In Northern California, a decision is being made about whether or not PG&E’s Potter Valley Project (a hydroelectric facility) will renew its license to operate its 2 dams and powerhouse, and continue to divert water to the Russian River—sustaining wine country—or if it will discontinue its license, and decommission its dams—protecting salmon and steelhead populations.

The two dams were built almost a century ago, with no concern for migratory fish passage—cutting off approximately 280 miles (about 450 km) of fish habitat in the Eel River.  While historically the Eel River supported over a million salmon and steelhead in wet years, this number has declined by 99 per cent, with about 3,500 fish left in total (UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences Working Paper 2010).

While fish populations in the Eel River have declined, wine, fruit, vegetable and livestock production in Potter Valley and downstream has boomed. Without diversions from the Eel River, the Russian River would run dry during the summer and fall/autumn. The dams and diversions have enabled productive uses of water, as well as non-productive uses, such as recreational use in Lake Pillsbury and ecological use in the Russian River and Lake Mendocino.

How do you most effectively manage water resources where there are competing interests? Is it possible to have your wine, and your fish too? Or is a trade-off necessary? Many options are being debated, such as the possibility of requiring PG&E to build a fish passage if it renews its license, or finding a way to continue Eel River diversions while also removing the dams.

While many different pathways are being debated, it will be nearly impossible to make an effective decision on which to take if nobody is in agreement on the outcomes they want to achieve from managing this water system. The most critical element for setting a path towards improved water management and use (as illustrated by Aither’s WaterGuide framework and associated in-country dialogues) is the establishment of a shared vision for water management outcomes.

“We will have to be very, very wise about how we protect this shared resource… We’re on a ride, and nobody knows exactly what the destination is.”

The problem isn’t a lack of options. The problem is the lack of a shared vision for what the relevant stakeholders aspire to achieve. Yes, a wise decision is required—and to be wise is to be aware of and informed about the destination. If agreement can’t be reached, Northern California is in for a long, bumpy ride to a place nobody wants to go (a restaurant with salmon but no wine, or vice versa).