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Unique Lawsuit Ties River Damage To Urban Growth

by Jentri Anders

to Politics of Water
15 miles of Eel River dry up in summers A lawsuit filed recently by a coalition of individuals, conservation organizations and Native American groups shifted the focus in a longtime Northern California water battle from the general to the very specific.

For the first time, the suit ties urban expansion in the Santa Rosa area directly to its potential impact on the Eel River, over 100 miles away.

Brought by seven plaintiffs led by Friends of the Eel River, the suit calls for an injunction prohibiting the huge, growth-oriented Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) from using water from the Eel River to supply its half-million customers in Sonoma and Marin Counties.

The water is diverted by PG&E's Potter Valley Hydroelectric Project from the mainstem of the north-running Eel to the East Branch of the south-running Russian River. After it turns PG&E's turbines, it is considered abandoned water and has been used for 90 years to irrigate pear orchards in Potter Valley and wineries downstream. It then fills Lake Mendocino, which the agency operates to supply municipalities.

The agency also owns and operates Lake Sonoma, on Dry Creek, which flows into the Russian River below its confluence with the East Branch.

Claims that current diversion from the Eel River is illegal
In 1996, the agency proposed to expand its diversions from the lower Russian River, which is fed by both lakes. The proposed Water Supply and Transmission System Project adds a collector and calls for the removal of an additional 26,000 acre-feet from the Russian River. The agency is currently authorized by the State Water Resources Control Board to divert 75,000 acre-feet per year.

The suit, filed Jan. 14, challenges the certification of the final environmental impact report (FEIR) on the expansion project, claiming that it conceals from the public the illegality of the agency's current diversion from the Eel.

Charging numerous violations of the California Environmental Quality Act, the suit claims that the Potter Valley diversion is illegal because SCWA has no consumptive water rights to Eel River water.

In addition, reads the complaint, the FEIR does not adequately address water use changes that may result from the listing of Eel and Russian River salmon and steelhead as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The FEIR was approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors November 17 and the agency approved the project a month later.

Another first for the lawsuit is that it is the first time a Native American group has joined with conservation groups in a civil suit to regulate the Potter Valley Project. Although the Round Valley Tribal Counsel was one of the first to call for protection for Eel River fish when the project came up for relicensing in 1976, and it has acted as co-intervenor with California Trout in federal actions, it has always pursued civil action independently.

Plaintiffs include the Wiyot Tribe of Table Bluff Reservation and, as an individual, Coyote Fred Downey, of the Round Valley reservation. Others are Friends of the Russian River and Dr. Martin Griffin, author of "Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast," the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associatons and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

Also a plaintiff is Fairfax City Councilman Frank Egger, a member of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Eel River, The longest-sitting city councilmember in California, Egger has been involved in Eel-Russian River water issues throughout his 33 year tenure.

Egger's view is that, by predicating future development on the expansion and predicating the expansion on the Eel River diversion, the SCWA is positioning itself for a later argument to the state water board that diversions from the Eel River must continue or increase.

The Farm Bureau suggests just limiting the number of hookups
This would preclude the longterm efforts of several of the plaintiffs to greatly reduce the diversion and perhaps eventually remove the dams and the mile-long tunnel altogether. Termination or reduction of the Potter Valley Project is an eventuality made much more likely by the ESA listing and growing public concern for the ecology of both watersheds, Egger said.

Scott Dam, part of Potter Valley Project "When you look at this EIR," said Egger, "in the whole eight volumes, there is less than one page dealing with the Eel River issue, even though a number of people have raised it. The SCWA has no legal water rights to the Eel River. They are trying to backdoor those rights with this project. With this project, if the Eel River diversion is reduced or eliminated, the Russian River will be so dramatically overdrawn, that SCWA will not be able to deliver on its contracts."

In the FEIR, the SCWA claims there would be no impact to the Eel, because the increase in water removed would be compensated for by more releases from Lake Sonoma. The suit disputes that claim, stating that, because the expansion would use 90 percent of the available water in Lake Sonoma, that water would not be available to compensate for any shortage of water from the Eel River.

The suit, and numerous comments contained in the FEIR, claim the SCWA has other options in meeting its alleged future water crunch. The California Farm Bureau, for instance, suggest limiting the number of hookups rather than taking more water from the rivers.

Egger said Marin County does not need SCWA's water.

"We have supplies here in Marin," said Egger. "Five lakes supply the bulk of the water. We have one lake we don't even use."

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Albion Monitor January 31, 1999 (

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