Watershed Residents Must Come Together to Save Coho

October, 2012

In discussions about the Humboldt County General Plan Update, there have been many issues raised about the the need to protect fisheries and fish habitat—especially cold, clean water—but the truth is that the future of our watersheds and fisheries will be determined less by county rules and state agencies than by the actions of people who live and work in the watersheds. The fate of coho salmon in the South Fork of the Eel River brings the future of Southern Humboldt watersheds into particularly compelling focus.

The surviving population of coho, or silver, salmon in the South Fork Eel River is an irreplaceable part of the region’s biological heritage. In the 1940s, annual returns of adult coho salmon to the Southern Humboldt and Northern Mendocino portions of the South Fork Eel alone (ie the Benbow Reach) ranged from 10,000 to 25,000 fish. These days, the entire South Fork population of adult coho probably numbers between 2000 and 3000 adults in a good year.

The Department of Fish and Game (DFG) reported about eleven hundred redds (salmon nests) from the from the upper South Fork last year. The fish born from those redds, and the few dozens persisting in watersheds like Redwood Creek west of Redway and Sprowel Creek west of Garberville, probably make up the most viable population left in California. They are very likely the last real hope to restore viable, productive coho runs in the Eel watershed and the neighboring Mattole River.

In the draft Recovery Plan for Southern Oregon-Northern California Coast (SONCC) Coho, published by the National Marine Fisheries Service in early 2012, the federal wildlife agency made the case that the South Fork Eel run is essential to support runs in watersheds—Humboldt Bay tributaries, for example—that could not by themselves support runs large enough to be viable over the long run.

While noting that coho counts at Benbow have declined sharply from historic levels, DFG’s Scott Downie has suggested the trajectory of South Fork Eel River coho may be determined by what happens in Southern Humboldt over the next decade. Redwood Creek, for example, still has coho, and many residents who care deeply for the land. It also has what might be optimistically described as an enormous opportunity to encourage water storage and end dry-season diversions.

Similarly, the future of the Sprowel Creek watershed has recently become a looming question. About 7,000 acres in the upper watershed have been broken into patent parcels by the Barnum timber interests. This leverages market values by securing, if not development rights, then the ability to sell the land piecemeal without compliance with the Subdivision Map Act, and planning for things like road systems and water supplies.

Stream flows and other key conditions in Sprowel Creek and its tributaries are already dangerously poor in the dry season.  In its present condition, the Sprowel Creek watershed now sees as many as 25 adult coho return in some years. Further unplanned and unmitigated development in the watershed is likely to substantially reduce the potential for coho recovery not only in the Sprowel Creek watershed but for the South Fork coho population as a whole.

That both Humboldt county and land developers might become liable for prohibited “take” of listed species is just one of the serious consequences likely to result. The Eel should be a stronghold for salmonids that can help restore regional populations, but if current trends continue, we will lose these species in the Eel and across the region in our children’s lifetimes.

Salmon are harmed by increased sediment loads, increased water temperatures, and lower flows, factors that dramatically increased in our watersheds due to the logging and roadbuilding boom of the 20th century. Those impacts led to the designation of nearly all North Coast rivers, including the Eel and its tributaries, as impaired and threatened under Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act. While these legacy impacts have begun to heal, their persistence means we must take great care to limit today’s and tomorrow’s impacts if we are to successfully restore our watersheds and the fisheries that depend upon them.

The county must act to ensure that such development occurs only with enforceable provisions governing the key factors that drive the most significant impacts. These include minimum parcel sizes; water supply and storage; road system design, construction, and maintenance; oversight of grading impacts; and cumulative effects analysis and mitigation. Though such reasonable protections for watersheds in new developments are crucial to allow coho survival, they almost certainly won’t be enough to secure recovery. We have to build on the protection and restoration work of the past decades by coming together as road associations and neighborhoods to reduce sediment, curtail pollution, and above all store water and end dry-season diversions.

Railroad Agency’s Appeal Rejected

A state appeals court summarily dismissed the North Coast Railroad Authority’s (NCRA) claim that lawsuits filed by Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics should be moved to a “neutral” county. That leaves the suits in Marin Superior Court, where Judge Faye D’Opal had rejected the argument that she and Marin County are biased
against the NCRA.

The NCRA previously failed to convince a federal court that the state court has no power to review the agency’s state-funded actions under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  The NCRA is running out of excuses. We are asking they disclose and address the environmental impacts of re-opening the line through the unstable Eel River Canyon.


Scott Greacen is Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River.

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