Potter Valley could snag water-sharing plan
Saturday, October 22, 2005
The prospect of the Sonoma County Water Agency acquiring a Mendocino County dam that feeds the Russian River is emerging as a stumbling block to a new North Bay water-sharing contract.
The Potter Valley Project, a hydroelectric plant north of Lake Mendocino, has been the subject of a 30-year dispute because the PG&E-owned dam diverts water from the Eel River, which keeps part of the Russian River from running dry in the summer months.
Potter Valley's future is in doubt because the utility company has contemplated selling it, Mendocino County wants a piece of it, and some Sonoma County interests fear losing their grip on the water. At the moment, Potter Valley's water is the focal point of a lawsuit scheduled for a January hearing before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in which Sonoma and Mendocino counties dispute the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's control of the spigot. "It is premature for Sonoma County to discuss owning the project," said Janet Pauli, chairwoman of the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission. "Mendocino County would not sit by, let Sonoma County simply own it and not do something about it."
Randy Poole, the Sonoma County Water Agency general manager,
said acquiring Potter Valley is mentioned in the proposed water-sharing
contract because users ought to start thinking now about what to do,
Right now, it is a theoretical debate because Potter Valley was withdrawn from sale when PG&E entered bankruptcy and chose to hold onto its hydroelectric plants.
"It is nice to talk about taking Potter Valley out of the agreement, but the reality is that we need to deal with the river system as a whole," said Poole, whose agency sells water to cities and special districts in Sonoma and Marin counties. "Our transmission system is approaching its limits, and what we decide affects development, water flow issues in the Russian River and Chinook (salmon) conservation plans everywhere."
Environmental groups such as the Friends of the Eel River and the Russian River Keepers already are marshalling opposition to water agency acquisition of Potter Valley. They believe the federal government is more likely to be able to preserve species populations.
For the water agency, said David Keller, director of Friends of the Eel River, "this isn't about saving fish; it's a question of who has straws in the rivers to control water in southern Mendocino and northern Sonoma County. The water agency wants to control the spigot."
Poole defended Potter Valley's inclusion in the water-sharing agreement, saying it ought to be included in long-term planning.
"How you operate the river system without obtaining water rights to Potter Valley is up to the cities to decide," Poole said. "If you don't give the water agency the ability to design it, then I can't guarantee you a reliable water transmission system."
Ironically, the Potter Valley Project constitutes a very small part of the restructured agreement that water agency officials are currently shopping before city councils. Water allocation formulas are viewed as most important because they detail what happens in the event of shortages and set the tone for future development.
So far, the cities of Rohnert Park and Cotati and the
Valley of the Moon water district have approved the agreement with the
Potter Valley provision. However, councils in Windsor and Sonoma and
the governing boards of the North Marin and Marin Municipal water districts
said the Potter Valley provision is a deal-killer and they will reject
"My concern is the idea of using somebody else's watershed instead of sustaining ourselves with the resources that we have," Windsor Councilwoman Lynn Morehouse said. "We fear this might take on a life of its own, and it's not so theoretical if it is part of the restructure agreement."
The Petaluma City Council is expected to debate the water-sharing contract in mid-November, with Santa Rosa to follow.
Petaluma Councilwoman Pam Torliatt said the council is likely to be skeptical about moving to acquire a hydroelectric project without estimates of the purchase cost or charges to ratepayers. Some of the councils balking at Potter Valley are proposing that the margin for approval be six out of the eight agencies, rather than the current five of eight required.