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Historic Opportunity for Dam Removal on California's Eel River

Legendary steelhead river may soon become the latest success story in the dam-removal movement that is reshaping rivers across the nation.

Historic Opportunity for Dam Removal on California's Eel River

The Eel River is considered the birthplace of fly fishing for steelhead, and it’s one of the best opportunities in the country to reestablish thriving wild salmon and steelhead populations. It’s the third largest watershed in in California, and holds wild winter and summer steelhead, and both coho and Chinook salmon. Removal of the Potter Valley Project would open 300 miles of additional spawning habitat to salmonids and other native fish. (Andrew Burr photo)

This article was originally titled "Historic Opportunity" in the Aug-Sept 2022 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.

In April 2022, Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s 20-year license to operate their Potter Valley Hydro Project on the Eel River expired. Along with it, the permit that gave the project’s owners a pass on unintentionally killing any of the three endangered salmonid species in the river expired as well. The next day, a group of conservation organizations gave notice of their intent to sue PG&E to prevent further destruction of these salmon and steelhead populations and to begin the dam removal process.

The Eel River offers perhaps the best opportunity in the state to reestablish thriving wild salmon and steelhead populations. The third largest watershed in the state, the river supports king salmon, coho salmon, and winter and summer steelhead runs, all wild fish, and is the southernmost watershed in North America to hold summer steelhead.

The Eel once supported salmon and steelhead runs of up to a million fish annually. From the 1890s to the 1950s, anglers came from across the state and the nation to fish for the abundant kings and coho and for the prodigious winter and summer steelhead. These large steelhead gave the Eel its nickname “the river of giants.”

broad landscape image of the Eel River going through a dam
The Potter Valley Project consists of two dams, the hydroelectric Scott Dam shown here, and the Cape Horn Dam at Van Arsdale Reservoir, which forces water into a tunnel and subsequently the Russian River. The project right now is operating without a longterm permit from FERC. California Trout and three other litigants are suing for what they consider an illegal “take” of endangered species. (Michael Wier photo)

In the postwar housing boom of the 1940s and 50s, unchecked logging of the dense redwoods and firs destroyed many of the tributaries the fish relied upon for spawning, and led to the devastating floods in 1954 and 1962. These floods changed the river’s very nature, scouring channels, destroying bankside cover, and filling in pools. In the ’50s the anglers had thought that there were so many fish returning each fall that the fish would always be there. But each year the runs grew smaller and smaller until, in the 1990s, the king and coho salmon and the winter-run steelhead were declared endangered by the EPA. Just last year, California gave the summer steelhead that protection as well. The current numbers of fish returning to the river are less than 1% of the historic runs.

Loss of habitat in the river, loss of access to tributaries for spawning, two dams that block access to nearly 300 miles of prime spawning water, and water diversions for agriculture—including illegal marijuana growers—all have had a devastating effect on spawning.

This team of environmental and fisheries groups includes California Trout, Friends of the Eel River, Trout Unlimited, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. Their notice of intent to sue PG&E within 60 days under the Endangered Species Act claims that the fish ladder at Cape Horn Dam in Potter Valley harms endangered salmonids by causing “take” of these fish.

The Potter Valley Project was built in 1904. It diverts water from the Eel River into the east branch of the Russian River through a tunnel, two dams and reservoirs, and a small hydropower plant. This last 20-year license permitted incidental “take” of endangered fish in the course of operations. “Take” is defined under the Endangered Species Act as “to harass, harm, kill, or capture.” Incidental take is an unintentional, but not unexpected, taking.

Redgie Collins, the legal and policy director for CalTrout, said that with the expiration of the license, PG&E is no longer permitted to “take” endangered species. The “take” at the fish ladder at Cape Horn, the lower dam, includes otters that wait at the mouth of the ladder to capture and feed on fish attempting to enter the ladder. Additionally, the ladder often fills with gravel and debris and prevents fish passage during high winter flows—prime times for salmon and steelhead to move upstream.

fly angler in waders holding rod looking up at giant redwood trees
The Eel is a Wild & Scenic River (designated by both the state and federal governments) and flows through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. (Andrew Burr photo)

Twelve miles above the fish ladder and Cape Horn Dam, Scott Dam raises water temperatures in its outflow, providing ideal habitat for the invasive Sacramento pikeminnows that feed heavily on juvenile steelhead moving downstream. Both dams change the timing and the volume of river flows for salmonids already struggling to adapt to climate change.

