Dear friend of the Eel River,
I write to share exciting news about the Eel River and Friends of the Eel River’s plans for 2012 and beyond. I have updates on the 2012 salmon runs on the Eel, our ongoing battle with the North Coast Rail Authority, work we’re doing to reclaim Eel River water that’s being used to cover for unsustainable uses of the Russian River, and most of all, our exciting Eel River Symposium coming up on April 14th at the River Lodge in Fortuna.
But I should start by introducing myself. I’m Scott Greacen, the new Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River. Our founder, Nadananda, retired from full-time work at the beginning of this year, though she remains on our Board of Directors. I served as Executive Director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) from 2005 to 2011, and I am an attorney. My wife Greta and I live with our daughter and son near Arcata.
Taking care of our watershed and its native fisheries is Friends of the Eel River’s core mission, and it has never been more vital. A recent scientific review predicts that if present trends continue, nearly 80% of California’s native salmonids are likely to be driven to extinction within the next century. The Eel River is one of the key places where self-sustaining populations of native salmon can persist. To get there, we’re going to have to build an even wider movement to remove the upper Eel River dams, and restore and revitalize the whole Eel River watershed.
To create a generation of renewal for the North Coast’s great river, we must be informed by science, guided by law, and propelled by a thirst for justice. That’s why we’re convening our symposium this April 14th at the River Lodge in Fortuna, where we’ll hear from seven distinguished experts on the geology, ecology, fisheries, fauna, and law of the Eel. We’ll also hear about how decisions were made to dismantle a number of dams in the West. Please join us if you can. For more details and to register for lunch, see the Friends of the Eel website at www.eelriver.org.
It is fitting that April 14th, the date of our symposium, also marks ten years to the day before Pacific Gas and Electric’s license to dam the Eel River expires. With the beginning of the end of the Eel River dams in sight, we are working to prepare for the decisions to come. In the Russian River basin, we are working with hydrologist, Dr. Greg Kamman, on a decision pending before the State Water Board to reset minimum stream flows in the Russian River system. Our participation will ensure the analysis looks at Russian River flows without Eel River water. Additionally, fisheries biologist, Dr. Bill Trush, will be looking at how dam releases affect Eel River fish.
One of the flashpoints in North Coast water policy has been grape growers’ practice of pumping water from Russian River tributaries to spray vineyards prone to early season frost. After federal biologists showed that listed fish had been killed by such pumping, the State Water Board passed rules to protect salmon and steelhead. Most environmental observers see the rules as barely adequate, and a struggle continues to see them implemented. Because Eel River water is used to make up for frost protection pumping, Friends of the Eel River has been part of these efforts.
It was another record year for chinook returns to the Van Arsdale fish counting station at the lower of the two Potter Valley Project dams on the Eel. After returns in 2010 higher than we’ve seen in generations, 2011’s numbers came in even stronger. A very high proportion of two-year-old males (‘jacks’ made up just over half the returns at Van Arsdale) strongly suggest the 2012 run, when the jacks’ siblings come home, will be still larger. We are really happy to see more substantial runs of these native fish coming back to the Eel, but we’re still a long way from recovery, and there remain ample causes for concern over both short and long-term threats to our fish.
And that brings us to another hot topic. A dramatic increase in the number and volume of diversions from the Eel and other North Coast watersheds has accompanied the regional boom in marijuana production. Among the watershed impacts we’ve seen, including water pollution from silt sources, fertilizers, and even pesticides, water diversions are a concern for many North Coast environmental groups, as well as state and federal wildlife agencies.
I had the honor of representing these concerns in a hearing before the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture in Sacramento this February 22nd. This led to an unprecedented public dialogue on these issues with North Coast representatives Assemblymember Wes Chesbro and Senator Jared Huffman. Better policy isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but that does not change our responsibility to be clear about environmental harms, to educate policy makers, and to persuade growers to minimize their impacts by adopting water-saving strategies, ending diversions during the dry season, limiting use of fertilizers, and halting the use of potent fish poisons.
Finally, our ongoing struggle with the North Coast Rail Authority (NCRA). After receiving more than $3 million in CA taxpayer funds to analyze the potential environmental impacts of reopening the rail line from Marin to
Humboldt Bay, the NCRA chose to issue an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that looks at only the southern third of the rail line. Five years ago, the NCRA was clear that their larger plan is to reopen the entire line through the Eel River Canyon; today, they claim otherwise, even as they pursue a legal strategy that seems aimed at getting through the canyon without environmental review. Friends of the Eel River, and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, challenged the EIR in state court, charging that CEQA, California’s planning and impacts law, forbids segmented analysis of big projects. In response, the NCRA went to a federal judge with the claim that they can’t be required to comply with CEQA at all – even though they already spent the money the citizens of California gave them to do so.
So we await a hearing in federal court, now scheduled for April 6th, which will determine whether we can go back to state court and pursue our challenge to the EIR. We are confident that we will prevail at this stage, but it is time-consuming (and thus expensive) to litigate these extra steps in a lawsuit that wasn’t going to be cheap to begin with. So if you are looking for a reason to help with a generous donation, look no farther!
If this missive doesn’t exhaust your appetite for these issues, please know that you can also catch me on the radio, whether you’re in Humboldt County or anywhere the web reaches. On the third Tuesday of every month, Friends of the Eel River hosts the venerable KMUD Environment Show from 7-8 pm. And the first Thursday of the month, I host KHSU’s EcoNews Report, a half-hour interview on topics of note to the North Coast that airs at 1:30 pm.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the Eel’s astonishing productivity wasted and trashed by shortsighted exploitation of its fisheries, forests, and flows. Together, we can make the Eel once again a stronghold for the protection and celebration of the wild fish that are our childrens’ birthright, and an indispensable part of the region’s ecology, economy, and identity. Together, we will make the Eel River a great place to raise wild fish again.
For the river,