North Coast Journal

Jan. 1995 - Cover Story

A story of Six Rivers

by Marie Gravelle

You expect a creek to babble, not grumble. Not so on the North Coast.

The grumbling started years ago among fishermen and has gotten so loud lately it's difficult to hear anything else.

"Where are the fish?" ask old timers who spent decades knee-deep in fresh water.

"Where's the water?" ask environmental groups and their lawyers. Pretty soon scientists chime in. They studied and studied. Grumbles evolved into predictions so dire that weary politicians and government agencies were becoming increasingly alarmed.

To pose the question: "What's happened to the rivers?" carries the threat of blame. While most of it may be well-deserved, in the end it's useless. Road-builders, industrial loggers, commercial and sports fishermen, cattle grazers, gravel miners, thirsty city dwellers, rural septic users - and even God in the form of weather - all had a hand in the loss.

To pose the question: "How do we fix the rivers?" is less confrontational, but it involves more study and lots more time.

So far we've found that the biggest problem is soil. It's not where it's supposed to be. But it's all over where it shouldn't be. Steep lands above our rivers are washing down "into the drink," said Pat Higgins, a consulting fisheries biologist headquartered in Arcata.

Logged and covered with roads, steep hillsides can pour tons of dirt into a river in the winter. This can bury a stream bottom with a two-story clump of mud. It can even force smaller tributaries underground.

"Many of our lower river areas are very much like deserts," Higgins said. When rain washes soil into a river, the dirt moves down the river's "conveyor belt" until it gets stuck in the flatter areas. Some river mouths, like the Eel River near Ferndale, have 25 feet of soil sitting in the river bottom.

That's hurting fish, salamanders, frogs, water bugs and a zillion other creatures who depend on fresh water for their life. That includes people.

The soil is a major issue, but there are many other problems involved. There's water diversion projects that take water from river systems. Water is often sent south, leaving North Coast rivers dry.

Then there's hatchery fish. Once considered a saviour of the wild system, hatcheries have brought disease and competition to wild fish populations. In many cases, hatcheries have caused more harm than good.

And of course there's the droughts and floods; one turns rivers into trickles, the other sends even more soil flowing into buried river beds.

Those who plan the dam systems in the state, those who develop fish hatcheries, those who fish, both commercially and for sport, and most importantly, those who own the land and who allow the soil to wash away, they are the ones with the power to restore the waterways.

And therein lies the hope.

"Until now the destruction of our rivers has been treated as a tolerable cost of doing business," said Charles Warren, the executive officer of the State Lands Commission. Warren was speaking to the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife, which met in Eureka late last year.

Scientists, and others, told the committee we can no longer take these river systems for granted. Some are calling for Draconian measures.

Warren proposed a "do no harm" law, requiring agencies like the California Department of Forestry (logging regulators), Department of Fish and Game (fish and wildlife protectors) and the California Department of Water Resources (dam builders; power makers) to change the rules and forbid land use practices that harm waterways.

Probably the most dramatic proposal on the table involves the coho salmon. The National Marine Fisheries Service is right now deciding if it will list the fish on the federal Endangered Species List. The decision is expected to be a "yes"; it could come any day.

Not only are king salmon and steelhead populations plummeting in most rivers, but the "weed-like" coho, a smaller variety of Pacific salmon, is declining drastically as well. Caught between habitat loss and hatchery competition, the wild fish are losing.

According to Gary Bryant, an NMFS fisheries biologist, "We're probably looking at less than 5,000 wild fish left in the state." Other scientists estimate we have lost about 99 percent of the 1950s-era population.

"And we haven't let up on a lot of land use practices," Bryant said, referring to intense logging in North Coast watersheds.

Listing of the coho could be "bigger than the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet combined," one biologist quipped. Restrictions to protect coho habitat would involve both private and public property around the majority of Northern California's rivers and streams.

It would affect timber and gravel mining industries, sports and commercial fishing industries, dairy farms and cattle ranches. And it's not the only fish on the table. The high-jumping, adaptable steelhead is also under consideration for listing - and even more wide-reaching impacts are expected.

Despite the many problems expected from new regulations, water experts told the Senate committee they had hope for the future of California's rivers. While speakers didn't ignore negative issues, they also talked about solutions:

* Tax incentives for those who properly care for the land;

* Money for restoration projects along with new protocols for proper use of that money;

* Tighter regulations on timber harvesting near rivers;

* A closer look at gravel mining, whether it can be regulated to benefit, rather than harm, the rivers;

* A strict catch-and-release fishery instead of total stream closures;

* Removal of squaw fish, a major salmon predator, from the Eel River.