Collins said it’s time for PG&E to acknowledge that this project does in fact take fish. Collins believes that a biological opinion given by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the last license renewal, which permitted “incidental take” has expired along with the license and that changes in the fish populations make the project vulnerable to litigation.

The purpose of the suit is to force PG&E to move forward expeditiously into the license surrender process, rather than relying on automatic annual license renewal to continue business as usual. Significantly, PG&E has not filed an application to renew their long-term license for this project. They regard the project as no longer environmentally or economically feasible. The company will continue to operate it on a year-to-year license until the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency that controls hydro projects across the nation, decides how to proceed. The long-term goal is to have PG&E surrender the license entirely, then decommission and remove the two dams. For this outcome, many questions remain. How complete must the dam removal be? What sort of infrastructure will be required to continue to pass the water allotment through the tunnel to the Russian River? And how will all this work be paid for? The cost is currently estimated at about $160 million.


The broader goal of the coalition is the watershed-wide recovery of the Eel River system, including the opportunity to reverse the long-lasting impacts of a century and a half of habitat degradation on the Round Valley and Wiyot tribes whose ancestral lands are centered around the Eel and its abundant fish.

This is a truly spectacular conservation opportunity, says Alicia Hamman, the executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Eel, which has been working toward dam removal since it was founded in the 1990s. She points out that all the salmon and steelhead in the river are native fish, free from hatchery influence. And that dam removal will open up nearly 300 miles of higher-elevation spawning habitat, with many cold water sources to provide critical refuge and protection for juvenile salmon and steelhead dealing with the growing effects of global warming. Her organization recently sponsored a genetic survey of rainbow trout above the dams, which has shown that some of these fish are summer steelhead with a gene for anadromy—the impulse that sends salmon and steelhead downstream to the ocean as juveniles. Dam removal would create another run of summer steelhead to complement the current population, principally found in the South Fork of the Eel.

An optimistic timeline for removal of the dams might look like this: two years for PG&E to complete the paperwork for both the license surrender and decommissioning process. Then another three years for environmental studies and permits before actual dam removal could begin. Realistically, those five years should probably be doubled to allow for unexpected delays.

chrome steelhead held by tail in water next to spey rod
Eel River steelhead are large, acrobatic winter and summer fish that hold in perfect steelhead swinging water and respond aggressively to flies. The run is now less than 1% of its historic population. (John G. Sherman photo)

Dam removal is becoming an established fact in the West, as aging infrastructure and climate change stress already compromised fish populations. The removal of Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River in 1999 was a turning point. It was the first time the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered a dam removed because its costs outweighed its benefits. Since then, dam removal has become an accepted tool for dealing with outdated infrastructure and restoring rivers and threatened fish populations.

The Klamath River is a prime example of how removing dams can help create resilient rivers and support fish populations. The four aging Klamath dams are scheduled to be removed in 2023 to restore salmon runs, important to local tribes, and return the landscape to a more natural state. These dams essentially cut the 250-mile river in half, eliminating spawning habitat, increasing water temperatures, fostering toxic algae blooms. Salmon numbers collapsed. The project on California’s second-largest river is in the vanguard of a push to demolish dams in the U.S. as the structures age and become less economically viable and as concerns grow about their environmental impact, particularly on fish.

Redgie Collins sees the suit as key to a unique opportunity to remove the dams. The utility doesn’t want the dams, and removing them offers profoundly positive effects for the watershed and the fish. It is clear now that the only path forward is the license surrender and decommissioning process where FERC will order PG&E to submit a plan to decommission the project. PG&E will remain liable for the project and all associated costs until FERC says decommissioning is complete. Collins expects the Eel will be the next major dam removal in the West after the Klamath dams have come out, which begins in 2023.

