Connecting the Dots ~ Fred Allebach

Fred Allebach Fred Allebach is a member of the City of Sonoma’s Community Services and Environmental Commission, and an Advisory Committee member of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Fred is maintenance chair of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards and an active member of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group and Transition Sonoma Valley. As well, Fred has a KSVY radio show on Sunday nights at 8:PM, participates in the Sonoma Valley Action Coalition for immigration issues, and with the Sonoma Climate Coalition.


Our water and The Potter Valley Project

Posted on June 25, 2019 by Fred Allebach

The Potter Valley Project is a tri-county (Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma), trans-basin water diversion project between the Eel and Russian River watersheds. The Project was finished in 1908 and in addition to water transfer, can provide up to 9.2 megawatts of power to Ukiah. This is enough to power 3000 homes per year.

Cape Horn Dam (on the Eel River)
The Potter Valley Project consists of the Cape Horn Dam, the VanArsdale Reservoir, a one mile, redwood timber-lined tunnel to the East Fork of the Russian River, and the power generating infrastructure. The Project created summer flows on the East Fork of the Russian River where none had been before.

Scott Dam (on the Eel River)
Summer flows on the upper Mainstem of the Eel River were not reliable to run the Potter Valley Project powerhouse full time and in 1922 Scott Dam was built, forming Lake Pillsbury, which ensured a year-round water supply to the Project. Note, Cape Horn Dam has fish passage, Scott Dam does not.

Potter Valley Irrigation District
After water is diverted into the Russian River, the Potter Valley Irrigation District, formed in 1926, can take water into their canal system, depending on the time of year. Potter Valley property owners got first dibs on water rights for Project water.

Coyote Valley Dam (on East Fork Russian River)
In 1959, Coyote Valley Dam was built for flood control, forming Lake Mendocino, which serves water and irrigation needs for 11 communities, from Ukiah to just above where Dry Creek comes into the Russian River at Healdsburg.

Ukiah uses 2200 acre feet per year from Lake Mendocino, supplying drinking water for 3100 people. Lake Mendocino also supplies water for municipal, ag, fish conservation, and fire protection uses. The Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, or MCIWPA, is looking to get a permit for raising Coyote Valley Dam 36’ because of water quality and supply issues. Water has to be stored to make it valuable.

Warm Springs Dam (on Dry Creek)
Warm Springs Dam was built in 1982, forming Lake Sonoma, which is the main water supply for urban Sonoma County and north Marin County. Water from Lake Sonoma enters the Russian River via Dry Creek at Healdsburg.

Sonoma Aqueduct, diverted water
The Sonoma Aqueduct was built in 1963 to divert Russian River water to the Sonoma Creek watershed, and supply water to the urban service area of Sonoma Valley. If you get a water bill from Sonoma or Valley of the Moon Water District, (VOMWD), you are on Russian and Eel River water. For more local water info, click here. Note, aqueducts transferring Russian River water also supply Marin County.

Flow reduction, fish protections
Historically the Potter Valley Project diverted 160,000 acre feet a year to the Russian River. This was reduced to 75,000 acre feet (1) in 2004 because of federally mandated flow requirements to protect Eel River anadromous fish. The upper Russian River (above Dry Creek) is also managed by Federal agencies for fish and salmon, and these efforts are now dependent on a certain amount of imported Potter Valley Project water flows.

In the 2004 flow reduction, the Sonoma County Water Agency lost 60% of its water sourced from the Potter Valley Project. Note, the Water Agency only has water rights after Project water arrives at Lake Mendocino. For more on SCWA water rights, click here.

Welcome to western water

The entirety of this above-described water supply system is typical for California and western US water. There are human system benefits, and also negative externalities. Who benefits and who pays the costs depends on who has the most power, who controls the water, and for what purpose.

The western water pattern amounts to urban and ag areas being dependent on dams, canals, aqueducts, and imported water from far flung sources. Owens Valley water to LA, and Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson are classic examples. Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert is an informative read. The upshot? Sonoma County and the Potter Valley Project tri-county region is a classic western water situation.

