KIRSTIN CUNNINGHAM, TREVOR HERRON, JEN HILDRETH, DORREAN JONES, DARNELL SULLIVAN, PAUL SWIETEK
The Friends of the Eel River (FOER) is an organization of activists dedicated to the regulation and sustention of the greater Eel River Watershed system. Forming in the fall of 1994, the Friends of the Eel River are involved in multiple government outlets to create the policies and regulations necessary to protect the Eel River, its fisheries, and the people that depend on the watershed as an essential source of water.
Throughout many judiciary conflicts, FOER has managed to establish its presence as an essential ally to the Eel River and continues to combat entrepreneurial exploits upon the river’s system. Exploits such as hydroelectric power, agricultural runoff, and water retention, are a few of the concerns that the FOER organization continues to focus its efforts upon.
One aspect FOER was keen to stress upon meeting them was that their mission statement of protecting the Eel River from further anthropogenic stresses is one of “recovery, not restoration”. By this they mean to say that their goal is only to mitigate the damage human activity has done to the watershed, not to restore it to its pre-human state, a goal they feel is impossible. Given the continued presence of Highway 101, which for large stretches runs directly over the Eel River, and the failure to remove nearly hundred-year old features of industry such as the North Coast Railroad and the Potter Valley Dams leads them to the conclusion that the Eel River can never be fully rehabilitated.
Background and Context
Water is a historical issue in California and within the capitalist world ecology; however, water was not included in the chapters of The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. Water is needed for nearly every aspect of the capitalist world ecology, from the water needed to grow monocultures to the water needed to generate hydroelectricity in our case. Water is a necessary element to the evolution of life on our planet, yet water and nature have been commodified and cheapened through a series of capitalist mechanisms including displacement, legislation, and privatization. Local organizations, like FOER are necessary to challenge capitalism’s world ecology. An example of FOER’s efforts to protect water resources, as reported by PR Newswire: “The FOER legal action challenges the diversion of almost all of the flow of the Eel River to PG&E's Potter Valley hydroelectric project (PVP), consisting of two dams and a diversion tunnel...The action is a result of studies by many of the leading salmon and freshwater experts, including the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), whose data shows that PG&E's water management system, is drying up the Eel River and over watering the Russian River. Both are lethal to California's once teeming populations of Coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead.” (PR Newswire, 2010).
Since the organization’s inception in 1994, FOER monitors fishery populations and promotes dam removal throughout the Eel River Watershed. Dams directly affect water quality for salmonid species within river ecosystems by decreasing flow of water and increasing temperature regimes resulting in increased algae blooms in areas for breeding habitat. According to studies published by the United States Forest Service, the Eel River has “the highest recorded average of suspended sediment yield per drainage area of any river of its size” (Lisle). This high sediment yield results from the combination of California’s underlying tectonic activity and relatively young geomorphic processes, high-volume precipitation regimes, and widespread surface changes from human activities such as clear-cut logging and large-scale development.
Eel River fishery populations already live in a dynamic ecosystem, wrought with heavy sediment loads from steep slopes and high amounts of precipitation; additionally, human activities in the area add additional inputs to this already dynamic system. These inputs include a history of clear-cut logging, development along and within floodplains, and cultivation of cannabis. Cultivation of cannabis in riparian zones along the Eel River pollutes the river and riparian zones with significant amounts of chemical fertilizers such as nitrogen and phosphorus. These fertilizers change the salinity of the water and speed the growth of harmful algae blooms. Harmful algae blooms reduce habitat for salmonid species, creating a vicious cycle continually reducing habitat and destabilizing the river’s balance.
In 1905, W. W. Van Arsdale from San Francisco, traveled north with a goal of
procuring a new means of power for the city of Ukiah. “Mr.Van Arsdale envisioned an electrical power plant that could be built at the north end of Potter Valley powered by water that would be diverted from the Eel River. The vision was inspired by his knowledge that the Eel River was an impressive 475 feet higher in elevation than the valley floor in Potter Valley.” (http://pottervalleywater.org/history.html). Right away the Eel River Power and Irrigation Company built a small dam on the Eel River. Cape Horn Damn fills a small reservoir known as Van Arsdale (Figure 1).
