Fishing, Conservation Groups Sue Utility Over Harm to Salmon and Steelhead in Eel River

Photo: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

A coalition of five commercial fishing and conservation groups have filed suit in federal court charging that Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Potter Valley Hydroelectric Project on the Eel River in Northern California is illegally harming salmon and steelhead listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Specifically, the lawsuit charges the utility with maintaining and operating the Potter Valley Project in a manner that harms and harasses Coastal California Chinook salmon and Northern California steelhead trout, amounting to illegal take of these species.

The Potter Valley Project includes two dams, Scott Dam and Cape Horn Dam, which impede fish passage and block access to hundreds of miles of critical, high quality spawning and nursery habitat for Chinook salmon, steelhead trout and Pacific lamprey.

PG&E is in the early phases of planning to decommission the facilities, which the company no longer wants due to the high costs associated with operating the aging structures. The hydroelectric portion of the project stopped producing electricity in July 2021, following a transformer failure.

The lawsuit makes several claims against the utility for operating the facilities in a manner that harms native fish, including maintaining water temperatures below the dams that are too high for salmon and steelhead; operating Cape Horn Dam and its fish passages facilities in a manner that directly causes injury and death to species listed under the Endangered Species Act; blocking access to high-quality habitat above the dams; and making it difficult for juvenile fish to migrate out to sea.

PG&E revealed in March of this year that the larger of the two dams, Scott Dam, is at higher risk of failure in an earthquake than was previously understood. Due to the increased danger, state dam regulators no longer allow the Lake Pillsbury reservoir to be fully filled.

PG&E is scheduled to file a draft decommissioning plan with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in November, with the plan spelling out specifics of how the utility plans to wind down project operations for good and how it plans to deal with the facilities.

“Salmon season is closed this year for the second time,” Vivian Helliwell, Watershed Conservation Director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said. “West Coast salmon and steelhead populations are really struggling right now, and along with them our coastal and inland communities that rely on these fish for food and jobs.”

The Eel River was at one point one of the more productive salmon rivers in California with returns of commercially important Chinook salmon estimated to be as high as 800,000 fish in good years.