Group Seeks to Halt Eel River Diversions


March 1, 2010

An environmental group is asking state officials to halt the century-old practice of shunting water from the Eel River to the Russian River in Mendocino County, a practice that has allowed agriculture to thrive south of the diversion.

The group, Friends of the Eel River, for years has been demanding an end to the diversion, saying it’s destroying fish habitat in both rivers. But a rare reopening of state regulations governing Russian River flows has given the group a new venue for its demands.

It filed a petition on Monday with the state Water Resources Control Board asking for alterations to a Sonoma County Water Agency request to modify instream flow requirements.

Both organizations’ requests aim to improve fish habitat. But Friends of the Eel River’s is drastic, calling for the state to end the Eel River diversion.

Eel River water is diverted from a dam on the river and sent down a tunnel to electricity-generating turbines at PG&E’s Potter Valley power plant. From there it flows into a series of irrigation canals and into Lake Mendocino, which feeds the Russian River.

Prior to the Eel River diversion, the Russian River dried up in summer months.

Now, two dams ensure that water is held year-round for the diversion. A third dam holds the diverted water in Lake Mendocino, from which it can be released as needed for fish, farmers and city dwellers.

Nadananda, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Eel, said the diversion leaves too little water in the Eel and too much in the Russian River.

“It has had a devastating effect on the salmon,” she said.

It’s also allowed unsustainable vineyards to populate Russian River valleys, she said. The group has a new study that supports its claims.

Officials at the Sonoma County and state water agencies and PG&E said they have not had sufficient time to review the group’s petition and declined comment Monday.

But Mendocino County water officials said the request is unreasonable and based on falsehoods.

The petition “takes a lot of facts and puts them together out of context to make a very compelling case for a situation that doesn’t exist,” said Sean White, who manages the water agency that holds Mendocino County’s right to water in Lake Mendocino.

If the state doesn’t act on the request, Nadananda said her group will file a lawsuit.