An estimated 600,000 people depend on water from the Potter Valley Project.


In 1930, PG&E bought the Potter Valley Project and the power license. PG&E was getting to a point of Project diminishing returns and put the Project up for sale in May of 2018. But then PG&E went bankrupt, and in January of 2019 announced that it had ceased all Potter Valley relicensing and sale activities. The Project is now “orphaned” and in the hands of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.

Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, or MCIWPC

The MCIPWC is a coalition comprised of the Potter Valley Irrigation District, City of Ukiah, Mendocino County Water Agency, Redwood Valley County Water District, and the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District. MCIWPC will apply for the Project license. A look at MCIWPC members show it to be made up of municipal and ag interests.

The MCIPWC narrative about regional water and the Potter Valley Project is here.

According to MPIWPC spokesperson Janet Pauli, the orphaned Project “is an unprecedented situation with no true roadmap to follow.” The outcome for the orphaned Project is unknown. MCIWPC says, “it will be important to maintain local control of the Project to continue providing a crucial water source for the communities and environment that have developed around the water supply over the last 100+ years. Reliable water storage with year-round supply is critical to adapting to drought years.”

Potter Valley Project re-licensing timetable

The current Project license expires in 2022 and the final FERC relicensing application is due no later than April 14th, 2020. FERC has called for a notice of intent to apply for the Project license by interested parties, and this deadline is June 28th, 2019. Once Project re-licensing applications are in, the public will be able to know who all has applied.

The license has to take into account how to manage the power, infrastructure maintenance, and fish management. At stake is control of a critical resource for multiple and sometimes conflicting stakeholder interests.

Huffman two-basin solution

Congressman Jared Huffman has formed an ad hoc committee for interested parties to look into Project operating options and to inform the relicensing process. Huffman wants to see a two-basin, regional solution that puts fish consideration as a co-equal priority. Huffman, like any elected representing a large population, takes a view of representing all stakes and interests.

The Huffman ad hoc has Federal, tribal, environmental, fish advocacy, regional counties and water agencies, the Sonoma County Water Agency, the State Water Resources Control Board, PG&E, as well as some constituent members of the MPIWPC. Human system water interests are in tension with interests who prioritize natural systems.

Fish passage will need to be addressed in the licensing process. One possible option is to take out Scott Dam and only have diversions during high winter flows. Scott Dam blocked 8% or 288 miles of the upper Eel from anadromous fish spawning.

A potential Project licensee can’t just break the dam and let water out into the river and estuary. The Coastal Commission will do cores on the sediments behind Scott Dam to see about the presence of toxic mercury and other contaminants. It would cost $300 million to remove toxic sediments from behind the dam. Scott Dam would be decommissioned at a cost of @ $70 million.

According to Janet Pauli, Scott Dam is in good condition; if there were troubles, there would not be water behind it, she said. Should Lake Pillsbury be drained as a management alternative, there is an old town at the bottom of the lake.

The MCIWPC’s plan is to keep all the Project and related infrastructure in place as long as possible before moving to any plan B’s. It remains to be seen if the MCIWPC coalition’s license application can work with ag, fish, and municipal stakeholder tensions and address them to FERC’s satisfaction


According to a 3-6-19 Press Democrat article titled “State environmental group wants old Scott Dam on Eel River removed to help salmon and steelhead”, the future of the Potter Valley Project is either relicensing or decommissioning.

“The bottom line is either PG&E or a new owner of the project may face a choice between paying more than $90 million for a fish ladder at Scott Dam or about $70 million to remove it.

North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and CalTrout both say federal officials are likely to require “volitional fish passage” at Scott Dam, enabling the threatened salmon and steelhead adults to swim freely to their spawning grounds and juvenile fish to get out to the Pacific Ocean.

“There’s no way around it,” Huffman said.

Back to western water

The picture that emerges from the history of the Potter Valley Project is similar to emerging groundwater issues. People have become dependent on the over-allocation of a limited resource. Modern water availability was defined during a relatively wet period in history, and now that the essential dryness and drought-prone characteristics of the West are asserting themselves, along with anthropogenic climate change effects, the writing on the wall is pretty much: less water for more people.

