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Humboldt County's most impactful and memorable stories of 2022 

2022 brought a sweemingly unending torrent of news in Humboldt County, so much so that sifting through it to find the year's 10 biggest stories necessitated breaking conventional bounds and adding two bonus entries. It helps that items 11 and 12 on this list are resoundingly positive news — which we can safely say we all need a lot more of these days. As we present our Top 10 stories of 2022, we'll first note a few omissions. The fall of Roe, the conclusion of the Eureka Police Department's texting scandal, the approval of a historically massive fish farm on the Samoa Peninsula and the Lightning Complex Fire that encircled Willow Creek for more than a month all failed to make the cut this year, underscoring what an absolutely wild year we've all had. As we enter 2023, take a moment to reflect and look back on 2022, and let us know what we missed. And let's all hope the coming year builds on the successes of this year while leaving the discord and division behind.

Thadeus Greenson

No. 1 Earthquake

If there is a single moment from 2022 most of us will remember in 20 years, it's likely 2:34 a.m. on Dec. 20, when the earth began to shake.

While Humboldt County has seen far more damaging earthquakes, this one rocked the county with a force that could be felt far beyond its borders, with shaking reportedly felt in the San Francisco Bay Area, north to Oregon and east to Redding. It knocked out power countywide, with abundant reports of broken possessions and shattered nerves.

Ultimately, though, it was the Eel River Valley that felt the brunt of the quake's force and saw the most damage. Rio Dell was particularly hard hit, with dozens of homes red tagged and its water system damaged so severely it was inoperable for days, leaving residents using portable toilets and drinking bottled water. As 2022 comes to a close, officials were still working to finalize a damage estimate and determine how many homes countywide were no longer safe for occupancy. But to those who lived through it, there was little doubt the quake would reverberate in their memories for a long, long time.

Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge An Illustration of a spar-buoy floating turbine, one of three potential designs being considered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. - COURTESY OF STATOIL
  • Courtesy of Statoil
  • An Illustration of a spar-buoy floating turbine, one of three potential designs being considered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

No. 2 Harnessing the Wind

The first steps in a long road to producing wind energy off the North Coast took place at the beginning of December, with two foreign multinational corporations spending a total of more than $331 million for the chance to develop some 207 square miles of ocean off Humboldt Bay into two floating offshore wind farms.

The winning bids came in during a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management lease auction, the first ever held for areas on the West Coast. Three other leases off the central coast also went out to bid as part of state and federal efforts to increase renewable energy resources amid increasingly dire climate crisis forecasts.

But the prospect of massive turbines turning in the ocean off Humboldt County is still far in the future, with a long and complicated process ahead — that's all but guaranteed to include some opposition — before any project gets off the water.

At this point, the lease contracts still need to be finalized. And, once that is done, the hard part begins. The companies will need to conduct surveys and submit project designs for the floating wind farms that will utilize untested technology and be anchored in waters 2,500 feet deep, more than three times the depth of other projects currently operating anywhere in the world.

Following reviews by BOEM and the California Coastal Commission, the proposed wind farms will then need to go through a full federal National Environmental Policy Act review, with BOEM serving as the lead agency in preparing a report attempting to quantify the projects' impacts on the environment and identifying potential mitigation measures.

All of this is estimated to take at least a decade or more to play out.

Kimberly Wear

No. 3 Cal Poly Humboldt and Title IX

This year started out with a bang at Humboldt State University when it was officially designated California State University's third polytechnic university, dubbed California Polytechnic University Humboldt or "Cal Poly Humboldt" for short. It was touted to become a polytechnic for the 21st century, with increased classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for subjects like food system sciences, cannabis and biotechnology, among others. The change promises to transform the campus and the surrounding community, with a massive influx of state resources and — ultimately — the goal of doubling student enrollment.

