Documentary explores the history of the abused, resilient eel river electricity lab activities

The Potter Valley Project has been diverting some of the Eel River for more than a century, but its future is uncertain as Pacific Gas and Electric announced this month it will auction off the controversial power plant if it can’t transfer ownership first.

So while the river’s future relationship with humans is yet to be mapped, the twists and turns of their mostly exploitive past can be explored now in a documentary made by Shane Anderson called “A River’s Last Chance,” which will be screened June 2 at the Mendocino Film Festival.

“The Eel River changed my life, and taught me about the resilience of nature, and that all good things are wild and free,” says Anderson, explaining that soon after learning the river’s story he felt compelled to tell its “cautionary tale rooted in repeated cycles of booms and busts, and of a river giving nearly all of its natural capital for society’s progress and vices.

“Its ancient redwoods were cut down to build California and beyond, its prized salmon were a delicacy sent around the world, its water helped create one of the largest wine-producing regions on earth, and its remote, wild country was ground-zero for the birth of the marijuana industry that now supplies most of the nation’s pot.”

In the film, Anderson describes the Eel River as a delicate balance of fish, water and redwood trees honed over millions of years. The water provides habitat for the salmon while they are alive; when the fish die they provide crucial nutrients for the redwoods to thrive, and the towering trees bring water to the river by drawing fog from the coast that then drips into the watershed to replenish it when there is no rain for months.

Soon after white settlers discovered the river in 1849, people hearing about the incredibly abundant and delicious salmon in the Eel River set up canneries along it and began pulling out as much salmon as they could with huge nets that collected “300 fish or more at a time.”

By 1900, “over 400 (logging) mills were operating in Humboldt County alone, and several canneries were already up for sale after exhausting the fishery,” said Anderson, explaining that hatcheries were set up to replace the salmon, but those fish did not stop the decline of salmon because their survivability was low.

In 1908, Cape Horn Dam was built in order to divert water through the Potter Valley Project to create electricity for Ukiah, and in doing so created a consistent water supply for Potter Valley, the Ukiah Valley, and all of the communities to the south along the Russian River in both Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

When Cape Horn Dam quickly filled, Scott Dam was built 12 miles away in 1922, and “it did block 8 percent of the watershed, in terms of square miles, there’s no question about it,” said Potter Valley resident Janet Pauli. “And they did not put a fish ladder on the dam.”

“Scott Dam marked the end of the line for salmon, but a new beginning for agriculture,” said Anderson, explaining that the water diverted from the Eel River and into the Russian River “would become the backbone for agriculture in the Russian River Valley,” and also provide water for a large population of people living alongside, and fish living inside, that river as well.

“South of Potter Valley, its importance is nuts,” said White, explaining that at least a portion of the water supply for “600,000 people from Ukiah to Sausalito” is derived from the diversion of the Potter Valley Project. “The big question is, which river gets priority, whose fish are more important, whose people are more important? And I don’t know if there’s a good answer to any of that.”

Several decades after they built Scott Dam, humans seemed to be learning from their lessons, Anderson said, explaining that once the timber industry “went bust and salmon was on the verge of extinction in the late 1990s,” strict regulations to protect both were implemented.

In 2010, the diversion rates to the Potter Valley Project were cut “nearly in half” to more closely mimic the river’s natural flows, and three years after the flow increases, "the Eel saw one of the largest salmon runs in decades,” Anderson said.

And though trespass grows sucking water from the river and its tributaries, combined with the state’s recent severe drought, caused “the state’s third-largest river to disappear” in the fall of 2014, Anderson said he still sees hope for the Eel River, thanks in part to the legalization of personal marijuana use and cultivation state-wide that he hopes will bring more enforcement and environmental restoration to the watershed.

“The unbridled use of its natural resources has left the river a shadow of its former self, but despite it all, the Eel is now one of the best hopes for salmon with one of the last genetic races free from hatchery influences,” said Anderson. “Its collapse, devastation and recovery are all important in figuring out how to move forward, and … key to finding future balance with nature.”