$34 M Salt River Restoration Stalls

Three decades in the making, the $34 million Salt River Restoration Project has now stalled, and if the project is not back up and running by October, it could risk losing its funding.

According to Michael Bowen, project manager of the California Coastal Conservancy, the stalled project could impact local restoration and construction economies.

“There are at lest 10 private home owners and many agricultural producers who will benefit when the Salt River Project reaches them,” Bowen said, “but right now, all of them are suffering from flooding and experiencing river deterioration because the of the unfinished project.”

The project has planned different phases to take place over the course of several years, but recent project developments stopped due to final approvals between the Humboldt County Resource Conservation District and two property owners not being met.

Bowen said the project was initially a huge success for the region. Along with the guidance and leadership provided by the late Jimmy Smith, a longtime Humboldt County supervisor and North Coast elder statesman, property owners were able to work together to establish permits that helped it gain momentum.

“Jimmy provided an anchor and was a driving force in the project,” Bowen said, “and whenever problems arose, he spent every waking hour to get through it in a fair and respectful way.”

Since Smith’s death in May, Bowen said he is hopeful that Humboldt County will continue to mirror Smith’s leadership, but he is quick to remind everyone that it’s now up to the county and city of Ferndale to determine how to fix the situation.

“I remain heartbroken over Jimmy’s passing, but part of me is glad he isn’t here to see this,” Bowen said, and concluded that there are far worse things happening since the project’s immediate halt.

“The agency that used $1 million in taxpayer dollars to buy an easement on the land for the benefit of the project can’t seem to understand or enforce their own easement, and is now willing to sacrifice the entire project in order to produce more Aleutian geese,” Bowen said in response to the changes made and also said that the project is “being held hostage by landowners who bought highly restricted land intended for the project, then changed their minds.”

Jon Shultz, district conservationist for Humboldt County, who works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said that the important thing to focus on is building trusted partnerships and relationships with landowners who come to them with questions about conservation issues — and to help them come up with solutions.

“The direction we’ve been given is that the (HCRCD) needs to work with the landowners to come up with a plan that is agreeable,” said Shultz. “It’s not unusual for landowners to come to us with concerns about the project and we facilitate those concerns with our partners.”

The project will affect 46 landowners along the river and involve the restorations of 330 acres of tidal marsh land and 7 miles of the Salt River channel. HCRCD Executive Director Jill Demers said that to date, the project has completed the tidal marsh restoration and more than half of the restoration of the Salt River channel.

“The purpose of the Salt River Ecosystem Restoration Project is to reduce flooding that impacts residents, agricultural lands, and infrastructure,” Demers said, “(It’s also going) to improve drainage and agricultural productivity and improve fish and wildlife habitat.”

Demers said working with landowners is incredibly important in proceeding with project and that they’ve reached an impasse with two landowners whose requests for compensation and design changes were not compatible with the project. She said without substantial progress, critical funding for the restoration could be at risk.

“The goal of this project is to work with the landowners and address their concerns. We generally always proceed (to construction) with landowner approval,” Demers said.

Reaching a resolution might be more difficult for the project to get back on track. Dennis Del Biaggio, president of the Salt River Watershed Council said landowners like Elias Sousa and Andy Albin have major concerns about the 2016 phase of the project and questions about liability within their properties.

“It’s a big concern with Andy’s property. If the sediment area isn’t clean out yearly or overflows he could end up with the worse piece of land after this project is completed,” Del Biaggio said. “He’s being asked to give up around 10 more acres for this project (plus) the work being done in the river channel. That’s a lot to ask of him. He makes a living off the land.”

Del Biaggio understands the need for the projects completion, but also wants to be respectful of the landowners directly involved in it.

“The way we address the concerns of the landowners will teach us how to negotiate with other landowners in future phases of the project,” Del Biaggio said.

The Salt River Watershed Council meets every second Tuesday of each month starting at 2 p.m. at the Ferndale Fire Department.

Natalya Estrada can be reached at 707-441-0510.

Published by Eureka Times Standard, read original here.