Friends of the Eel River Sues to Protect Public Trust Flows In The Lower Eel River

Salmon and steelhead among species affected when groundwater pumping causes drawdown of connected surface flows.

Friends of the Eel River (FOER) has filed suit in Humboldt County Superior Court to secure protection for the public trust values at risk when groundwater pumping depletes surface flows in the Lower Eel River. First, FOER is asking the court to declare that the County has a duty to protect public trust values in the lower Eel River from the impacts of groundwater pumping. Then, FOER seeks an order requiring the County to create a program to regulate groundwater pumping in the lower Eel River as necessary to protect public trust values. Finally, FOER asks the court to require the County to stop issuing permits for new and expanded well-drilling in the lower Eel until such a program is in place.

Public Trust values are depleted when surface flows disconnect as they did in this photo from 2014.
Public Trust values are depleted when surface flows disconnect as they did in this photo from August 2014. | David Sopjes

Under California law, the Public Trust doctrine establishes that the waters and wildlife of the state belong to the people, and that the state and its subdivisions, including counties, serve as trustees of those resources for the people. Where public trust values may be affected, especially in the planning and allocation of water resources, the State and the County have an affirmative duty to consider those effects, and to avoid or minimize harm to public trust uses wherever feasible.

The Eel River provides habitat for fish and wildlife protected under the public trust, including salmon and steelhead as well as many other important species. Other values included in the public trust include recreation and cultural uses. When Humboldt County allows unlimited groundwater pumping even during extended dry times, exacerbating already low flows and leading to surface flows disconnecting, it fails in its duty to protect the Public Trust.

“As guardians of the public trust, our County leadership has the authority and the responsibility to enact an ordinance to curtail groundwater pumping in the Lower Eel when necessary,” said Alicia Hamann, Friends of the Eel River’s executive director. “Unfortunately what we’ve seen instead, under the guise of a grudging effort to comply with the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, has been continued denial by the County that groundwater use in the Lower Eel ever affects river flows, including efforts to obscure the County’s own data revealing the impacts of pumping on surface flows during dry periods.”

According to data collected for the County’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan, extraction from the lower Eel groundwater basin actually results in a loss of about 14 cfs to surface flows during late summer. This may not sound like much, but it can be nearly everything the river has during critically dry times. The Lower Eel River has repeatedly disconnected below Fortuna in late summer and early fall during the series of recent years that have been drier and hotter than historic averages. (We are avoiding using the word drought here because it implies reversion to a wetter “normal,” which seems increasingly unlikely.) Absent a program to control groundwater pumping, the County is unable to address the impacts of pumping during dry times.


Link to Petition for Writ of Mandate