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The future of this much-logged,
flood-prone watershed east of Eureka
could be decided next week.
by KEITH EASTHOUSE
ALAN COOK [in above photo] CAN
RELAX NOW that it's April and the rainy season is mostly over.
For the next few months he won't have to worry about getting
trapped in his home or being unable to get there. He can be confident
that Freshwater Creek, which flows near his five-acre property,
will stay put. It won't rise up and cut off his home from the
rest of the world. It won't complicate his life.
Of course, the logging trucks
coming down Freshwater Road this spring, summer and fall from
lands owned by the Pacific Lumber Co. are likely to keep him
on edge. Cook believes -- as do many of his neighbors -- that
there is a direct correlation between the number of trees those
trucks carry out of the Freshwater basin and the frequency with
which Freshwater Creek floods. Believes is too weak a word. Alan
"When it rains there's
more water running down from the hills and into the creek because
there's less forest to catch the water," said Cook, a bearded
man with an intensity about him. The run-off washes sediment
into the creek, he continued, which in turn has caused the creek
bed to rise as much as three feet in recent years. It has also
narrowed the (creek's) channel through sediment buildup on the
banks, he added.
What does that all add up to?
A shallower, narrower creek has a diminished "channel-carrying
capacity," is how Cook put it. In other words, it floods
more easily. "It's that simple," Cook said.
Clearcuts pockmark the Freshwater basin in this aerial photo
A key meeting
is not the word that comes to mind when trying to describe the
long-running dispute over logging in the Freshwater Creek watershed,
which runs between Kneeland and Eureka. Typical doesn't capture
it either, although there are the usual dueling scientific studies,
the hotly contested disagreements about technical details, the
not-so-subtle political pressures being applied not-so-far in
What makes the struggle over
Freshwater uncommon is that it's not about saving old growth
-- virtually all of the original forest in Freshwater was removed
decades ago. Nor is it about saving rare wildlife -- although
federally protected salmon and steelhead species are struggling
to survive in the basin and constitute an important issue in
the debate. Instead, the Freshwater dispute is about people,
about whether a logging outfit -- Pacific Lumber -- is such a
bad neighbor that it's damaging the property of those who happen
to live downstream of its timberlands. (Needless to say, the
company fiercely denies it is doing harm to anyone.)
The battle could get more intense
-- and interesting -- next week if the North Coast Regional Water
Quality Control Board, a state body, finally acts to protect
water quality in Freshwater, a basin that was declared "sediment
impaired" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency five
In particular, the water board
-- which is holding a two-day public meeting in Eureka beginning
April 18 -- is considering doing something in Freshwater and
four other watersheds hit hard by Pacific Lumber logging that
hasn't been done anywhere in the state in more than 20 years.
It's something it was urged to do in a hard-hitting report by
its staff two years ago: place limits on sediment discharges
from Pacific Lumber logging operations. It's a step that has
the potential to significantly curtail the company's operations
in Freshwater and the four other watersheds, owned wholly or
in part by Pacific Lumber -- North Fork Elk River, Bear Creek,
Stitz Creek and Jordan Creek. The reason? When trees are cut
and logging roads are built, it's all but impossible to prevent
the release of sediment into waterways.
In two reports posted on the
regional board's home page Monday, the staff again called for
restricting sediment discharges. The staff is urging the board
to require Pacific Lumber to file reports on sediment discharges
from about a dozen timber harvest plans in Freshwater Creek,
and several in the North Fork Elk River basin, located immediately
to the south, according to Nathan Quarles, the acting head of
the agency's timber division.
The staff is not calling for
the imposition of sediment discharge reporting requirements on
the other three watersheds, recommending instead that water quality
monitoring and the collection of other data continue in those
basins. The staff report cited two reasons for its recommendation:
It has failed to get its concerns about water quality addressed
on several planned logging operations in the two watersheds in
the current framework, in which the California Department of
Forestry and Fire Protection is the lead regulatory agency; and
the watersheds themselves have deteriorated to the point that
they are out of compliance -- or close to being out of compliance
-- with state basin plans designed to limit the amount of human-caused
sediment that is discharged into waterways.
The board, of course, is free
to ignore the recommendation, or to specifically reject it. It
could also issue an order that is limited in scope -- perhaps
pertaining to just a single timber harvest plan or perhaps to
a small number of timber harvest plans in portions of one or
Further complicating the picture
is a decision taken by the board last month to hire a professional
mediator to resolve the bitter dispute between Pacific Lumber
and some residents who live along Freshwater Creek and Elk River.
