ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

D-Day for Freshwater? [photo of area before and after flood, and photo of Alan Cook]
The future of this much-logged,
flood-prone watershed east of Eureka
could be decided next week.


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 Cook knows.

"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 from 2001.

A key meeting

[Map showing Arcata, bay, Bayside, Eureka and Freshwater and Freshwater Creek]Simple 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 the background.

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 years ago.

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 two basins.

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 said.

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 regulation.

Cook, for his part, spoke more simply. "Water quality is our only glimmer of hope," he said.

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."

[photo of dog and boy on bike near flooded creek]
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 of Marian Coleman near creek] Marian Coleman
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.

[house with new foundation] 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 in Freshwater.

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 roads.

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 pro-timber."

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 itself.

"I have absolutely no faith that they will do something," she said.


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