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The Battle for Elk River 

Aggrieved land owners, logging's legacy, timber companies and a state agency collide in a beleaguered watershed

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© North Coast Journal, 2020

Kristi Wrigley remembers a time when the Elk River ran clear and deep, providing a reliable source of good water for her home and adjacent apple orchard.

Those years are now long past and the Elk River watershed has been named as one of the most degraded in Northern California. The river channel has widened, flooding is frequent and, each year, a layer of sediment is added to the land underlying her trees. The sediment, she says, consists of fine silt particles that choke the roots and eventually kill the trees. Over a 30-year period, she has lost the use of three-quarters of her property.

Wrigley wonders why the public agencies that are supposed to protect the environment have done so little to help her and her neighbors, not to mention the watershed's once prolific salmon populations that are now virtually nonexistent.

As residents like Wrigley continue to grapple with the tangible environmental impacts of heavy logging upriver in the watershed, the California Water Quality Control Board — the agency with the most direct oversight over the situation — recently approved a plan that pleases no one, spurring lawsuit threats from both residents and the timber companies that combine to own thousands of acres upriver. Meanwhile, a recovery plan commissioned by the same board, which is unfunded and would take a decade to implement, is being denounced by some as insufficient to mitigate the damage done.

And while the upper watershed has been logged for some 150 years, most agree the bulk of that damage was done over the span of less than two decades after Maxxam, Inc. took over the Pacific Lumber Co. in 1985.

"I don't remember how many years it was after Maxxam took over that the river became the muddy mess that it has been since," says Leslie Leach, who lived in the area in the 1970s and 1980s. "(But) we could no longer hear or see the salmon ... flooding became a frequent occurrence and the silt left behind after the flooding was awful."

The Elk River watershed lies mostly in a forested mountain ridge that rises steeply from a large floodplain just south of Eureka to a 2,600-foot elevation about 12 miles inland. It is crossed by numerous creeks, the sinuous winding north and south forks of the Elk River, as well as its mainstem, and a slough. With the exception of the 7,400-acre, federally-owned Headwaters Forest Rreserve, the upper portion of the watershed is commercial timberland owned by Humboldt Redwood Co. and Green Diamond Resource Co. A sprinkling of private property owners — between 50 and 100 — have homes, farms, ranches and orchards in the watershed's middle and lower reaches.

Prior to commercial logging, the forest was a mix of redwood, other conifers and hardwoods. But the watershed has been logged by numerous companies over the decades, including Pacific Lumber Co., Maxxam and, more recently Humboldt Redwood and Green Diamond, both of which say they are committed to sustainable timber harvesting and restoration.

But residents of the Elk River watershed think otherwise and would like to see a complete moratorium on logging in the area until the river has had time to heal itself. This, however, would be a lengthy process and, in fact, one recent study indicates the river may have passed a tipping point and that sediment will continue to accumulate no matter what is done.

There are several reasons for this state of affairs. The underlying geology of the watershed is steep and erosion-prone, susceptible to landslides that wash soil particles into the creeks and, eventually, the rivers. Some soil scientists think logging should have never been allowed in the area. However, back in the 1800s when the forests were first logged, there was no environmental regulation in California and preservation of the land depended on the integrity of its owners.

In retrospect, some believe Pacific Lumber, which began in 1863, was a relatively benign landowner.

"They logged, but not during the rainy season," says Leach. "They left seed trees in the areas that were logged so that you walked through a forest of second growth and here and there was a true giant old growth redwood. And of course, there were old growth stands on their property ... We could go down to the river to see very large salmon swimming up stream."

Leach says she and her neighbors used to draw all their water directly from the river.

"Then Maxxam acquired (Pacific Lumber) in a hostile takeover, and it was the beginning of the end for Elk River," Leach continues. "They built roads all over the property. They clearcut all year round. The ground there, like a lot of areas around here, was extremely unstable, so tons of sediment was discharged into the river every year."

click to enlarge ADAPTED FROM UPPER ELK RIVER: TECHNICAL ANALYSIS FOR SEDIMENT, TETRA TECH, 2015
  • Adapted from Upper Elk River: Technical Analysis for Sediment, Tetra Tech, 2015

The river has simply never recovered.

When trees are cut, it kills their roots, which bind and stabilize the soil. That, combined with the removal of vegetative cover, leaves the soil susceptible to erosion. When rain drops hit the soil, particles wash away into adjacent creeks and rivers. If there are more soil particles than a river's flow is physically capable of removing, those particles adhere to the banks and the riverbed, raising the riverbed and making the river shallower, leaving the river more prone to overtopping its banks. In areas where too many trees are cut or they're cut too close to waterways, landslides occur more frequently, which also leaves more sediment and silt in rivers and creeks.