Some of these solutions are actually being put in place on federal lands as a result of President Clinton's Option 9 forest policy. Some old logging roads are being returned to their natural state, which keeps the soil from flooding down into river bottoms. Replanting along stream banks is in progress. But with a large percentage of land around local rivers belonging to private timber companies and other private landholders, the public solution isn't going to do the trick.

Cooperation is essential, according to all sides of the issue.

"I'm quite optimistic," said Terry Roelofs, fisheries professor at Arcata's Humboldt State University. "With the upcoming listing of coho there is a spirit right now of cooperation. The large timber companies are working actively to inventory their lands.

"But these watersheds didn't get in this shape in the last few decades," he said. "And they're not going to respond to intensive efforts on the short term."

Roelofs discussed restoration programs that would have to span as much as 200 years.

Bill Weaver, of Pacific Watershed Associates, gave our river systems an overall rating of "poor to fair, with some good." He called for restoration efforts in the upper reaches of rivers, and a halt to restoration programs in the main stem and lower areas of local waterways.

"You can't perform bottom-up restoration," Weaver said. He even went on to say "train wreck" situations, where tributaries or main stem areas are horribly affected, should be ignored.

"Protect the best, restore the rest," he said, intoning a common threat among restoration experts. But Weaver added his own caveat: Stop pouring money into areas that have little or no hope.

The problem of ranking restoration efforts is a massive dilemma, full of contradictions. "Ten to 15 years ago we were pulling all the woody debris out of the streams," noted Stephen Sungnome Madrone, of the Redwood Community Action Agency. "Now, we're putting it back."

Scientists are learning, but a lot of time and money has been wasted. And money is getting tighter by the day.

Ralph Scott, of the Department of Water Resources, noted that his agency is involved in Trinity River restoration programs and is supposed to put about $3 million into projects this year.

"We intend to pay," Scott said, "but we don't know where that money will be coming from.

"But we won't build a dam on any of the Wild and Scenic Rivers here," he joked, referring to his agency's primary mission in the past. Dozens of dams were planned on local rivers in the 1960s and 1970s, but were abandoned when scientists discovered a lack of enthusiasm among residents. They also noted the high soil content of area waters. A dam on the lower part of the Eel River, for example, would probably last one winter before it plugged with soil.

The industry perspective was evident during the Senate hearing. A Pacific Lumber Co. spokesman said his company knows "it's in our best interest to keep the soil on the hillsides."

But others pointed to continued controversy and distrust among landowners and public agencies entrusted with protecting rivers.

"If you want us, you have to establish trust," said Bill Davis, attorney for timber and gravel interests on and near local rivers. "The cost of mining has skyrocketed with unreasonable restrictions and environmentalist problems."

"Agency people are not trusted," said Dennis Leonardi, a Ferndale dairyman. "You're not going to confide with somebody who's going to slap your hand or give you a fine."

While cooperation is the key, gaining trust is like making a mold. Once it can be created, it can be multiplied a thousandfold. And, as Roelofs told the Senate committee, "the quality of life on the North Coast depends on our success."

Glancing out the car window, the rivers are difficult to miss. They cut through our daily lives, changing the landscape and constantly changing themselves. Six Rivers National Forest got its name from the big six that flow through its one million acres. They are the Smith, the Klamath, the Trinity, the Mad, the Van Duzen and the Eel.

These rivers are well-known to most residents. In the summer it's off to Swinging Bridge on the Mad, or Swimmer's Delight on the Van Duzen or the many popular spots on the heat-soaked Trinity. Whitewater rafters dash off to the Smith, the Trinity and the Klamath whenever possible.

Come fall and spring, fishermen line the banks of the Eel, the Klamath and the Mad, hoping to fight a feisty steelhead or bag a big salmon. Each river has its own story and its own unique route to follow.


The Smith River's Length: 60 miles

Dams: None

Watershed size: 500 square miles

Landholdings: 10% private; 90% public.

The Smith is a good news story. The "fastest clearing" river on the North Coast, according to Pat Higgins, a fisherman as well as a fisheries biologist. In some of the river's north fork areas, visibility in the water is 30 feet or more even after a good rain.

Part of a National Recreation Area, the river is designated one of the nation's wild and scenic flows, and is undammed and relatively pristine. It meets the ocean north of Crescent City, a few miles from the Oregon border. Its headwaters are up deep gorges in Northern California and Southern Oregon.

The watershed has been logged, but some areas have suffered less erosion because of hard soils. The U.S. Forest Service has about 2,600 miles of old logging roads to "decommission" in the area, according to a local forest service supervisor. At a rate of 20 miles/year, it's going to be a long process.

