Summer is coming. Coho salmon that spawn in the South Fork of the Eel River—a population that may still number only several thousand fish in a good year—are the critical anchor, state and federal experts say, for the survival and recovery of the species in streams south of the Oregon border. No other watershed in the region has as good a chance as the South Fork to recover and rebuild a population that can prove self-sustaining. The combination of record low rainfalls and unprecedented water diversions, however, suggests great struggles still lie ahead for South Fork Eel coho.
The North Coast is defined by moisture extremes: wet winters and long, dry summers. This year, unfortunately, the National Weather Service reported the total rainfall from January through April as the lowest on record for the region.
Under the best of circumstances, the resulting low stream flows would be challenging for our imperiled native fish. Low flows amplify the impacts of all sorts of pollution, and result in higher water temperatures. Young coho salmon, steelhead trout, and Pacific lamprey are especially vulnerable, because they must stay in freshwater until they are ready to run to the ocean (a year for coho and steelhead—five to seven for lamprey!)
These fish have thrived in the Eel River for millions of years, but they may not survive the next decade. While they have survived droughts in the past, their populations and habitat are near a low ebb, thereby greatly reducing their
Human actions are depleting streamflows even further in some key reaches—which is perhaps the one thing that we can do something about—right now. We can’t undo the logging that replaced old growth forests with thirsty young stands of trees, nor can we fix climate-driven changes in our rainfall patterns. All we can do is watch how we use water during the dry season ahead.
Some salmon streams were actually dewatered last summer. Keeping them flowing this year, under even worse conditions, is going to require a lot of effort.
Thankfully, many people have been working very hard to install more water storage, to fill up from the winter rains we did get, to check their systems for drips and leaks, and to ensure they’re using no more than they truly need for domestic and agricultural purposes. That’s a great start.
Pointing fingers at the wine industry, as some tend to do, does not help the situation and offers no excuse for ignoring our own problems. The wine industry’s environmental abuses—while serious and significant—don’t give pot farmers (or anyone else) in the Eel River watershed a right to create other unecessary harms. In fact, if the people of the Eel River are to reclaim the Eel River’s water from Russian River interests, we must be responsible water users ourselves.
It is also important to understand that decommissioning the Potter Valley Project and tearing down its two dams won’t add a drop of water into the South Fork of the Eel River. The dams and diversion tunnel are on the upper mainstem Eel River, roughly 30 miles east (upstream) of Willits. The mainstem Eel and the South Fork don’t join until Founder’s Grove on Highway 101 (downstream). Thus, the fate of the South Fork coho has absolutely nothing to do with the Potter Valley diversion. Rather, it is very much in the hands of the people living and working in its watersheds. (Chinook, steelhead, and lamprey, however, are more
As you may have already heard—the lawsuits brought by Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics against the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) for their refusal to uphold their promise to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) were dismissed by a Marin county judge in mid-May. If the decision stands, it could leave the disfunctional NCRA—the subject of a careful but unflattering profile by the North Coast Journal’s Ryan Burns in May—free to operate in the fragile, recovering Eel River Canyon for more than a century without much environmental protection at all, if any. The case highlights the difficulty and uncertainty of litigation as a strategy for protecting public trust resources like the Eel River’s fisheries and clean water.
The fact remains that the NCRA, an agency of the state of California, took tens of millions of dollars of California taxpayer money under an explicit promise to abide by California’s environmental law. Nearly three million more tax dollars were spent on an Environmental Impact Report that the NCRA then claimed could not be reviewed by a court. And still, a simple question has not been answered: why not use CEQA to plan the project, analyze the potentially significant environmental harms, and figure out how to effectively mitigate them? The NCRA’s refusal to do real environmental review as promised only increases concerns about such potential environmnental harms, and suggests that there are things the NCRA knows about their projects that they don’t want the public to know.
Scott Greacen is Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River.