This causes the deep, gravel-lined holes in the riverbed that salmon eggs need to thrive and grow to gradually fill in and, consequently, the populations of fish decline and may eventually vanish altogether.

At one time, the Elk River was "a salmon factory," according to fish biologist Patrick Higgins. But things are different now, says Environmental Protection Information Center Executive Director Tom Wheeler.

"The Elk River is a biological dead-zone for salmon, particularly for salmonid eggs and larvae, as the suspended sediment concentrations within most areas are so high as to cause mass die offs," Wheeler says.

This has reverberating economic effects, too, as when a major waterway stops supporting salmon, local sport and commercial fishing industries — both major economic drivers in the local economy — take a hit.

It was during the 10-year period between 1988 and 1997 following Maxxam Inc.'s takeover of Pacific Lumber that sediment deposition reached an all-time high. The county was enmeshed in the "Timber Wars" as environmentalists struggled to save some of the old growth — an effort that resulted in the Headwaters Forest Reserve. But farther downstream, Elk River residents watched in dismay as the river began flooding several times each year, fouling their domestic water supplies and damaging their lands and homes. Plumes of dark, discolored sediment began to flow out of the Elk River into Humboldt Bay, adding to the bay's chronic need for expensive dredging. The state appeared incapable — or unwilling — to stop the damage.

The rivers that sustain forests and wildlife are the legal property of the citizens of California, and therefore several state agencies are mandated to supervise the activities of timber companies to make sure that wildlife and waterways are not being damaged by inappropriate logging plans. These agencies include CalFire, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Water Quality Board, which have developed numerous plans aimed to keep things in good order.

In 1998, state regulators shut down Maxxam for five years after the company had been evading requirements from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to measure and curtail major erosion that was causing landslides. The Elk River was legally declared a "sediment-impaired water body" in 1998 under the California Clean Water Act.

In 2004, residents wrote a petition asking the state to dredge the river, hoping that a deeper channel would prevent high waters from overflowing the banks and depositing sediment everywhere. In response, the water board started holding meetings and conducting studies on the best ways to stem what it refers to as "nuisance flooding," while residents grew increasingly frustrated and angry. Some residents came to believe the interests of the timber industry were being protected, while their own problems were being ignored.

click to enlarge Flooding has been a persistent problem in the heavily silted Elk River Watershed for decades. - PHOTO BY ANGELA TELLEZ
  • Photo by Angela Tellez
  • Flooding has been a persistent problem in the heavily silted Elk River Watershed for decades.

In 2008, Maxxam declared bankruptcy and most of its forestland in the Elk River watershed became the property of Humboldt Redwood, which espouses a "high standard of environmental stewardship." Yet the flooding has continued, although not as badly as during the years under Maxxam's administration.

Wrigley, whose family has farmed in the area for more than 100 years, can point to evidence of the flooding throughout her property: There's the water mark on the bamboo curtains 2 feet above the floor of the old farmhouse; the lawn chair buried almost entirely in silt; the gauge used to measure high water on a riverbank that shows a mud deposit of 2 feet accumulated over a 20-year period.

In 2013, the water board decided that rigorous scientific study was needed to determine how — and if — the watershed could be restored. It contracted California Trout (a statewide nonprofit), Stillwater Sciences (a watershed consultant based in Arcata) and Northern Hydrology and Engineering (an environmental and civil engineering firm in McKinleyville) to gather data and develop mathematical models on possible techniques for watershed restoration.

Called the Elk River Recovery Assessment, the study was supposed to answer three questions concerning 19 miles along the middle and lower reaches of the Elk River watershed: What would happen if nothing was done; what would happen if sediment flow was reduced by 30 percent; and what would happen if the landscape was dramatically re-engineered, particularly at the estuary-end of the river?

On Feb. 27, California Trout held a public meeting at the Humboldt Hill Grange to discuss its river recovery plan. The meeting, which featured an audio-visual presentation, numerous maps and a variety of public officials available to answer questions, described a plan that took more than five years to develop and involved not only dredging the river but also removing vegetation along its banks, as well as engineering the floodplains along the lower reaches of the estuary.

The plan is still in the conceptual stages and would take another 10 years to fully implement.

The assessment commissioned by the board concluded that if no physical changes are made, sediment will continue to accrete and flooding will worsen. So much sediment has entered the river that it has slowed the current down and widened the channel. Alder thickets and reed beds have taken root, which slows down the water flow even more, encouraging further flooding, the scientists explained. To break this vicious cycle and re-create a fast-moving stream that would carry away silt rather than letting it settle, it would be necessary to remove this riverside vegetation, replacing it with big conifers lining the banks, and also dredge the river.