Some Russian River agricultural interests have expressed concerns about Eel River dam removal threatening their water deliveries. Darren Mierau, California Trout’s North Coast regional director, says, “Our studies have clearly shown that dam removal is what’s best for the health of the Eel River, and we have provided three technical solutions that could provide diversions from the Eel River to the Russian without dams. Whether Russian River interests want to invest in a safe, resilient, 21st century water supply is ultimately up to them. Either way, it’s time for Eel River salmon and steelhead to get the protection they need. I think this is the Eel River’s best chance to recover what it once had, to be a wild, free-flowing river that has abundant salmon and steelhead populations that are sustainable into the future.”

The Birthplace of Steelhead Fly Fishing

Guide Jason Hartwick speaks of Eel River steelhead in reverential terms: large, aggressive, genetically superior fish that respond well to fly-fishing techniques. Hartwick has fished all the major steelhead rivers along the West Coast. Living and working in the Eel watershed, he admires the quality of the winter- and summer-run fish and the fishing conditions, with the water temperatures in the prime fishing seasons being the ideal 46 to 50 degrees. He is the latest in a long line of skilled fly fishers who have fallen under the spell of the Eel and its steelhead.

sepia-toned image of a foggy river lined with large pine trees; fly angler visible in the fog
The Eel has occupied a singular place in the annals of steelhead and salmon fishing for well over a hundred years. (John G. Sherman photo)

Many West Coast anglers regard the Eel River as the birthplace of steelhead fly fishing. No individual was more influential in the early years than John Benn, an Irishman who arrived in San Francisco with his family in the 1860s. Hearing stories about the exceptional fishing on the Eel River, he made the 300-mile trip, first by steamship to Humboldt Bay and then by train to the communities along the river. This was in the early 1890s, before taxonomists had even decided upon the scientific classification of the newly discovered steelhead. They were initially called salmon trout.

Benn was among the first to discover that steelhead would rise to a well-presented fly. As an accomplished fly tier, he developed many of his patterns specifically for the Eel. He was also among the first to fish a two-handed rod for steelhead in California, a skill he had learned as a young man in his native Ireland. He became an early member of the San Francisco Fly Casting Club. In 1894, at the club’s inaugural casting tournament, he won the two-handed salmon rod casting event with a 105-foot throw, using an 18-foot, 7-piece bamboo rod. Benn eventually became a professional fly tier and for 25 years tied steelhead and salmon flies for anglers in San Francisco and beyond. Every fall, Benn and his companions would travel up the coast to stay on the Eel for several weeks. He was renowned for his ability to catch steelhead on the fly, and even for hooking and landing massive Chinook salmon on fly tackle.

In 1933 the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club was formed and soon became a hotbed of innovation. The bamboo rods of the R.L. Winston Company and E.C. Powell defined this era of fly fishing for anadromous fish. In 1946, member Jim Green attached a length of monofilament running line from his new spinning reel directly to a 40-foot section of floating silk fly line and became the first to cast a fly line over 200 feet. This concept was adapted to fishing use by Myron Gregory, who replaced the floating tournament fly line with a weighted 30-foot section of lead-core line to get a fly down into the deepest pools where salmon and steelhead often held. This revolutionary step forward changed the game for fly anglers. In 1950, the Sunset Line and Twine Company, working with club members, developed the first modern plastic-coated shooting head.

The Eel has occupied a singular place in the annals of steelhead and salmon fishing for well over a hundred years. It is thrilling to consider that the very real possibility of dam removal within the next few years means that the goal of a free-flowing river in a restored watershed is within reach and offers the best hope for the long-term recovery of salmon and steelhead in the face of the challenges of climate change.

Dick Galland founded and operated Clearwater House on Hat Creek from 1982 to 2005, a fly fishers’ inn, school, and outfitting service. He was West Coast field editor for Fly Fisherman during that time, writing extensively about Northern California fisheries and fishing techniques. He has been a CalTrout member since 1980 and has served in various volunteer capacities, including as a board member since 2011.

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