It then becomes an onerous proposition to reel in and maybe limit human uses that many people’s and municipality’s livelihoods have come to depend on. However, making plans and being uncomfortable dealing with tensions is preferable to having a race to the bottom.

Putting environmental considerations on equal footing with human system uses is a problem the sustainability paradigm seeks to solve. Federal laws concerning fish and waterways are a powerful backdrop to have to consider and comply with. Difficult choices are in the offing. Decommissioning the Potter Valley Project seems like a long shot, but as noted, the way to the end game here is an uncharted and unprecedented situation. From a Machiavellian standpoint, those with the most power, money and lawyers tend to prevail, which would have the Project re-licensed by somebody. There seems too much economic weight at stake to decommission the Project.

Economic weight

$30-35 $million per year in crop value is currently produced from Potter Valley. $743 million of crops are produced from the Project to the Mendocino County line. Cloverdale is 100% dependent on Project water, Healdsburg 77%, Geyserville 100%. Alexander Valley is totally dependent on Project water, for $133 million worth of grape growing. Lake Pillsbury is a boon to Lake County tourism, as a recreational attraction for camping, swimming, boating, fishing, and hunting. Lake Mendocino is huge for recreation, picnicking, fishing, and boating as well.

And then if supplies get tight, there are priority water rights and a pecking order to have to adhere to.

MCIPWC goals and management outline

MCIWPC goals and desired future outcomes: local control, supply reliability that supports the existing economy and quality of life, and two basin ecological restoration. If the MCIPWC can finesse the ecological restoration piece, they may have a good chance at the license by representing the widest slate of interests. This plus being able to come up with the money and expertise to manage all the infrastructure.

Without the Potter Valley Project, three out of five years would result in serious water depletion for those on the Russian River above Lake Sonoma, and would impact those below as well. Lake Mendocino is a one-season supply vulnerable to drought.

Whoever becomes the future Potter Valley Project license holder will have to sell water to fund the Project because power sales from antiquated generating equipment will not be enough to comply with licensing, operations, dam safety costs, fish ladders etc. Buyers will have to figure what level of water costs are prohibitive compared to having no water at all. One top-level attendee at a Farm Bureau Water Committee meeting said, that the Project, as per reports and studies, will have “a pretty hefty price tag as it is now.”

The final Project managing entity will be a JPA, or Joint Powers Agreement; NGOs can’t manage the Project. Managers have to be from elected bodies.

Janet Pauli is a lead spokesperson for the MCIWPC. She is making regional presentations and many of my notes on the Potter Valley Project here came from two Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Water Committee meetings that Pauli attended and spoke extensively in. Her extemporaneous command of the issues is impressive. Owing to the complexity, Pauli is taking it “one step at a time.” Said Pauli, “our goal regionally is to protect the supply of water.”


Why should anyone care and know about all of this? The Sonoma Valley urban service area, i.e. the area served by the city and Valley of the Moon Water District, are heavily dependent on Russian River water via the Sonoma Aqueduct. City supply is 95% Russian River water, VOMWD supply is @ 80%- 85%. The potential loss of 75,000 acre feet from the Potter Project through decommissioning would have definite impacts on the whole regional water supply system. Less Potter Valley Project supply would mean more strict conservation and more reliance on scarce groundwater. This puts a light on SGMA, the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and the need to conserve groundwater for periods of drought, or in the case of Potter Valley, the possible loss of 75,000 acre feet of diverted water.

From the standpoint of “one water” resource for all in our region, it makes sense to keep an eye on issues that have inter-related consequences. In sustainability, inter-related means not just economy or environment, but having to account at once for the economy, environment, and society.

1: For comparison’s sake on the 2004 flow reduction to 75,000 acre feet; 75,000 acre feet is equal to the Sonoma County Water Agency’s total water rights from all sources. Even though the flow was reduced, 75,000 acre feet is still a LOT of water.


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