Unfortunately, during the university's fall semester welcome address (the university's first as Cal Poly Humboldt), President Tom Jackson Jr. made some comments about the school's Title IX cases — referencing a federal civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in education that outlines a university's responsibilities to keep students and staff safe from sexual harassment and sexualized violence — that many found deeply troubling. Jackson's comments, made while the California State University system itself was under fire for its handling of Title IX cases, referred to Cal Poly Humboldt as a "campus filled with secrets," and said Title IX was "designed to be private, confidential, to solve a problem between individuals — not meant to be public and scrutinized in the national media."

His comments drew sharp criticism from CPH staff, faculty, advocates for survivors of sexual harassment and abuse and some CPH campus survivors like Cal Poly Humboldt basketball player Jadence Clifton, who felt the university's Title IX process wasn't doing enough to protect her after her sexual assault. While Jackson later apologized for his comments, the CSU Senate unanimously passed a resolution supporting sexual assault survivors, noting Jackson's comments had led to "additional harm and a feeling of distrust."

The resolution came amid an ongoing systemwide audit of the CSU's Title IX program that included reviews of all 23 campuses' policies and programs, including Humboldt's. The independent auditor's report is expected this spring.

Iridian Casarez

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Shutterstock

No. 4 COVID Coaster Continues

Following holiday gatherings at the close of 2021, January and February of 2022 brought a wave of COVID-19 hardships fueled by the virus' highly contagious Omicron variant. The surge doubled and even tripled the number of positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the county, setting a host of new infection records locally. Several local schools, including McKinleyville Middle School, were forced to close due to staff shortages as local hospitals prepared for the incoming number of patients needing care. The surge kicked off a roller coaster of a year with the virus locally.

Humboldt County Public Health Officer Ian Hoffman announced he was resigning his post in January; the county then soon followed the state's lead and dropped its mask mandate. In April, a group of Arcata and McKinleyville high school students were stranded in Milan, Italy, after contracting the virus during a school trip and needing to quarantine before traveling back to the U.S. (Yeah, that was this year... .) Positive cases just kept increasing through May, prompting the Humboldt County Superior Court to reinstate its mask mandate in all county courtrooms. The Fortuna Rehabilitation and Wellness Center saw a large spring outbreak that infected 36 people, including 26 residents and 10 staff members. But toward the beginning of summer, vaccines became available for children 6 years and older, providing another form of protection from the virus.

Despite the virus' continued spread, the county saw the return of many in-person community events, like live music at local bars and eateries, plays and musicals at local theaters, Arts Alive, Arcata Main Street's Oyster Fest and Hops in Humboldt. However, Humboldt County continued to see positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths throughout summer and fall. As we publish this amid another holiday season with more gatherings and colder weather, it seems likely the county, state and nation will see another surge. Stay safe, everyone.

Iridian Casarez

click to enlarge Local tribes sponsored a day of action for the removal of the Klamath River dams. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Local tribes sponsored a day of action for the removal of the Klamath River dams.

No. 5 Klamath Cleared for Dam Removal

The 20-year effort to undam the Klamath River cleared its final major regulatory hurdle in November, when the Federal Regulatory Commission gave plans a final nod of approval, clearing the way for the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history to begin in 2023.

The unanimous vote capped years of work by the Yurok and Karuk tribes, as well as environmental groups, to reach a lasting accord to remove the four hydroelectric dams that currently choke the lower Klamath River, degrading water quality and imperiling native salmon populations. The final deal — reached after two others had dissolved — saw the states of California and Oregon, and Berkshire Hathaway, the parent company of PacifiCorp, which owns the dams, agree to split potential liability and cost overruns with the massive $500 million project.

The federal agency's approval came 20 years after the dams were blamed for a catastrophic fish kill that left tens of thousands of adult salmon dead on the river's banks.

Infrastructure preparation for dam removal — including road and bridge work — is slated to begin early next year, with the Copco 2 dam the first to come out in the summer of 2023. Removal of the three others — Iron Gate, Copco 1 and J.C. Boyle — is expected to take place by the close of 2024.

Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge Local cannabis farmers say plummeting wholesale prices have left many on the brink of insolvency, prompting them to push for tax relief. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Local cannabis farmers say plummeting wholesale prices have left many on the brink of insolvency, prompting them to push for tax relief.

No. 6 Cannabis Crash

2022 might be remembered as the year a mass extinction event in the cannabis economy may have begun to take hold. January saw cannabis farmers rally in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse, asking for local tax relief in the face of what they warned was a dire crisis that put many local farms at risk of insolvency.

Cultivators said high compliance costs, taxes and fees were killing the county's 1,000 or so licensed farms, which were watching wholesale cannabis prices plummet as a glut of product saturated the market. Specifically, the state's licensed farms had produced more than triple the amount of cannabis being legally consumed. The problem was especially acute for sungrown cannabis — Humboldt County's primary product — which has failed to gain a competitive foothold in the legal marketplace, leading to low demand and further price drops.

Despite a host of looming budget concerns, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted to slash local cannabis taxes by 85 percent — then to suspend them entirely for two years — in an effort to toss the industry a proverbial life vest.

Entering 2023, market forces have not changed and it seems it will take significant alterations to California's legal industry framework or federal legalization to tip the scales back in farmers' direction. Industry experts have warned that an industry-wide debt bubble may soon burst, with cascading impacts that ultimately trickle down to farmers.

Thadeus Greenson

No. 7 Bongio, Schneider and the PlanCo Debacle

Before the Aug. 18, 2022, meeting of the Humboldt County Planning Commission, most locals were totally unaware of local developer Travis Schneider's plans to build his family home overlooking the Fay Slough Wildlife Area, or that the county had halted work on the project some months earlier because Schneider had violated the terms of his coastal development permit.

But when then Commission Chair Alan Bongio responded to concerns raised about the project by the Wiyot Tribe and the Blue Lake Rancheria by ranting about "Indians," accusing them of acting in bad faith and playing a "game" with cultural resources and reneging on a deal, he ignited a controversy that brought new levels of scrutiny to the project. Ultimately, Bongio's comments would draw an official complaint from the two tribes, a censure from the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and a formal letter of apology from his commission, which called them "racist" and "biased."

Meanwhile, the added attention further compromised the project Bongio had tried to expedite, as it was soon revealed Schneider's home construction — already in violation for encroaching on a designated wetland, clearing native vegetation and cutting an unpermitted construction road — was also more than double the permitted size, used 10 times the allowed fill dirt and built without a septic permit. It would also soon be learned that Bongio personally worked on the project, a fact he failed to disclose at the Planning Commission meeting.

The revelations prompted an internal planning department investigation into how a project could have moved forward while so clearly in violation of various requirements, raising a host of questions about whether a prominent local developer received preferential treatment. Schneider's project, meanwhile, remains under a county stop-work order.

The situation also likely contributed to voters' ousting Bongio in November from an elected seat on the Humboldt Community Services District Board of Directors that he'd held for 24 years, and then his resignation from the Planning Commission this month.

Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge This mural, a collaborative art project commissioned by the Yurok Tribe to honor missing and murdered indigenous people, hung in the background of the first California Tribal Policy Summit on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in October. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • This mural, a collaborative art project commissioned by the Yurok Tribe to honor missing and murdered indigenous people, hung in the background of the first California Tribal Policy Summit on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in October.

No. 8 MMIP Action

After 2021 came to a close with news that the Yurok Tribe had issued an emergency declaration in response to an epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous people (MMIP), 2022 became a year of action.

In May, Yurok Tribal Chair Joseph James addressed the state Legislature on the issue, which a collaborative effort between the tribe and the Sovereign Bodies Institute had documented sees Native women and children go missing or become victims of violence at a far higher rate than the general population. In August, the two entities released a "blueprint" to end the crisis, detailing how tribes could improve prevention and intervention efforts.

