A four-year effort by a coalition of diverse stakeholders along California’s third largest river, the Eel River, recently culminated in the completion of a new plan aimed at restoring the watershed’s once thriving fish runs and ecosystems.
The plan’s creation was headed by the environmental nonprofit organization CalTrout’s Northern California Program Manager Darren Mierau in Arcata who noted the 200-mile river and its many tributaries spanning across five counties over a 3,700-square-mile area lacked a coordinated approach for restoration and management.
“Other than the Potter Valley Project, there isn’t a single thing that coalesces these entities together,” Mierau said. “It’s been a long time coming to have this type of coordinated effort on the Eel River.”
Known as the Eel River Forum, the group of 22 environmental organizations, power companies, state and federal agencies, citizen monitoring groups and tribal governments have been meeting since 2012 to compile data from their research efforts, habitat restoration and identify problem areas. Out of these meetings came the first ever Eel River Action Plan, which was finalized this month.
Once a haven for coho and Chinook salmon, the Eel River’s bountiful resources and location historically made it a prominent area for commercial fishing, shipping, canneries, logging, agriculture and water diversions both legal and illegal. Compounding since the 19th century, these factors have stressed the watershed leading to reduced flows, dwindling fish populations, habitat destruction, and sediment dumping.
Where salmon runs in the Eel River once numbered around a half-million fish, they now only reach about 15,000 fish. The river’s commercial fishery has since closed, according to the report.
“The abundant waters and lands once supported a large and thriving population, but through the past century and a half of mismanagement and abuse they have become a shadow of what they were,” Wiyot Natural Resources Director Stephen Kullmann wrote in an email to the Times-Standard. “Because of unratified treaties and broken promises, Wiyot people no longer have fishing rights on the river that once bore their name.”
While he cannot not speak for the tribe as a whole, Kullmann said he believes that river restoration efforts are now only achievable through cooperation with other agencies and entities that may share different interests.
The Eel River Forum’s report set out to do just that by having each forum member compile any data or knowledge they have regarding the river’s ecological and industrial facets. Using this information, the report identifies broad actions that need to be taken to begin restoring the quality of the river from its upper reaches all the way to the Eel River estuary in Humboldt County. Such actions include reducing sediment impairments, increasing funding for salmon monitoring, improving studies on river flows for different times of year, reducing fish passage barriers, and the creation of a centralized database.
The forum itself will not be acting on these recommendations, Mierau said. Instead, the forum’s member agencies and organizations will use the report to guide their own efforts, which sometimes can be at odds with one another.
“The better informed on these issues, the better decisions we can make,” he said.
As it currently stands, salmon populations are monitored on a primarily volunteer basis by groups such as the Eel River Recovery Project. The river’s flows have neared historic lows in recent years due to drought as well as water diversions such as from illegal marijuana grows that have spread across the watershed.
Pacific Gas and Electric’s Potter Valley Project was also identified in the report and is one of the more topical and divisive elements between the forum’s members.
Constructed in 1908 in Mendocino County, the project uses two dams and a diversion tunnel connecting the Eel River to the Russian River to generate power and provide water for farmers and communities in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
Several forum members such as the Wiyot Tribe and environmental organizations like the Friends of the Eel River have advocated for the project’s dams to be removed in order to restore habitat and natural flows. A potential 100 to 150 miles of salmon spawning habitat is currently blocked by the project’s Scott Dam, according to the report, with Humboldt State University’s River Institute currently studying how much habitat actually exists behind Scott Dam. The study is funded by CalTrout.
The Potter Valley Project currently diverts about 77,000 acre-feet of water from the upper Eel River each year, equating to about 22 percent of the river’s annual unimpaired flow in the upper basin and about 2 percent of the flow in the lower Eel River near Scotia, according to the report.
Historic operations between the 1920s and 1970s diverted about twice the amount of water, with diversions being cut back as minimum flow requirements were established to protect fish.
The Potter Valley Irrigation District in Mendocino County uses some of the diverted water to provide irrigation for over 300 agricultural customers ranging from grape farmers to cattle ranchers. Janet Pauli, one of the district’s five directors, took part in the Eel River Action Plan’s creation and said the process led to a greater understanding of what is at stake in the basin,
“I think everyone came away with a better concept of the issues that face all of us and the concerns about the fish species that we worked on, but also the value of this water historically for well over half a million people on the Russian River side,” she said. “… Did it solve every potential conflict? No, but it’s one step in that direction.”
The Scott Dam is set to go before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2022 for relicensing where it is likely to be met with challenges by environmental groups. With many of her fellow Eel River Forum members likely going to be on the other side of the table from her at that point, Pauli said the work of the forum at least allowed for stakeholders from throughout the basin to connect and put them on a level playing field.
“That’s one positive thing about this forum is forging a relationship between these entities because we will be at the table as we move forward,” she said. “If it’s not about the project relicensing it will be other issues regarding protecting habitat and fisheries.”
The full report can be viewed on CalTrout’s website at caltrout.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/2016.03.FINAL_.EelRiverActionPlan.ERF_.pdf