MENDOCINO Co., 10/19/21 — Efforts to secure the Russian River water supply have stalled over the past month. A powerhouse that allows for larger diversions of water from the Eel River to the Russian River went down over the summer and it’s unclear whether it will be repaired. Pacific Gas & Electric says the Potter Valley Project (PVP), a hydroelectric power project that diverts the water from one river to the other, will continue providing enough water to meet its contractual obligations to Potter Valley residents and the Russian River watershed. What remains to be seen is whether a regional partnership will be able to take over the project and secure that supply for the long term.
PG&E estimates it will take 18 to 24 months to replace the transformer that went down at the PVP powerhouse and the utility company is in the process of evaluating what the cost and schedule for repair would look like, said Paul Moreno, PG&E spokesperson. So far the estimate is in the $5 to $10 million range and PG&E hasn’t decided yet whether it’s going to replace the transformer. “Our system was designed to allow water to be bypassed around the powerhouse for delivery downstream, irrespective of whether the powerhouse is operating,” Moreno said. “As such, we’ve been able to deliver water to (Potter Valley Irrigation District) but deliveries have been less than normal this year due to severe drought conditions.”
The powerhouse wasn’t operating during the summer because drought conditions prevented PG&E from diverting enough water to generate power. During routine maintenance between May and June, Moreno said they discovered the transformer, which Moreno said “was not operating within acceptable parameters,” creating a safety risk. “We decided not to place that equipment back in service,” he said.
Under normal conditions, PG&E would be able to divert up to 270 to 275 cubic feet per second through the project and to Lake Mendocino, said Janet Pauli, chair of the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, told the countrywide ad hoc drought task force. With the powerhouse down, “PG&E cannot physically divert water at that rate” and would instead be diverting 45 cubic feet of water per second all winter.
“If we were reduced to 45 cubic feet per second all winter long, we’re talking about a substantial diminished inflow to Lake Mendocino,” Pauli said. “Maybe along the lines of about 8,000 acre feet. Much, much less than what we need to have in that lake moving into the spring next year.” PG&E is in conversations with Pauli and other stakeholders to find out if there’s a possibility of increasing those diversions through the bypass.
That’s not the only looming concern for the Potter Valley Project. PG&E isn’t renewing its license for the project and a regional partnership, the Two Basin Partnership, began the process of trying to take over the license. But now the ability of the partnership to do that is on shaky ground. Pauli’s also part of the Two Basin Partnership and said the various stakeholders invested a lot of time and energy into trying to find a way for the PVP to continue delivering water to the Russian River while also restoring the fish habitat on the Eel River side that was disrupted by the initial construction of the project.
The partnership conducted the studies that were needed to determine what kind of project configuration would allow it to meet both the needs of the environment and residents that have become dependent on those diversions, but those studies led to more questions than they answered. They determined more studies are going to be needed to figure out how the project should be set up for the future. Pauli said the group needs more time to do those studies and requested a pause in the process of applying for the license, which is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), so it could look for $3 to $4 million of funding needed to conduct them.
“There are some really basic questions that are still unanswered with regards to the existing water rights of the project and how they might change or be modified with any potential changes in the project, the cost of maintaining the project as it is or as it may be modified,” Pauli said, “all those things are questions that we have, and as potential owners and licensees of the project, we need that information before we can move forward. Certainly before we can prepare a final license application.”
FERC granted the abeyance until April instead of May like the group requested and also requested the partnership submit its application on April 14, 2022. “It’s virtually impossible for us to come up with a final license application by April 14,” Pauli said. “So we as a partnership are working on other options.”