If some sort of agreement could be reached between the two sides,
it could conceivably obviate the need for the board to impose
waste discharge requirements. As one board member put it: "If
mediation happens, then the (April 18) meeting isn't such a big
deal. But if mediation doesn't happen, then the meeting could
be a very big deal."
There was at least one sign
that the mediation idea is having a hard time getting off the
ground: The Humboldt Watershed Council, which represents some
of the residents, wrote a letter to the board late last week
saying that it will not participate in mediation unless the board
first issues waste discharge requirements on Pacific Lumber.
The regional board imposed sediment
discharge restrictions on a handful of logging operations in
the 1970s, according to Frank Reichmuth, of the regional board's
staff. Reichmuth said one such order halted the logging of some
old-growth redwood near Redwood National Park (the area was never
cut and was incorporated into the park when the park was expanded
in 1978). Another order, issued to protect a population of summer-run
steelhead in the Middle Fork of the Eel River, led Louisiana-Pacific
to log by helicopter, Reichmuth said. At least two other regional
water boards (there are nine in the state) have in the past restricted
sediment discharges on logging operations.
Under the process known as "waste
discharge reporting requirements," Pacific Lumber would
have 120 days to provide information relevant to sediment discharges
on whatever logging operations are at issue. Until that information
is provided, no sediment discharges from those operations can
take place, which would probably halt most if not all logging-related
activity. Once the information is received, the logging might
resume as it had been planned all along, or it might only be
allowed to proceed under tight restrictions, or it could be cancelled
altogether. It all depends on what the data say about how much
sediment is likely to get released into the environment.
Representatives of the timber
industry expressed alarm about the possibility of regulation
of sediment discharges from logging. Mary Bullwinkel, a Pacific
Lumber spokesperson, said there's no need for the water quality
board to impose such restrictions. She said the company, as part
of the Headwaters forest deal, is already operating under a habitat
conservation plan that imposes protections more stringent than
existing California logging regulations. While that plan is specifically
aimed at protecting endangered species, "we feel the protections
are also providing water quality protection," Bullwinkel
Bernie Bush, a forester and
spokesman for the Simpson Timber Co., expressed concern that
the imposition of waste discharge limitations on Pacific Lumber
could lead to similar restrictions on other timber companies.
"We're very concerned about the precedental implications
that the board's actions could have for the management of private
forest lands in general," Bush said. "It would start
us down the road toward an entirely different (regulatory) process,
a process that is already burdensome."
Ken Miller, whose group, the
Humboldt Watershed Council, is pushing hard for the imposition
of waste discharge reporting requirements throughout the five
watersheds, called them "the holy grail" of silvicultural
Cook, for his part, spoke more
simply. "Water quality is our only glimmer of hope,"
A stranded home
Cook may be a middle-aged chiropractor,
but when it comes to the relationship between logging and flooding
he speaks with an air of authority -- gained from close reading
of several of the many scientific reports that have been written
recently about the hydrologic effects of logging, in Freshwater
and elsewhere; and from talking to leading experts in the field,
such as Leslie Reid, a U.S. Forest Service scientist with the
Redwood Sciences Laboratory in Arcata.
He certainly sounded convincing
as he stood near a small bridge that spans Freshwater Creek on
a cloudy day last week. He was out in the western portion of
the watershed, out where the valley opens up and where most of
the people live, including him and his wife, Tisa. The creek
down in its channel looked remarkably harmless -- the water level
seemed low, the current looked gentle. Cook pointed to a small
aluminum plaque at the base of one of the bridge supports --
barely visible was the inscription 1955.
"That's the high water
mark for the (December) 1955 flood when it rained 19 inches in
five days," Cook said. He pulled out a photograph. It showed
a huge flooded area spreading out from the bridge at least 100
feet. Down in the right hand corner, in bright green lettering,
was inscribed another date: Jan. 14, 2000. "We got two inches
of rain that day," Cook said. "The floodwaters were
as high as the 1955 flood. That's the situation we're in today.
A two-inch storm is like the 1955 flood."
A boy and his dog stand at the edge of the
flooded Freshwater Creek.
Photo courtesy of Jesse Noell
The area that flooded that day
in January was spread before us now, lush and green but with
no visible water. Located south of the bridge and cut by Howard
Heights Road, it's basically a wide depression, the low-lying
pastureland you have to drive across if you want to get to Cook's
house. It's the area Cook wasn't able to traverse four times
this winter due to flooding. The drought the previous winter
-- a bane to so many, such as Klamath farmers -- was a blessing
to Cook. It didn't flood once.
