreement haven’t been forthcoming, despite requests made to the fisheries service long ago. Whether or not PG&E made a mistake, he said, its project hasn’t been operated under the agreement that took two decades for fish advocates on the North Coast, tribes, irrigators in Potter Valley, the company, agencies and environmental groups to hammer out.

“They shouldn’t get off the hook because the fact is they didn’t comply,” Smith said.