“Cape Horn Dam, a concrete gravity and earth filled structure, backed up the Eel River to form a small reservoir called Van Arsdale. This reservoir serves as the forebay for the diversion tunnel. From here, an 8' diameter tunnel, lined with redwood timbers, was dug over a mile long south through the mountain, finally opening into the north end of Potter Valley, where water flows through a penstock dropping over 450 vertical feet into the Potter Valley Powerhouse.”(http://pottervalleywater.org/history.html) (Figure 2).
Almost a year later, as the project grew in financial requirements, Snow Mountain Water and Power Company took over command in 1906. By 1917, 5 power generating units had been installed and the total capacity of the powerhouse grew to 9,400 kva (9.4 megawatts). Plans for a water storage project in Grass Valley, 12 miles upstream, were discussed in early 1908 and by 1922 Lake Pillsbury started to fill due to the completion of the Scott Dam (Figure 3).
Water is diverted from the Eel river to the Russian River through an interbasin water transfer project, known as the Potter Valley Project (PVP). The PVP at peak produces 9.4 megawatts of energy, and after it is used for electricity production, the water is released into the Russian River’s East Fork through a mile long pipe. Friends of the Eel River filed a lawsuit in 1999 against PG&E, and again in 2010 with claims brought before the State Water Resources Control Board that 98% of the water from the river is diverted to the Russian River in the dry summer months. For the small amount of energy produced, a high biological cost is paid for the salmon migration that is impacted. The diverted water is used primarily for agricultural use, including wine grapes and other fruit crops. An estimated 70,000 acre feet of water (~22 billion gallons) is diverted annually from the river for use in Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin counties. This diverted water also is the only source for residents of Potter Valley, which is a census designated place with a population of about 600
FOER hired an outside consultant that determined 5 acres of solar panels would provide the same amount of energy that the hydroelectric dams provides. They also state that the water in the upper basin of the Russian River is abundant, and in the seasonally dry periods improved management practices when releasing water from Lake Mendocino can decrease the amount of water diverted. The Friends of the Eel River are currently working on providing the communities and businesses that rely on diverted water from the Eel River alternative options moving forward to reduce the amount transferred to the Russian River.
Ground Water Retention
As a primary source of municipal potable water and irrigation, the water obtained from the Eel River Basin constitutes a substantial role in the sustention of anthropogenic development in the southern region of Humboldt. The Eel River Basin contains approximately 136,000 acre-feet of accessible water within in the basin (...). Of the accessible basin, the Department of Water Resources estimates that 100,000 acre-feet can be stored with an estimated average extraction of 50 percent of stored values (DWR, 2004). With excessive extractions exceeding the annual recharging amount, concerns regarding the proper management of the Eel River have risen. FOER advocate the replenishment and sustention of the Eel River Basin through the cultivation of methods for greater water retention. Examples of government agencies actively attempting to mediate their water use and effects on such resources is done through the rationalization of water use, reclamation of non-potable water, stream maintenance through the use of structures such as rifles, as well as vegetative buffer zones to ensure the quality of water recharging such basins.
In addition to the water level within the Eel River Basin (ERB), managers must also be concerned with the contents of the basin, ensuring the water quality (). At the delta of the Eel River, the ERB becomes exposed to the threat of saltwater intrusion thereby diminishing the integrity of the basin’s contents. Efforts made to reassure the integrity of the retaining delta
permeable layers seaboard are imperative in ensuring water quality (Evenson 1959). Below is an aerial view of the Eel River Basin along with two tables illustrating the sampling conducted upon the Eel River in order to measure water usage and water quality.
FOER support such success in the ERB by monitoring and challenging, the efforts and publications produced by government agencies. If mismanagement were to occur and become apparent, than organizations such as the Friends of the Eel River (FOER) would intercede through legal action in order to ensure the health and integrity of the people and ecosystems supported by the Eel River Basin (FOER, 2015).
