Eel River Dams up for Relicensing; Removal Best Chance for Fish

October, 2017


The Cape Horn Dam on the Eel River. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Eel River.

The Cape Horn Dam, one of two dams on the Eel River up for relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Eel River.

Every 30 to 50 years, hydropower projects get relicensed. Everyone knows that hydroelectric power is clean power, dams are good for rivers and fish, and even old dams never suffer any serious failures. So we should keep them all! Right?

Wrong. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), infamous for its disdain for the environmental impacts of the dams it licenses, subscribes to the above statements. At Friends of the Eel River (FOER), we have always known that we couldn’t look to FERC to change the status quo on the Eel River. Still, the depth of FERC’s indifference to its job as a regulatory agency is astonishing.

This past April, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) filed initial paperwork to begin relicensing the two Eel River dams and diversion works known as the Potter Valley Project. When FERC issued its scoping document­—which identifies key issues and outlines the process for making a relicensing determination—the only path forward presented was the unsustainable and illegal status quo: dam and diversion operations likely to lead to the extinction of Eel River steelhead during the next license period.

We should be clear here: dam removal, by itself, probably isn’t enough to secure the habitat Eel River salmon and steelhead need to survive and begin to recover their populations. Dam removal is, however, an essential first step, and one that we can and must take now. More than 250 stream miles of high-quality steelhead habitat are locked behind the impassible Scott Dam. Meanwhile, the 12-mile stretch below Scott Dam and above Cape Horn Dam operates as an ecological trap, with cold-water flows from the upper dam encouraging salmon and steelhead to spawn, but not to migrate downriver in time to survive. Instead, juvenile salmon and steelhead feed invasive pikeminnow.

We were a bit shocked that FERC refused to even consider any alternatives, especially decommissioning. Over the summer, we asked members of the public to request that decommissioning be included as an alternative in comments to FERC.

A lot of people claim to be working for the recovery of the Eel River these days. We actually do it. Friends of the Eel River put together extensive, detailed comments on FERC’s scoping document with the help of key fisheries groups like CalTrout, Trout Unlimited, California Sportfishing Alliance, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations (PCFFA), and the Native Fish Society. The Round Valley Tribes and Wiyot Tribe, who have claims of still greater legal weight than those we can bring on behalf of Eel River fisheries, have stepped up and delivered substantive comments as well.

As bad as the FERC process has been so far, it’s about to get worse. By mid-September, we’ll see a revised scoping document from FERC (upon which the agency will accept no comments, but we’ll give them some anyway) and a pile of proposed study plans from PG&E. We’ll be working on comments on the proposed study plans for an early December 2017 deadline, as FERC plans to finalize the study plans in early February to get studies going in 2018.

This process will continue for a minimum of five years, during which we can expect FERC to produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will set new standards for malign neglect of the critical environmental issues at hand for the Eel River and its fisheries. However, it’s important to note that similar relicensing efforts are still dragging on after ten or even twenty years. For those who simply want to maintain the status quo, that’s an acceptable outcome, as FERC routinely issues waivers allowing dams to continue to operate under out-of-date license terms while relicensing battles continue.

Friends of the Eel River will continue to seek leverage points both within and outside the FERC process, and will continue to dialog with stakeholders from every perspective who may be willing to support a negotiated solution involving the removal of the Eel River dams.  To learn more, get involved, or support our efforts, visit us at

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