The following month, Yurok leaders attended a signing ceremony for California's Feather Alert Bill, which introduced a statewide alert system similar to the Amber Alert for tribal members reported missing.

And in October, the Yurok Tribe hosted its first-ever Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Symposium, which brought tribal leaders from throughout California, as well as state, federal and local officials, together to discuss the crisis and prioritize reform efforts.

In December, one of those efforts took a major step forward, when Assemblymember James Ramos introduced legislation sponsored by the tribe that would grant tribal police officers access to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS). Tribal police's lack of access to the system had been identified at the symposium as complicating efforts to share information in MMIP and other cases.

The bill is expected to go to committee in January but 2022 will be remembered as the year the Yurok Tribe's efforts to address the MMIP crisis shifted from documentation and awareness to action.

Thadeus Greenson

No. 9 Auditor-Controller Dysfunction

After some months of relative quiet and calm in the county's fiscal oversight office, it's perhaps easy to forget the degree to which discord and dysfunction in the Humboldt County Auditor-Controller's Office dominated local headlines for the first half of 2022.

Alarm over Karen Paz Dominguez's job performance had been steadily rising since she took office in January of 2019 but came to a head in 2022, when multiple entities — including the Workforce Development Board, the Fortuna Union High School District and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors — issued no-confidence votes in Paz Dominguez, while 13 of 19 county department heads would send a letter alleging she'd failed in her duties. Outside entities, including the Humboldt County Office of Education and the city of Eureka, complained the auditor controller's office had failed to make mandated property tax interest apportionment payments, leading to losses and fiscal uncertainty.

But even as the State Controller's Office and the Attorney General's Office took the unprecedented step of filing a lawsuit against her personally over the county's failures to file mandated financial reports with the state in consecutive years, Paz Dominguez remained defiant, insisting that her office had done its best with limited resources, working through an unprecedented pandemic that brought unique challenges to a county with a decentralized accounting structure. She repeatedly said other departments' recalcitrance in coming in line with the demands of true fiscal oversight were to blame for missed reporting deadlines, repeatedly hinting there was some kind of countywide deep-state conspiracy to discredit her and avoid the level of fiscal accountability she was trying to implement.

In the June 7 primary, voters made their wishes clear, giving challenger Cheryl Dillingham 71 percent of the vote and ousting Paz Dominguez after just one term on the job. Within a month, the county had negotiated a separation agreement with Paz Dominguez, paying her more than $90,000 to leave office early.

At the time, uncertainty regarding the county's finances was so deep that the Board of Supervisors passed a placeholder budget, with County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes telling the board staff did not know how much money the county had on hand, saying it could be $30 million or negative-$30 million.

Having taken office in July, Dillingham is currently continuing to work to meet state reporting deadlines laid out in a settlement agreement with the Attorney General's Office.

Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge The 1974 Arcata City Council after Alex Stillman (center) was elected as the city’s first woman mayor. - CITY OF ARCATA
  • CITY OF ARCATA
  • The 1974 Arcata City Council after Alex Stillman (center) was elected as the city’s first woman mayor.

No. 10 Turmoil and an Historic Milestone in Arcata

Allegations of misconduct by former Arcata City Councilmember Brett Watson had already surfaced when 2022 arrived.

Just a few months earlier, his colleagues on the dais had unanimously cast votes of no confidence in his ability to serve on the council and replaced him as mayor, citing alleged behaviors that "negatively affected the city and some of its staff members."

The situation came into clearer focus as it unfolded over the ensuing year, with the city announcing in January that an outside investigation had been launched and the resulting report — which found "a preponderance of evidence" sustained allegations that Watson sexually harassed a city employee and abused his power as a councilmember — being made public in mid-May.

Shortly afterward, Watson's fellow councilmembers stripped him of his committee assignments and passed a series of measures to limit his access to city hall and employees amid public calls for his resignation.

Throughout, Watson vehemently denied any wrongdoing and defiantly rejected calls to step down.