Like all North Coast rivers, the Smith was hit hard by the 1955 and 1964 floods. Responsible for much of the soil movement and massive damage to area rivers, the floods blew out logging roads and sent tons of sediment from logged sites into tributaries and main rivers. The Smith is home to the infamous Rattlesnake Slide, a massive "landscape hemorrhage" about two-thirds of the way up the South Fork.

Because much of the watershed is owned by the public, the Smith has been studied and worked on for decades. It was the first area where Forest Service officials began an anti-logging policy in steep inner gorge areas. Prior to this policy switch, steep slope logging destroyed fish habitat and river flows in many North Coast water systems.

"The Smith is in the late stages of recovery," Higgins said. "Now that the habitat is back, we're seeing a resurgence in fish populations."

Unlike most rivers, more king salmon are moving up the Smith in the spring than were several years ago. Yet the kings along with summer steelhead (a favorite for fishing enthusiasts) are still in very low numbers.

The Smith has a biological "hot spot" for coho salmon, the fish about to become an official endangered species. By hot spot, biologists mean "cold spot" where cool pools and shade trees create perfect salmon space.

Historically the Smith was a major king salmon river. It holds the record for producing the biggest king, a 74-pounder. In the 1920s, the mouth of the Smith had several fish canneries. Even before landslide problems, overfishing decimated the river's salmon.

The Klamath River's Length: 210 miles

Dams: Iron Gate Dam in Southern Oregon

Watershed size: 12,100 square miles

Landholdings: 50% private/50% public

Primarily on Yurok Indian land, the Klamath suffers from low water flows in the summer because of farming and residential uses upstream. There have been years, such as the one two years ago, where biologists figure no salmon were able to make it upstream to reproduce because of low, warm water. When temperatures get in the high 70s and low 80s, fish die.

While the Klamath is bordered by an Indian reservation, most of the property is owned by private timber companies. Higgins called three tributaries to the Klamath - Terwer Creek, Hunter Creek and Wilson Creek - the "three ugly sisters" because of the extent of logging and road-building damage. The soil is now in the river and has actually driven one creek underground for about three miles. (Fish can't live underground).

Meeting the ocean at the town of Klamath, 30 miles south of Crescent City, the long, wide river begins in Southern Oregon. A huge dam has been built at the headwaters, where potato farmers and small towns depend on its water.

The river's largest tributary is the Trinity, which joins the Klamath near Weitchpec, north of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.

Yearly battles over water flow and fishing seasons center on the Klamath because it was once the largest producer of Pacific king salmon in Northern California. Efforts to rebuild the fish populations have stalled commercial fishermen, who are forbidden from fishing for salmon in the ocean anywhere near the Klamath River mouth.

Canneries once flourished on the lower river, but fish populations couldn't keep up with the demand and all the canneries closed decades ago.

The Trinity River's Length: 170 miles

Dams: Lewiston Lake

Watershed size: 2,860 square miles

Landholdings: 30% private/70% public

The Trinity River, along with the Klamath, has been the recipient of most of the federal restoration money allotted California rivers. Over $3 million has been spent putting structures in the Trinity River alone, but with continued logging, road-building and water diversion, many now wonder if the money has been wasted.

The structures include fish screens near dams to keep young fish from going through the turbines, fish diversion paths to allow fish to move upstream despite dams, and large logs and other debris placed in the river to provide young salmon areas to hide from predators.

With Hayfork Creek the largest tributary leading into the Trinity's south fork, the river's watershed includes a Coordinated Resource Management Planning group. Many agencies and individuals are counting on these CRMPs (which include local residents, government agency officials and all area landholders) to work together on restoration and prevention programs.

The Trinity is also an Indian river, traditionally the homeland of Hupa Indians. The river begins in the highlands of the Trinity Alps and descends to the Lewiston Dam and Trinity River Recreation Area. From there, 80 percent to 90 percent of the river's water is shipped south, with the remainder released to flow down the river.

Eventually the river runs through the 12-mile square Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, where restoration projects have begun. The tribe has been successful in getting federal agencies to earmark more water for the river during times of the year most critical for fish.

On the down side, the tribe gets much of its revenue from timber. In recent years the increasing price of wood has spurred valley leaders to increase the timber cut on tribal lands, adding to the erosion problems in the valley.

The South Fork of the Trinity is a Wild and Scenic river with no dams, yet the salmon populations still decline. The '64 flood and timber harvesting and road building in this drainage have contributed to similar sedimentation problems.

"After the '64 flood, the South Fork went from 50 feet wide in places to 1,800 feet wide," Higgins said.

Along the river's north fork gold mining has severely affected the river's tributaries. Using pipes to take water from the river and blast away at mountainsides, early miners used to have to clean the pipes several times a day when large king salmon would become stuck inside. Now there are few fish and fewer miners left on the north fork.

