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'The Whole System is Broken' 

The Elk River watershed has a plan, though its residents feel little hope

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Kristi Wrigley can remember back decades when her family's apple orchard, located in the Elk River watershed, was fruitful and productive, helping supplement the family's income. The trees are mostly dead now, killed by deposits of river sediment around their roots. Many of her neighbors' homes have flooded, while others have stories of being blocked from entering or leaving theirs by roads made impassable by the river. Some have left the area, unwilling to deal with the dangers and inconveniences of annual flooding.

The problem, Wrigley and other neighbors attest, is directly correlated with timber harvesting upstream by the lumber companies that own 83 percent of the land in the watershed. Three years ago, a compendium of public and nonprofit agencies put a preliminary plan together that was supposed to address the problem. Now the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB), one of the participants in the plan, has come out with a new document, written by Caltrout, a nonprofit that deals with water quality. Although the graphics in the plan are pretty, and the wording is hopeful about changes that could be made, the reality is nothing at all has happened to benefit the residents — or the environment — during the past three years. In fact, things have gotten worse for one local family, who says their supply of drinking water was cut off by Humboldt Redwood Co. after they complained to the NCRWQCB.

The one group that does seem to have benefited from the ongoing problem is Caltrout, which earned more than $250,000 to write the 130-page draft plan, along with hundreds of pages of technical appendices. As is common with most documents of this type, much of the information is buried in the appendices, which few people read.

The river is regulated by several government agencies, most notably the NCRWQCB, which tells the two local timber companies — Humboldt Redwood Co. LLC and Green Diamond — how much sediment they are allowed to release into the river. The sediment, of course, is not released deliberately — but is a byproduct of loosened soil that results when the roots of the harvested trees rot. Therefore, regulations limiting sediment release also limit the amount and type of logging that can occur, and are often challenged by the timber companies.

At a Feb. 3 meeting, the water board discussed legal issues with Humboldt Redwood Co. during a closed session. A search of Humboldt County Superior Court records revealed two ongoing lawsuits filed by the timber company against the water board, one in 2017 and another in 2019.

Sprinkled throughout the Caltrout plan and its appendices are references to "legacy sediment," meaning sediment loosened decades ago by bad logging practices of the forests' previous owner PALCO, that will continue to enter the river indefinitely. There are also questions as to whether the riverbed's geology will ever allow much improvement, even if all logging were curtailed.

Nonetheless, Caltrout forged ahead with devising a plan estimated to cost $52 million and take up to 30 years to implement. Where this money will come from, no one knows, as no lead agency to manage this funding has yet been named, and no source for the money has been found. The document also lists an array of future studies that are needed.

Neighbors feel hung out to dry.

"The water quality here is disgusting," said Stephanie Bennett, a local resident. She said that as a result of a 1998 settlement between the water board and Humboldt Redwood Co., shipments of free bottled water were delivered weekly to a number of severely impacted residences along the North Fork of the river.

"When we bought the house in 2003 and asked about drinking water, the owner said that the bottled water came with the house," Bennett said, adding she then got a phone call from Crystal Springs, saying their last delivery had been made because Humboldt Redwood Co. had stopped paying the bill. Other neighbors on the same plan do not seem to have been affected.

Residents on the South Fork of the river received filtration systems, but Wrigley said they are difficult to maintain and often break down because the water quality is so bad.

Even though the Caltrout document prominently lists Wrigley and other local landowners as participants in the planning process, she said they have not been included in meetings.

Another neighbor, Jesse Noell, said he took the timber company to court but the suit was dismissed "with prejudice" by the judge, meaning he cannot refile it.

The salmon population has also greatly suffered as a result of the river's degradation, the deep holes the fish need having been filled with sediment.

"The riverbed used to be 8 feet deep," said Bennett.

She also complained that flood insurance has become unaffordable as a result of the rising river. "It would cost $4,300 a year," she said.

"This is not due to a natural disaster," she said. "This is a preventable problem."

"The whole system is broken," Wrigley said. "Nobody is listening and nobody will help."

Noell had the following observation: "Remarkably, unlike cannabis rules which are enforced with great stringency and penalties for threatening residents and this watershed, timber rules are written and implemented in a manner that enables both malicious floodwater invasion of our homes, destruction of the fishery and the denial of California's human right to water in order to 'accommodate important economic development' for polluters....

Elk River might just have a chance to heal if only the largest landowner in this community was in the cannabis industry rather than the timber industry."

Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. 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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Elaine Weinreb

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