In the end, Arcata voters had the final say when they resoundingly rejected his reelection bid in November. They also marked a major milestone by selecting Meredith Matthews and Kimberley White to fill the city's two open seats, forming the first all-woman city council in Arcata's history.

While Watson is no longer in office, he remains under a temporary workplace violence restraining order that was requested by the city and granted by a judge in October, which he is opposing.

After two delays, a hearing on the order is set for Feb. 14.

Kimberly Wear

click to enlarge A3 and A2. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MATT MAIS/YUROK TRIBE
  • Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe
  • A3 and A2.

No. 11 Flight of the Condors

Eight California condors are now soaring in North Coast skies after being released into the wild earlier this year as part of a Yurok Tribe-led effort to bring the bird they hold sacred and know as prey-go-neesh back to its former territory.

Called the Northern California Condor Restoration Program, the Yurok Tribe's partnership with Redwood National and State Parks aims to add a new cohort of captive-raised fledglings each year for at least the next 20 years, with the goal of building up self-sustaining populations of North America's largest bird that eventually spread farther up into the Pacific Northwest.

On the occasion of their release, each of the condors was gifted a Yurok name by Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department Director Tiana Williams-Claussen.

The North Coast flock currently includes Ney-gem' 'Ne-chween-kah (A0, "She carries our prayers"), Hlow Hoo-let (A1, "Finally, I/we fly"), Nes-kwe-chokw' (A2, "He returns/arrives") and Poy'-we-son (A3, "The one who goes ahead, leader) — that took their historic flights in May and July, becoming the first of the massive birds with a nearly 10-foot wingspan to do so locally in more than a century — as well as Cher-perhl So-nee-ne-pek' (A4, "I feel strong"), Neee'n (A5, "Watcher"), Me-new-kwe (A6, "I'm bashful" or "I'm shy") and He-we-chek' (A7, "I am healthy or I get well").

An important member of this inaugural milestone, however, is gone. Mentor bird No. 746 — a 7-year-old male brought in to teach the younger ones how to be wild condors, imparting important lessons on what it means to live in a highly social and hierarchical flock — was transferred to the Oakland Zoo on Dec. 14 due to concerns about avian flu.

While Paaytoqin, which in Nez Perce means "come back," was only here for a short time, he left a lasting impact on the condors now flying free in Yurok country.

Kimberly Wear

click to enlarge Sara Bareilles. - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy of the artist
  • Sara Bareilles.

No. 12 Sara Bareilles and the Chili Peppers

October of 2022 saw two epic concerts, beginning with a surprise performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Hoopa Valley High School during the school's Indigenous People's Day assembly. According to the band's longtime tour manager, Gage Freeman, who attended Humboldt State University in the 1980s, the band wanted to play to a Native American audience and decided the Hoopa Valley was the place to do it. The band took time out from their global stadium tour between concerts in Austin, Texas, to perform the free, closed concert in Hoopa. "This is my favorite show of the entire year, without a doubt!" lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis told the crowd midway through. "Without a doubt!"

About a week later, Broadway star and singer Sara Bareilles held a free concert for her beloved hometown — an idea that snowballed from Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman's plan to honor her at a local Eureka City Council meeting after the singer-songwriter won a Grammy in 2019 for her song "Saint Honesty." And what a concert it was! Bareilles and Live Nation transformed Halvorsen Park into a top level concert venue, complete with professional sound, and it was packed with 15,000 people who came to see the star's homecoming. The event was more than just a concert, though. It was a way for the city of Eureka to honor Bareilles and, in turn, for her to share a love letter to the city that shaped her.

Right before the concert, Seaman declared Oct. 16, 2022, as "Sara Bareilles Day" and gave her a key to the city. During the concert, Bareilles seemed to be having as much fun as everyone, bantering with the crowd and smiling throughout her performance, showering the audience and all who made the show possible with her gratitude. It was truly a monumental day in Eureka, and a grand week in Humboldt County.

Iridian Casarez

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