Northwest Pacific Railroad
Railroads were once industrial powerhouses that surpassed contemporary forms of transportation. Leading railroads completely took over the entire country. Once built, railroads were sense of connection. They mobilized unattainable transportation. Connecting inner cities with outer cites, industrial railroads helped strengthen communication. The Northwest pacific Railroad was designed to carry freight from the Port of Eureka to the San Francisco Bay. It took nearly 8 years (1906 -1914) to build the Northwest Pacific rail line. This specific line was designed with the task of desegregating the masses. Two conglomerates such as, Eureka and San Francisco, were connecting for the for the first time. Shortening the travel time would allow for meat, plants, people, and vegetation to travel efficiently from one place to the next. Along the way the ideas of the Northwest Pacific Railroad were lost. After contracting and ownership battles the Northwest Pacific rail line became a distant disaster. The rail line was split between many corporations. As construction on the rail line ended, industrial leaders realized they built this line on unpredictable land. The Eel River is located along a rocky valley that surpasses many mountains.
With mountainous terrain comes rockslides, gravel slides, floods, and debris fall. Instead of efficiently cleaning the falling debris, rail line workers dumped the excess material into the rivers banks. This drastically altered the interior composition of the river. In 1997 the line was finally shut down due to major floods and landslides. Although the rail line was shut down, damage to the surrounding environment was already set in place. The debris scatter throughout the years utterly destroyed the water configuration. Water quality is very important in terms of animal survival. Certain species can only spawn in distinctive water temperatures. The rock debris also immobilized fish species by blocking their passageways. Native fish species such as the salmon and the steelhead were locked in a dangerous trans. This blocked passageway made them powerless. Incidents like this could eternally taint the survival of a native species. A blocked passageway makes it difficult for fish to travel the river for spawning. Hindered passages can disrupt their life cycle, and as of 2018 this disruptive cycle cannot be reversed. The water quality will continue to run as is. There have been great plans in the works for the remainder of the railroad cycle, and a proposal to railbank the railway. The new railroad passage way will be of public use, and individuals will be able to hike and bike around the new trail (The Great Redwood Trail). This will completely remobilize the new rail way and make its lands habitable again.
Despite meeting with some success in the court dealings with the NCRA, FOER have experienced less success in their efforts to remove the Potter Valley Project dams. The chief obstacles to their success in this respect are twofold: first, the relicensing process for the dams, which occurs every 50 years, has come up for the Potter Valley dams, but can be delayed indefinitely by FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) for as long as they deem necessary. The reason they are unable to take decisive action at this time is because many of the residents of the Russian River Valley are dependent upon the water diverted by the dams, and, even though PG&E is looking to extricate themselves from maintaining the dams, the need of hundreds of citizens to have access to clean water has made simply removing the dams impossible from a political standpoint. FERC will continue to delay the proceedings until an acceptable solution to this problem is reached.
A second problem lies in something called CEII. CEII, which stands for Critical Energy/Electric Infrastructure Information, is a classification system instituted under the Patriot Act in 2002 as a direct result of the terrorist attacks endured by our country on September 11, 2001. Essentially, CEII classifies information pertaining to any energy infrastructure deemed to be critical to national security, in hopes of preventing such valuable knowledge from being used for nefarious purposes. While this is certainly a pragmatic approach to take, it does not in any realistic sense pertain to the Potter Valley dams, which, even by PG&E’s admission, are not substantially valuable for in terms of energy production, but rather for the water they redistribute to the Russian River Valley. CEII is an issue for FOER because it restricts their access to documents that would help them understand in what state the dams are in, whether or not they have become a hazard, and how best to prepare for the ecological changes that would come from their removal. Lifting the CEII restrictions on the Potter Valley dams is unlikely, and, as such, FOER will continue to essentially fly blind, without access to information critical to their success.
Room for Improvement
As a small-scale local organization, Friends of the Eel River operates in an environment that has long history of environmental activism. Located in Humboldt County, FOER is one of several organizations concerned about water quality and fisheries, yet the movement should consider allying with other environmental non-profit organizations and agencies to address environmental injustice regarding restoring tribal fishing practices and tribal water rights. FOER focuses specifically on dam removal along the Eel River, the environmental review process of the North Coast Railway, and water stewardship for landowners along the Eel River. Dam removal is also a major concern of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, which is currently working to restore the Klamath River’s natural stream processes by removing several dams along the main channel of the Klamath River. Friends of the Eel River could become more comprehensive, intersectional and inclusive by allying itself with the Water Protectors movement that is rising to face cheap energy and the extractive energy economy on a global scale. Friends of the Eel River could expand to ally with other local movements and support global movements.
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