The old truism that California's water “flows uphill toward power and money” is often literally true, but not always. The powerful and wealthy of Sonoma County, northern Marin County, and parts of inland Mendocino County actually rely on water that initially flows downhill — at a gradient, to be exact, of 475 feet.
The Potter Valley Project is a huge diversion of water from the mainstem of the Eel River into the east fork of the Russian River. The Eel's water is initially plugged by the Van Arsdale Reservoir, completed in 1908. The capital to build the 96-foot-high Van Arsdale Dam, as well as the tunnel through the mountain, was put up by real estate speculator and clear-cutting timber tycoon William Van Arsdale. This esteemed member of Ukiah society, the owner of Ridgewood Ranch, expropriated his wealth from the western foothills of the Shasta Mountain range, where the Scott-Van Arsdale Lumber Company clear-cut the ponderosa pine, sugar pine, and cedar forests of the McCloud River watershed, fouling up that river's magnificent salmon runs in the process. Much of the lumber went south to build the shipping crates of Southern California's fruit growers. In the process, it built Van Arsdale's bank account. He also funded the construction of a mile-long, eight-foot diameter tunnel, hand-dug by Chinese and working class white laborers from 1906-07, that captures up to 95% of the mainstem Eel's flow at a give time.
California is characterized by warm, very dry summers and cool, wet winters — a Mediterranean climate. Most of the rainfall occurs from November through May. It’s very unusual if we get any rainfall in other parts of the year. The Russian River is fed principally by creeks that emerge from the Mayacamas Mountains and other relatively low-ranging inland mountains, which — unlike the mountains that support year-round waterways such as the Eel, the Klamath, the San Joaquin, the Sacramento, the Smith — amass very little snow. Therefore, the Russian River's main stem historically runs dry in the summer. Thanks to the expropriation of Eel River water via the tunnel, however, the River now maintains a steady flow year-round. In this way all of the vineyards and pear orchards, cities and suburbs, strip malls and tract housing, from Ukiah down to Windsor, Rohnert Park and on down to Novato in Marin County, have grown up drinking at the Potter Valley Project's water trough.
But who, exactly, uses this water? The biggest user, by far, is irrigated wine. The rivers are being dewatered to grow premium grapes, and more importantly to grow the bank accounts of those wealthy enough to own wineries which convert those grapes to wine. Granted, those involved in the cultivation side of the industry — the actual grape growers — are often small family farmers. They are also people like Andy Beckstoffer, the Napa-based wine baron who owns nearly 2,000 acres of grapes in the Ukiah Valley, and who throws his political weight around whenever the grape industry is involved in a squabble regarding water use.
As of 2010, a mere six corporations controlled production and distribution of 80% of wine produced in California, which invariably means they — along with the growers they sponsor and contract with — also control land use and water politics and associated political offices in places like Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and inland Mendo. And they do whatever it takes to ensure their thirsty grapes continue to receive water.
The Potter Valley Project water first flows down the Russian River channel, which makes its big bend toward the Pacific Ocean near Windsor. That’s where much of the water begins the process of more literally moving uphill toward money. The Sonoma County Water Agency siphons much of that water into enormous pumps that send its traveling over mountains and through valleys, via a series of booster pumps, pipelines, canals, storage tanks, and reservoirs, reaching as far east as the town of Sonoma and as far south as Novato.
The North Bay and inland Mendocino County, are a microcosm of the rest of California, with their 20th century infrastructure based on ecologically calamitous water exports. Keep in mind that the most famous “water grab” in the western United States, the Los Angeles Aqueduct which delivers water via a 243-mile pipeline from Owens Valley to arid Los Angeles (against the wishes of Owens Valley farmers, who tried to blow up the pipeline several times in the 1910s) was not built until six years after the Potter Valley Project came online.
The justification for keeping the Potter Valley diversion has evolved over time. Initially, it was a way to generate electricity for the town of Ukiah. Then it was to fuel the booming recreation and vacation industry in resort towns that sprang up along the Russian River, such as Guerneville. Eventually, under the tutelage and pressure of the University of California's Cooperative extension agents and their superiors in Berkeley and Davis, irrigation became standard practice for both vineyards and pear orchards.
Today, the City of Santa Rosa — 150,000 residents and still growing — dumps its treated wastewater directly into the Russian River. “The Solution to Pollution is Dilution,” as the saying goes, and this practice would no longer be possible if the river ran dry. And now there are the various far-flung suburbs that suckle at the concrete banks of the Sonoma County Water Agency's canals. Novato, Rohnert Park, Petaluma, et al. would have to undergo significant restructuring if forced to cease their reliance on the Sonoma County Water Agency's exports.
But the ecological consequences of keeping the Potter Valley Project in operation are vast. The upper dam of the project at Lake Pillsbury blocks perhaps the finest salmon and trout spawning grounds in the huge Eel River system. It is also the primary breeding ground for the highly invasive Sacramento pikeminnow, which feed mercilessly on young salmon and trout throughout the Eel River system. The dams trap enormous amounts of sediment, which has a broad range of very detrimental impacts on the rivers. And diverting the Eel River's flow at Potter Valley often makes a significant contribution to depriving fish of vitally important — and cooler — water flow downstream.
In the last few years, chinook salmon on the Eel River have experienced a noticeable rebound. But that has likely been more due to favorable ocean conditions than any other factor. When those conditions change, it is likely that the chinooks' decline will continue. The dams are one of the main culprits. With the salmon on a path to extinction in the Eel Rier watershed, it is difficult to envision a scenario where they can survive without the dams' removal.
In the coming weeks, I'll be exploring the politics, ecology, economics, and culture around the Eel River dams and the Coyote Valley Dam on the East Fork of the Russian River in articles encompassing marijuana growing, the wine industry, suburban real estate speculation, the plight of salmon and trout, and more.