Point of No Return

With the Green Rush and the drought colliding this summer, is it too late to save Humboldt’s watersheds? 

Growers used an illegally dug spring to irrigate their crops at the scene of this

marijuana growing operation uncovered by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s office last summer.

It’s July 2 and about 18 officials are sitting in a meeting with North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman in the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Conference Room. The officials — cops, biologists, politicians and U.S. Forest Service employees — are talking about the proliferation of marijuana grows throughout Humboldt County and beyond, and many are expressing frustration about how little they can do in the face of the epidemic.

But, this year, there’s a different tone and an old concern made freshly urgent. The group is meeting as the State Water Resources Control Board is sending notices to 17 water rights holders — including ranchers, cities and community services districts — along the Eel River, and seven more along the Van Duzen, notifying them their water rights are being suspended. Meanwhile, unpermitted water diversions to irrigate pot gardens are unchecked throughout the county.

“How outrageous is it that the city of Rio Dell is getting a curtailment order while you have people all through this area stealing water from campgrounds, streams, schools and facilities,” Huffman asks. Downey chimes in: “I’m super concerned about the drought,” he says. “This year could be catastrophic.”

Bauer said it’s also important to remember that this collision course between Humboldt County’s green rush and the drought is playing out at a time when local salmon populations appear on the rise, rebounding after years and millions of dollars of restoration efforts. Bauer said his department was beginning to see results from years spent decommissioning old logging roads to keep sediment out of watersheds and improving salmon spawning habitats. “We’re doing our best to restore things, but without water there’s no fish,” Bauer said, predicting creeks that have never dried before will dry up this summer.

Coho salmon have a three-year life cycle, Bauer said, meaning that population impacts aren’t felt for several years. That lag time, Bauer said, makes it very difficult to ascertain what damage is being done before it’s too late: before spawning streams are gone, fish populations drop to the point where “you have brothers and sisters mating” and a whole species is thrown off course.


Article by: Thadeus Greenson

Published by: The North Coast Journal

Published: July 9, 2014

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