In addition, major changes would also have to be made to the Martin Slough and Swain Slough portions of the watershed, where the river is influenced by the tides in Humboldt Bay, the scientists found. These changes would include digging a new channel and removing levees, raising the levels of the floodplains and some local roads, and possibly making changes in the structure of U.S. Highway 101, which presently acts as a dam when high water is present. Some homes would also have to be raised above flood levels, while portions of the floodplain could be altered to be more fish-friendly.

But all these structural changes would be voluntary, managed through a program called the Watershed Stewardship Program. No specific sources of funding were mentioned during the presentation and, moreover, these changes will take up to a decade to implement. And little mention was made of the fact that whether the sediment moves slowly or quickly, it will still end up in Humboldt Bay, where it will need to be dredged out again, this time from the bay's bar.

Pat Higgins is skeptical of the plan.

"Dredging sediment in the lower Elk River is like digging holes in the sand at the beach at low tide," he said in an email to the Journal, adding that the source problems lie farther upriver. "You have to shut the sediment off through road decommissioning, other erosion control measures and watershed rest."

The plan, however, addresses only the floodplains along the estuary and the middle reaches of the river, where the small private landowners are located. It does not address any of the timber harvest issues along the watershed's upper reaches, where the land is owned by Green Diamond and Humboldt Redwood.

Sediment is considered a pollutant, its discharge subjected to a standard called the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), an estimate of how much of it can travel down the waterway without disrupting domestic drinking water sources, fish habitat and agricultural irrigation. To determine the TMDL, the water board generates a TMDL Action Plan, which is legally binding. The most recent TMDL Action Plan for the Elk River watershed was approved by both the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2018. It defined the acceptable pollutant level for sediment as "zero."

This is where things start to get tricky. Taken literally, this would mean that no sediment at all could travel down the Elk River. But hydrologists point out that this is an impossible standard to attain because, even with no logging at all, any river will carry a certain amount of sediment downstream because of natural processes.

The water board had created a regulation based on an inherently unattainable standard.

"If a stream was not carrying any sediment at all, it would not be performing its function as a stream," says retired hydrologist Sue Hilton. "It's not physically possible to have zero sediment."

As several residents pointed out in public comment and in letters to the water board, if no new sediment could be released into the river, this would effectively shut down all timber harvesting, a prospect that seemed to be just fine with many commenters. Green Diamond, on the other hand, strongly disagreed.

On Feb. 6, the water board held a sparsely attended public hearing in its Santa Rosa headquarters to adopt a new Waste Discharge Requirement for Green Diamond. The requirement regulates where and how much the company can log in adherence with the TMDL Action Plan. The plan pleased no one — not the residents of the watershed and certainly not Green Diamond, which thought the plan, which placed additional limitations on the company's ability to harvest trees close to streams, was unrealistically restrictive.

Some of the water board's language was opaque, saying that "anthropogenic" (human-caused) discharges of sediment needed to be "minimized" ... "as soon as feasible but not later than 2031."

Green Diamond argued that since the zero goal was conceptual rather than absolute, the company should be allowed more leeway, since it is already adhering to forestry practices that minimize sediment release. Each side accused the other of using bad science to back up its conclusions.

"We are extremely disappointed by the action taken ... by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board," Green Diamond spokesperson Gary Rynearson said in a two-page press release. "The board's action was based on flawed science, a flawed process and flawed guidance from staff."

Rynearson added that after purchasing its Elk River tract of land in 1978, the company recognized "its sensitivity" and voluntarily developed a management plan to "minimize soil disturbance and prevent sedimentation" prior to its first logging activity in 1993. The aim, he said, was to improve conditions in the Elk River watershed, including by preventing thousands of dump truck loads of legacy road sediment from entering streams.

"Our 100- to 200-foot buffers with no-cut cores, combined with shovel yarding, would provide riparian protection measures consistent with the TMDL requirements," he continued. "Instead, we are now required to use harvesting practices that will result in far more ground disturbance and impose a significant economic sacrifice with no environmental benefit."

The water board seems to be in a no-win situation. In an email to the Journal, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Officer Matthias St. John said that both Humboldt Redwood and Green Diamond have a lawsuit pending challenging the board's approval of the sediment TMDL.

"That litigation is ongoing," he wrote.

In a different letter to the water board prior to the public hearing, Elk River resident Jesse Noell warned that discharges from upriver timber harvest activities continue to create flooding on his property, damaging it. The state is knowingly maintaining a "dangerous condition," Noell charged.

"I've told you repeatedly to stop depriving my family of our inalienable rights and intentionally inflicting emotional distress on my family," he wrote.

In a second letter, Noell mentioned some court cases that had been won by aggrieved landowners in similar situations.

"See you in court," the letter ended.

Elaine Weinreb is a freelance journalist who prefers she/her pronouns. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.

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