Got Water? Drought, Resilience and the North Coast

By: Scott Greacen

Originally published in Econews, April 2014

Friends of the Eel River’s 2014 Eel River Symposium was held at the Fortuna River Lodge, March 7. Many thanks to all who attended and especially to the presenters who made the event such a rich, engaging day of presentations and discussion. Our watershed, region and society face serious challenges from drought and other extreme weather, not only in view of California’s history of drought and flood (and the lessons that science presents, such as the fact that the 150 years of California’s official existance appear to have come during a wetter and more moderate time than usual over the millenia), but also from the changes global warming brings, making severe drought and megaflood both more likely and more extreme.

april econewsThe Eel is coming into focus as a watershed of tremendous promise—facing some real peril, but capable still of self-renewal. The anchors of our 2012 symposium, Drs. William Dietrich and Mary Power of UC Berkeley, and their research teams were awarded nearly $5 million from the National Science Foundation over the next five years to study not just the Angelo Reserve on the upper South Fork of the Eel, but the entire watershed, and how its vegetation, geology and topography affect water flow all the way to the Pacific. The funding makes the Eel River Observatory one of  ten Critical Zone Observatories which focus on the “critical zone”: the thin veneer of Earth, from the bottom of the groundwater to the tree tops, that is critical to aquatic and terrestrial life.

Dr. Joshua Strange, a fisheries biologist who grew up  on the Klamath and lives on the Trinity, now working with Stillwater Sciences’ Arcata office, gave a thoughtful review of our climate challenges and a call to face our responsibilities with honesty and humility, rooted in his work with native youth. Eli Asarian presented his analyses of North Coast and especially Eel River streamflows, which shows flows declining in the South Fork Eel in Southern Humboldt county, over the last few decades. The evidence underscores the need to do more than protect bits and pieces of watersheds if the streamflows that native fish need and resident humans want are to be maintained.

The final presentation of the morning came from Dr. Bill Trush, who studied with Luna Leopold, and has now returned from private consulting to a role with the Humboldt State University Rivers Institute. Dr. Trush worked us through ways of thinking about water, flows and fish that yield powerful insights about how streams work and what fish need, as well as how to address complex problems with simple tools. His techniques offer the prospect of  citizen scientists documenting and evaluating flows in the Eel watershed’s many tributaries.

In the afternoon, we turned from consideration of the challenges facing our communities and watersheds to look at some possible paths to solutions. First, Darren Mierau, California Trout’s North Coast Regional Manager, outlined work that he, Dr. Trush, and Gabe Rossi have been doing to establish baseline data for North Coast streams, including tributaries of the South Fork Eel critical to coho salmon survival and recovery, like Sprowel Creek near Garberville. Mierau suggested a Sprowel Creek resident might be able to check in on a watershed-based network through Google Earth, learning from a glance at her phone how much water she might safely divert that day.

If such a network were to come into being in Southern Humboldt, it will be because Dana Stolzman and the Salmonid Restoration Federation have worked so hard to translate and transplant the tank-and-forbearance program that Tasha McKee and Sanctuary Forest pioneered in the headwaters of the Mattole, just west of Redwood Creek. Stolzman’s presentation showcased the substantial progress already made to ensure the human community of Redwood Creek can meet its water needs without taking what fish need.

Lastly, Sam Flanagan, a geologist with the Bureau of Land Management’s King Range National Conservation Area, outlined Sanctuary Forest’s community-based program of water conservation and Tasha’s efforts to explore ancient practices in rural India built around the same ideas. In practical terms, Sanctuary Forest’s reverence for the Mattole River has manifested most recently in a project at Baker Creek. Sam discussed both the design and construction process in detail, bringing the project alive through its efforts to go beyond what had already been done in restoring critical habitat for a failing Mattole coho population. The spectacular results: a restoration project that looks like a sculpture garden, works like a beaver dam, and immediately attracted young coho seeking a place to shelter and grow strong.