CRAIG BELL REMEMBERS THE STREETS of Garberville bustling in the 1940s, especially in the mornings as fishermen ate hearty breakfasts before setting off for a day on the Eel River.
"Some waitresses would bring home $150 a morning in tips," he recalled.
Bell, executive director of the Northern California Association of River Guides, is one of many individuals and groups supporting a lawsuit filed in January against the Sonoma County Water Agency and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. because of the dramatic and continuing decline in the river fishery. Their opening brief is expected to be filed next week in Sonoma County Superior Court and the defendants' response is due 45 days later.
Plaintiffs including Friends of the Eel River, Friends of the Russian River, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the Wiyot Tribe of the Table Bluff Reservation, which has historical fishing rights dating back to 1873 claim that the Eel's "world-class salmonid fishery has been virtually annihilated" due to construction and operation of the 1908 Potter Valley Project, a tunnel and dam system that diverts water to the Russian River.
The economic impact, the suit claims, costs Humboldt County more than $10 million annually due to the collapse of its commercial and sport fishing industries.
Bell estimates losses of $350 per fish to the county's sport fishing industry and $700 per fish for guided trips.
"The cumulative economic impact of the Potter Valley Project on all sectors of the Humboldt economy since construction of the project early this century is over $4 billion," the lawsuit reads.
In years past the lawsuit may not have had much of a chance. Thirsty residents, farmers and other powerful business interests in Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties have become dependent on the water originating in the headwaters of the Eel. More significantly, those users have political muscle with voters to the south far outnumbering voters in Humboldt County.
But the Friends of the Eel River, et. al., have two things in their favor the growing tide of environmental awareness and a new unlikely ally, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which licenses 1,600 hydroelectric power plants nationwide.
Critics say that in the past FERC routinely renewed licenses for hydroelectric plants without considering the effects on wildlife and other natural resources. But the Endangered Species Act the coho is endangered and the chinook was recently listed as threatened and other federal laws have forced the commission to consider the environment, recreation and other uses.
"(FERC has) guns pointing at them from all ends of the circle," said Scott Downie, a habitat specialist for the California Department of Fish and Game.
On some rivers FERC, a formerly obscure federal agency, has ordered the reduction of power production so more water is available for other purposes, including fishery restoration and river rafting.
For the Potter Valley Project, FERC granted PG&E a 50-year license renewal in 1983 with the condition that the utility company study the effects of the dam project on Eel River fish and recommend a new flow regimen. The commission finally released its controversial draft of that environmental impact statement (EIS) in February. Included is a PG&E-proposed plan which would result in a permanent 15 percent cutback in the amount of Eel water exported to the Russian River through Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s Potter Valley hydroelectric plant.
Russian River users, including the Sonoma County Water Agency, are vigorously fighting the 15 percent proposal and the Friends of the Eel River lawsuit. They claim FERC hasn't considered the impact on farms and cities, especially in dry years.
The water "is the lifeblood of Potter Valley," said Carrie Brown of the Mendocino Farm Bureau in a telephone interview. If the water diversion is significantly reduced, it would eliminate the farmers, and the developers would win.
"If we lose our agricultural base, we're going to look like Windsor 20 years down the road," Brown said.
The Friends lawsuit specifically targets a plan approved by the water agency last December to expand its system in order to provide for future urban growth. If approved by regulatory agencies including the state Water Resources Control Board, it will allow an increase in the amount of water diverted from the Russian River from 75,000 acre-feet per year to 101,000.
Sonoma water agency officials claim the increase would only affect the Russian River, not the Eel.
"I can't emphasize enough how our project doesn't propose making changes to what's being done to the Eel," said Jill Golis, Sonoma County deputy counsel. "The gist of our water supply project relates to more water from the Warm Springs Dam (at Lake Sonoma farther south)."
But as the growth continues northward from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Friends are concerned the water agency will become "too locked in" to the benefits of the Eel River diversion.
Golis calls this benefit "incidental" to the big picture of an agency that supplies water to more than 350,000 users in cities alone some as far away as San Rafael in Marin County.
"When they say `incidental,' then they should have no problem to averting the diversion," said Frank Egger, a Fairfax city councilman since 1966 who has joined the legal fight with Friends of the Eel.
