On paper, California’s Eel River is a prime candidate for restoration.
It’s a remote river that runs through rugged, lightly-populated terrain in Northern California. As with many rivers in the region, a combination of logging, over-fishing, and dams decimated its once-plentiful salmon and steelhead runs. The introduction of a native predator, the pikeminnow, only made things worse.
But some of that could be put to rights: two aging dams in the Eel’s upper reaches are reaching the end of their lifespan—and one has been declared seismically unsafe. PG&E, which owns the dams, has chosen not to renew their licenses, setting the stage for removal if no new owner steps forward.
Eel River residents overwhelmingly support dam removal, the tribes are adamantly in favor, and a constellation of NGOs is pushing hard for it. If those dams come down, 150 square miles of cold-water habitat will open up to struggling populations of steelhead and salmon, offering needed refuge from the warming climate.
So why is it so hard to get done?
Part of the answer lies in the dam’s history. Part lies in the challenges of coping with a surfeit of aging infrastructure. And part lies in the complexities of who exactly constitutes the river’s community. Finding a solution has implications not just for the state but for the nation.
A tale of two rivers
An engineering decision about a century ago twined together the fates of the Eel River and it southern neighbor, the Russian River, in ways that have made restoration efforts on the Eel particularly tricky today.
In the 1920s, the Eel River Power and Irrigation Company punched a hole in a mountain, creating a tunnel to siphon water from the Eel and send it down the Russian. Soon a small community on the Russian River called Potter Valley, which had no groundwater or runoff of its own, was flourishing. With tens of thousands of acre-feet of water now flowing through the tunnel in the fall and winter, agriculture blossomed: farmers irrigated pastures for grazing cattle and growing hay. They planted pear orchards, vineyards, and row crops and even established a few sheep, horse, and goat farms. The dams allowed the water to flow year-round and powered its transport.
One hundred years later, the Russian River is now hydrologically dependent on those flows. So are the region’s agriculture and tourism industries—not to mention its residents. Where the Eel watershed is home to some 32,000 residents, the Russian River supports 600,000.
And therein lies the rub: the people who live on the Eel—and on Lake Pillsbury, a reservoir that would be drained if the dams come down—are only part of the river’s constituency. The tribes are a constituency. The NGOs are a constituency. And so, now, are the 600,000 people who live on the Russian River. If those dams come down, they lose their water, unless someone steps in to maintain the diversion.
When we think of river restoration, we assume that those who will be affected are people who can put their feet in the river. But California was built on a complex water grid that ferries water all over the state. If you live in San Diego, your drinking water has likely traveled hundreds of miles before issuing from your tap, from sources ranging from the Colorado River to the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta.
The Eel is not the exception, it’s the rule: like so many other rivers in California, its water travels outside the basin, and a vast number of people benefit from that mobilized resource.
The two dams that make this possible, Cape Horn Dam and Scott Dam, are reaching the end of their lifespan. This adds urgency to an already fraught dynamic between all those constituencies on (and off) the Eel River.
But what some call a liability may in fact be an opportunity to tear down structures that were built long before environmental considerations were a factor. The United States has more than 90,000 dams, and many of them are in a similar state. The problem has loomed so large that in 2020, two traditionally opposed groups—hydropower developers and river conservationists—came together to figure out what to do.
They forged a groundbreaking agreement on how to assess whether a dam should be retrofitted for hydropower, rehabilitated for continued use, or removed for conservation. (The agreement came out of the Uncommon Dialogue led by Dan Reicher and hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.) The agreement, sometimes referred to as “improve or remove,” helped focus the task. And in 2021, key ideas from the agreement became part of the federal infrastructure bill. There’s now funding for this necessary work.
Still, taking down the dams would leave many communities literally high and dry. Many argue that the Eel needs a two-basin solution that meets the needs of all communities in the Russian and Eel River basins. Congressman Jared Huffman formed the Two-Basin Partnership in 2018 to try and hammer out solutions that would be at least palatable. A second group dedicated to finding a solution, the Russian River Water Forum, formed in early 2023.
These collaborative efforts led to the announcement, in August 2023, of a proposal to advance “a regional solution for preserving flows in the Russian River and improving Eel River fisheries.” It’s been an uphill battle, but it seems years-long efforts are beginning to pay off. Though what happens on the Eel may seem like a local problem, how the communities handle it will have national implications.
Correction: This post was updated on August 8, 2023. The originally post incorrectly stated that the Russian River Water Forum was a successor to the Two-Basin Partnership; it is in fact a parallel effort.