The Sixth Mass Extinction is Happening in Humboldt

And Big Weed seems nearly as concerned about the loss of coho salmon as the timber industry was.

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In the last EcoNews, I wrote about the new federal Recovery Plan for coho salmon, and its warning that water diversions and sediment impacts associated with the booming marijuana industry present grave threats to coho recovery in the South Fork Eel River.

I noted “the plan’s sobering assessments arguably understate the need for action, in part because it does not reflect the impacts of recent historic drought.” Only months later, it’s clear that I, too, understated the risks to coho in the South Fork from the deadly combination of drought, diversions, and dirt.

We have now learned from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) that the entire 2013 cohort of juvenile coho in Sproul Creek died when the stream was dewatered by unreported, unmanaged water diversions, and that this year’s cohort is also unlikely to survive.

Coho have a three-year life-history: they spend their first year in freshwater, and return to their natal streams after two years in the ocean. Compared to their cousins, chinook and steelhead, which have longer, more flexible return schedules, coho are pretty much locked in to their three-year cycles. The loss of an entire year-class is thus especially disastrous to a watershed’s coho run, and when two fail, extinction becomes much more likely than not.

This loss heralds the pending extinction of coho not only in the South Fork – once the largest producer of coho in the Eel watershed, and arguably in all of California – but in the entire Eel watershed, and neighboring watersheds as well. For just as Sproul Creek has been the hinge for hopes of coho recovery in the South Fork, the South Fork itself was the keystone of hopes for coho in the Eel as a whole, including runs in Outlet Creek off the mainstem Eel, in the Van Duzen and the lower Eel.  And without a healthy population in the Eel, we can’t really hope strays will recolonize the Mattole, or even that populations in Humboldt Bay’s small tributaries and Little River will long persist on their own.

Because Sproul Creek is a relatively low-impact watershed, with more water and a stronger population of coho than more heavily settled streams like Redwood Creek and Salmon Creek, it has been the focus of a lot of hopes and plans. After years of work, DFW has been preparing to install and operate a Life Cycle Monitoring station in lower Sproul Creek to count both juvenile and adult coho – a crucial tool for evaluating recovery.

The losses in Sproul Creek herald even harder news elsewhere in the South Fork Eel watershed. Coho are now extinct in most of Redwood Creek’s tributaries, including China Creek, where a 2012 coho and steelhead kill caused by reckless damning and diverting of the creek brought water regulators, who issued more than two dozen warning letters to landowners where unreported water diversions were found. With these losses, we have gone from planning for recovery in the South Fork and the Eel, to scrambling to put together a plan to prevent extinction. (Coho held on in streams dominated by parks and by timber holdings – but those areas alone won’t be enough to maintain a viable population.)

The marijuana industry did not drive the coho to the brink of extinction; that was timber and road-building. But it is assuredly the marijuana industry, and particularly the paranoia and resistance to any government oversight that seem baked into its culture, that is driving coho extinct in the Eel today.

There are solutions to the problems of diversions and sediment. We know how to fix roads and culverts, how not to bulldoze steep, erosive slopes. It’s pretty straightforward to install water storage for modestly scaled operations, and to forbear from dry-season diversion. There are a lot of nice folks eager to help people do all this good stuff.

While the state’s drought emergency declaration continues, there’s a streamlined, cheap way to comply with water diversion reporting, and to secure the water rights that can vastly enhance the sustainability and value of a parcel of land. Since it was announced, barely a dozen people across the entire north coast have taken advantage of it.

This crisis is a stain on the marijuana industry’s claim to sustainability that will not soon rinse out. It’s clear that many growers see themselves as conscientious stewards and bitterly resent charges of environmental harm levied against the industry in the press. But there has been little progress in reducing the steadily increasing impacts of this rapidly growing, wholly unregulated, and enormously profitable industry.

The excuses we keep hearing from “good growers” who insist there’s not really a problem of cumulative impacts, that the wine industry is worse, that it’s the Bulgarians over the hill or that jerk down the road who are really out of hand, or (my recent favorite) that “we can’t install water storage tanks because the county’s going to tax our water” all add up to rationalizations, ways to justify a collective refusal to come to grips with the industry’s actual impacts.

The cumulative effects of many small farmers are contributing more than they would like to believe. As I stated in the February 19 Willits News, “There’s a story we tell ourselves around here that we all mean well and we’re good stewards and that it’s just a few bad apples that are causing the real problems but that’s not true, it’s the small things that everybody does that are adding up to extinction.”