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A Tragic Mismanagement of Two Rivers

Returning Eel River Chinook stranded by low water, while Eel River water is diverted to the over-full Lake Mendocino and the Russian River

Friends of the Eel River, October 8, 2010

Over 344 returning adult Chinook salmon, 85 Chinook jacks, and 14 adult steelhead were found in a dive survey of several pools (holes) in the lower Eel River on Oct. 1, 2010. These surveys were conducted and documented by an experienced dive team, and focused on fishing holes from Fernbridge on the lower Eel, up-river to the River Lodge in Fortuna. Under these dewatered conditions, none of the fish can migrate upstream. They are functionally trapped in shallow, algae-ridden pools unable to swim upstream to spawning grounds. They can’t even reach the mouth of the Van Duzen River just upriver. Large amounts of algae infest these holes and shallows, which would otherwise be flushed out naturally with higher flows.

At the same time, diversions of more than 90 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the upper Eel River through PG&E’s Potter Valley Project continue to the Russian River, while leaving less than 30cfs released to the Eel River.

Due to extremely high water storage levels at Lake Mendocino, as the rainy season approaches, huge amounts of water are being released to lower the lake levels to allow room for flood protection storage in the reservoir. Currently, Lake Mendocino is at peak storage with some 90,000 acre feet (af) of water. Reduction of approximately 19-20,000af must occur by Nov. 1, 2010 and before the fall/winter rains begin. Starting on October 8^th , Sonoma County Water Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers will begin increasing the water discharged from Lake Mendocino from the current flows of 180 cubic feet/second (cfs), moving up to 1,000 cfs and ending with approximately 320cfs.

Ironically, due to the increased discharges from Lake Mendocino, SCWA is warning lower river residents and users about water level increases of up to 2 feet, with the possibility of flooding buildings at Jenner. The tragedy of this is that the diverted Eel River water that is released into the East Branch, Russian River which then flows downstream to Lake Mendocino, will literally be dumped to the ocean.

Water desperately needed for the health of returning spawning salmon and steelhead in the Eel River is being diverted to the Russian River, where it is being released to the Pacific Ocean.

This twisted tale is a result of PG&E accommodating the flows to each river as required by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Biological Opinion “Reasonable and Prudent Alternative” (RPA), adopted in 2004 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Modeling used and the conclusions reached via backroom hardball negotiations were adopted but clearly are not doing what they are required to do: serve the restoration and sustainability of the federally listed salmonids in the Eel River.

The current situation is endangering the health and survivability of these early return Fall Chinook salmon, at a time when all coastal salmon stock is in trouble. Friends of the Eel River have called upon NOAA/NMFS to immediately increase discharges of 100cfs through the Potter Valley Project at Cape Horn Dam to be released to the Eel River, to give these fish a fighting chance to survive, spawn and multiply. Until rainfall provides a more natural flow in the Eel River, the current management plan leaves these fish in jeopardy. It must be changed.

Unfortunately, California Department of Fish & Game (CDFG), which has the authority to instruct PG&E to release up to 5000af stored in Lake Pillsbury for just this purpose, has yet to act. FOER will continue to monitor this situation, and demand a prompt correction to this disaster in the making.