The worst winter was in the
mid-'90s (Cook couldn't remember precisely the years) when floodwaters
stranded his home seven times. The longest his home has been
isolated is three days -- Tisa was trapped there with a woman
friend, while Cook, on the other side of the creek, was forced
to live in that woman's house. "We basically traded places,"
Cook joked. Wading or driving across was out of the question
-- the water was several feet deep and the current was too strong.
"If it's higher than my knees, I won't try it," Cook
said, noting that a truck that attempted the crossing a few years
ago got pulled downriver (no one was hurt).
Like others who live downstream
of timberlands owned by Pacific Lumber, Cook carries a good deal
of anger around with him. His drinking water has not been fouled
by excessive sedimentation, as is the case for several residents
living along the North Fork Elk River, the watershed immediately
south of Freshwater. (Unlike those folks, whom Pacific Lumber
is under state order to provide with drinking water, Freshwater
residents have their water piped in from outside the basin.)
But the frequent flooding near Cook's home has exacted a real
economic toll: His home has lost 10 percent of its value over
the past three years due to devaluations by the Humboldt County
tax assessor. The reason? Access difficulties.
Photo by Bob Doran
At least Cook hasn't had flooding
from Freshwater Creek directly enter his home. That's what happened
in the winter of 1995-96 to Jack Quirey and Marian Coleman, who
live along the banks of the creek a mile or two from Cook.
"It was around New Year's,"
recalled Coleman from her home the other day. "The water
came up quick and when it got to our door we left with our cats."
Added Quirey: "When we came back the next day there was
an inch of silt throughout the house."
Fortunately, Coleman and Quirey's
home had flood insurance, which made available $45,000 that was
used to raise the home three feet. "If we hadn't done that,
we'd have been flooded nine more times," said Quirey. "As
it is, we still get surrounded by water."
Quirey and Coleman have company.
Several other homeowners have had to raise their homes in recent
years because of the flooding.
Freshwater residents Bill and Leslie Blasewitz had to raise the
foundation of their home 2 1/2 feet after flooding in 1998.
An accelerated cut
There is no question that in
the 1990s Pacific Lumber greatly accelerated the rate at which
it was pulling timber out of the Freshwater basin -- three-quarters
of which is owned by the company, including the entire upper
portion. From 1974 to 1987, the company logged an average of
159 acres per year of the 20,000-acre watershed. Over the next
10 years, from 1987 to 1997, the rate of logging jumped almost
fivefold -- to 737 acres per year. The increased cut produced
a slew of violations of state logging regulations -- from 1990
to 1997, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
issued 59 violation notices to the company regarding its operations
The cutting unleashed large
amounts of sediment into waterways in the basin, according to
a 2000 state study. From 1994 to 1997, according to the study
done by the staff of the regional water board, landslides in
freshly cut areas of the watershed bled sediment into Freshwater
Creek and its tributaries at a rate one-and-a-half times greater
than landslides in parts of the watershed that hadn't seen cutting
in 15 years or more. The total amount of sediment deposited during
that period, the study reported, was approximately 72,000 cubic
yards -- 89 percent of which came from harvested areas and logging
Pacific Lumber has repeatedly
denied any linkage between its recent logging and flooding in
Freshwater. In a two-year study of the basin called a "watershed
analysis," the company acknowledged the presence of "high
levels of fine sediment in many areas," but said the sediment
is a product of natural erosion and of activities that occurred
40 to 135 years ago, "particularly related to (logging)
road construction and use." It said the flooding that occurred
in Freshwater in the mid-to-late 1990s was due to increased rainfall
compared with the preceding 10 to 15-year period.
Currently, the company is limited
by CDF to an annual ceiling on logging of 500 "clear-cut
equivalent acres" in Freshwater -- meaning that it cannot
clearcut any more land than that. (It can log more acreage, however,
if it uses lighter logging methods, such as selective harvesting.)
To critics, it is a limit so high that it has no meaning. "There's
such a disconnect" between what the watershed can handle
and what CDF allows, said Cook, who blasted CDF for being "absurdly
A lack of trust
The polarization, distrust and
weariness in the ongoing fight over logging in Freshwater is,
obviously, extreme. So it was no surprise to hear Tisa Lucchesi-Cook,
Alan's wife, express skepticism that the regional water board
will now step in and protect water quality in the basin -- a
move that would put it at odds with not only the forestry department
and Pacific Lumber but with the politically powerful timber industry
"I have absolutely no faith
that they will do something," she said.
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