Egger, who calls the diversion a "cash cow" for Sonoma County, sides with Humboldt County interests, saying the water agency "exploits both rivers" when it takes the water without paying for it and ultimately resells it to Marin County.
The 60-year-old long-time river rat, who's lived in Marin since 1967, remembered the good old days rafting, swimming and fishing as a child on the wild Eel and Russian rivers before the dams tamed them.
"We'd catch 15 fish in two hours," he said of a time in the late 1940s when half a million salmon swam in the Eel. More than a thousand of them would make the long journey to the Upper Eel then, sometimes swimming more than 100 miles. The 200-mile river flows northward, meandering through Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties until meeting the sea at an estuary northwest of Ferndale.
By contrast, about 20 chinook have in recent years spawned in the Upper Eel, and females were virtually nonexistent, Egger said, reciting California Fish and Game statistics. Since the mid 1950s, the state has counted the fish moving upstream through a series of fish ladders at the Cape Horn Dam where the diversion takes place.
"I guess I've always been a person who's loved rivers," Egger said. When a dam in 1964 was proposed on the Eel's wild Middle Fork to divert water to the Central Valley and southern California, Egger "became an activist." He pushed for Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, to write the state Wild and Scenic River Act. In 1972, the Eel made the designation.
Egger believes the Friends of the Eel have a good case, with an expected lineup of expert witnesses like geologist, hydrologist and biologist Robert Curry on its side. Curry, a retired University of California, Santa Cruz professor, is known for his mention in Mark Reisner's book "Cadillac Desert," a 1986 exploration of depleting water resources in the American West.
"We're in this for the long haul. If we can restore these rivers, the (Humboldt County) economy will hum again," Egger said.
Humboldt County Supervisor Stan Dixon, who serves on the Eel-Russian River Commission, not only wants more water in the spring and fall in the Eel for fish migration, he wants more in the summer when it's a trickle. He said the Eel River diversion accounts for most of the Russian's flow in the summer which benefits its recreational users. And the Sonoma water agency is selling the water to boot.
"Humboldt County hasn't received a damn cent" for its water resource, Dixon said.
He points to the canoe and kayaking industry on the Russian River that has spurred economic growth in towns like Guerneville and he'd like to see that kind of business take off on the Eel.
"The whole appetite for development is driving the need (to channel the water south)," Dixon said.
"We understand the needs of agriculture in Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin. It's just that they got used to it," Dixon said. "But they need to look at alternatives (to managing their water).
"The fisheries are clearly as important as growing grapes."
Scientists though not in full agreement about how to go about restoring the Eel River to its natural state have concluded higher flows would certainly revive the suffering steelhead trout and salmon runs. But some stop short of blaming the total demise of the fisheries on the water diversion of the Potter Valley Project.
Larry Week, a biologist for Fish and Game, points to road building, ocean conditions and heavy logging in the Eel's watershed in the 1950s and '60s.
"It's been pretty dismal for a long time," Week said.
Making matters worse in recent years in the Eel is the non-native salmon-devouring squawfish, which Weeks calls "the biological version of the Exxon Valdez oil spill."
Low water volume and high water temps have also killed off many a salmon and salmonid, biologists claim. Humboldt State University is gathering data as far back as the 1930s to determine the affects of rising river temps on the fisheries.
"Our goal is to try to balance everything. But we can't satisfy everyone," FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller said from her office in Washington, D.C.
After incorporating all the comments, FERC may take half a year before it releases the final EIS. Even then, those who disagree with its environmental impact findings may appeal, but don't expect the process to conclude any time soon, Miller said.
For now, PG&E is preparing to put its system of 68 hydroelectric power plants up on the auction block. If anything, the auction will allow PG&E to get a built-in appraisal of its assets including the Potter Valley project, spokesman Lloyd Coker confirmed.
The shift in focus for the huge utility company was the buzz in Sacramento two weeks ago. In the state's flurry to wrap up business for the year, PG&E tried to push through a proposal that would allow the transfer of its hydroelectric system to an unregulated subsidiary, but it was tabled until next year.
Any sale would mean the transfer of environmental guidelines with the assets, Coker said in a conference call with PG&E attorney Mike Penskar. They said PG&E has spent at least $20 million on one program alone to protect the fisheries at the Potter Valley site and believes the 15 percent compromise is the best solution for all parties.
1. Eel River by Pat Higgins.
2. Eel River bridge aerial photo by John Mahony