Tribes Join Together to Restore Eel River

By Dan Bacher October 21, 2011

 Wiyot dancers during a ceremony to restore the Eel River on September 10

Native American Indian tribes from throughout Northern California are banding together with Friends of the Eel River to take “spiritual, scientific, and legal” action to save the waterway and the fish that swim in it. Since 2009, multi-tribe ceremonies have taken place in different parts of the nearly 3,600-square mile Eel River watershed; the most recent, in which the Wiyot Tribe, Friends of the Eel River were joined by members of the Bear River, Cahto, Grindstone, Sherwood Rancheria, Round Valley, Pomo, Hoopa, Yurok, and Karuk Tribes, occurred on September 10 and focused on returning the Eel River and the fisheries it supports to a healthy, sustainable state.

“Rivers need water to survive,” said Nadananda, Executive Director of the Friends of the Eel River. “The cost of diverting so much water out of the Eel River is simply too high. Salmon and steelhead are on the brink of extinction here. While increases in water flows over the past five years have made it possible for Chinook salmon populations to begin to make a comeback, significantly more water will need to be returned to the river if we are going to save these fish.”

In 2004, dam owner Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) increased flows on the Eel River from 5 cubic feet/second to 20-25 cubic feet/second under the orders of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The 2010 fall run of chinook salmon on the Eel River was the largest recorded in 77 years, with more than 2,300 adult fish migrating upriver to spawn. Last year’s salmon run also benefitted from an unusually heavy rain season.

The September event marks the first time that so many different tribes came together in call for healing on the river. Salmon are a sacred fish and traditional source of food for the Round Valley Tribes and other Native American Indians who were once the only human inhabitants of this remote watershed. Members from several of the tribes performed tribal prayer dances at the mouth of the river on the Wiyot’s Table Bluff Reservation.

”This day, Wiyot Day, is a way to show respect for our elders and for where we come from—for many of us, the Eel River is a big part of that,” Wiyot Tribal Chairman Ted Hernandez told the Eureka Times-Standard.

“The tribes native to this area once thrived on the abundant salmon runs on the Eel River,” said former Round Valley Tribal Council member and current Friends of the Eel River board member Ernie Merrifield. “We must rely on all of our resources—spiritual, scientific, and legal—to restore this river and these fisheries to health. If we work together, we may have a chance to reverse the damage caused by a century of water deprivation.”

Last year’s record salmon run, the largest number of fish counted at the Van Arsdale Fisheries Station on the Eel River below Cape Horn Dam since the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) began keeping records, arrived just a few months after members of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Covelo conducted dances and ceremonies to bring back the salmon.

In July of 2010, the Feather Dancers of the Tribes joined Friends of the Eel River at a swimming hole in the Hearst area, a few miles downstream of the PG&E Potter Valley diversion (PVP) to the Russian River.

“Water and salmon hold sacred value among the Tribes of the Round Valley, and both have been bankrupted,” said Merrifield. “Like a person, if you block the free flow of blood in your veins you will die, just as PG&E’s dams are killing the Eel River.”

FOER will continue its efforts to improve river conditions in the coming year. The group will present information to the State Water Resources Board next year as Sonoma County renegotiates flows between the Russian and Eel Rivers. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, the current flow regimes on both rivers are damaging endangered salmon and steelhead habitat due to insufficient water in the Eel and too much water in the Russian.

FOER is also a party to an ongoing lawsuit aimed at preventing an environmentally damaging quarry and freight railroad from reopening within the sensitive Eel River watershed.