The Mad River's Length: 80 miles.

Dams: Ruth Lake

Watershed size: 495 square miles

Landholdings: 60% private/40% public

Most of us who drink water in northern Humboldt County do so thanks to the Mad. Guided by water released from the Ruth Lake reservoir, pumping stations near Arcata remove water and send it to communities all around Humboldt Bay.

The mouth of the river is a story in itself. No one is more frustrated with this fickle river than the California Department of Transportation, which has had to build reinforcements to keep the wily Mad from encroaching on Highway 101. The mouth moves hundreds of feet each year, depending on sediment load and rainfall.

The Mad comes out of wild country near the Ruth Lake reservoir and dam. Extensive timber harvesting and road building in the river's drainage has led to a situation where, instead of giant landslides like those on the Eel, the area around the Mad "is always bleeding," Higgins said.

"The Mad is an anomaly now," he said. "In 1966 we removed the Sweazey Dam, massive sediment behind the dam moved into the river and caused the Mad to completely spread out.

"Now we've over-extracted gravel downstream and the river is undercutting radically," Higgins said. Caltrans has another problem with the Mad: It is undercutting the foundation of a Highway 299 bridge east of Arcata.

In the same downstream area as the gravel miners, the river has so much fine sediment, mixed with gravel, that it no longer has one deep main channel. Today the river bed is so wide and shallow it may fork into a dozen tiny channels. Moving around like an agitated snake, the constantly changing situation makes it impossible for fish to lay their eggs. Or if they do, the eggs will likely be washed away at the river's next whim.

Yet there is still good fish spawning habitat in upriver tributaries, some of which are being studied and protected from further erosion. A fish hatchery on the lower river has produced tens of thousands of salmon and steelhead, but many worry the hatchery fish are out-competing the wild ones, making it even more difficult to rebuild declining populations.


The Van Duzen River's Length: 73 miles

Dams: none

Watershed size: 429 square miles

Landholdings: 58% private/25% private timber/17% public.

The Van Duzen is like a little Eel, with the same heavy soil loss around the hillsides and heavy soil mounds within the stream bed.

Ferry boats also operated on the this river in the past, but wouldn't consider that today. Lots of timber has been harvested from the slopes around the Van Duzen and its major tributaries. Fish also face a temperature problem.

"The lower Van Duzen gets up to 75 degrees in the summer," Higgins said. Yaeger Creek, which dumps into the Van Duzen, is one of the last areas in this river system where king salmon lay eggs. It's getting more difficult for the fish to make it through the warm water, squaw fish are intruding (see the Eel) and timber harvesting in the Yaeger Creek area is continuing.

One of the largest tributaries to the Eel River, the Van Duzen meanders along Highway 36 through pasture lands and pockets of old-growth forest. It joins the Eel just a few miles upstream of the bigger river's mouth near Ferndale.

One of the hopes for the Van Duzen and the Eel is the recent expansion of the local Resource Conservation District, dedicated to preserving soil for agriculture and timber use and avoiding erosion.

The Eel River's Length: 200 miles

Dams: Cape Horn Dam/Van Arsdale Reservoir and Scott Dam/Lake Pillsbury.

Watershed size: 3,600 square miles

Landholdings: 80% private/20% public

The Eel has the distinction of being dirtier than any other water in the country. In a sediment per yield equation, the Eel carries a huge amount of fine dirt particles because the land surrounding the river is the most erodible soil type around. Add extensive logging, some ranching and heavy floods, and the Eel is now considered by most to be "an endangered ecosystem."

Ferries used to cross the Eel River. Now anything deeper than a bathtub toy would hit bottom. The river was once a series of deep pools, and home to loads of Pacific salmon (which include steelhead, silver and king salmon). There was maybe one riffle, or shallow section, between the Van Duzen convergence and the Eel's mouth.

"An example of my black humor is that there's still only one riffle," Higgins said. "The whole river's a riffle."

The Eel is considered wild and scenic in sections, but boasts two dams. The river runs northwest from Lake and Mendocino counties and enters the ocean at Ferndale. A power house on the Van Arsdale dam, near the river's southern headwaters, produces power and shunts more than 90 percent of the Eel's traditional water flow south to the Russian River.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co., after balking at building a $16 million fish screen to save the dwindling salmon in the river, has proposed selling the power plant and dam to Sonoma County and other water users in the area. While the federal government determines how much water is taken from the Eel, some fear a new consortium of water users will attempt to increase the flow. Ukiah, Santa Rosa and other cities south of Humboldt County are completely reliant on water diverted from the Eel.

If erosion and water loss weren't enough, the Eel now has a new enemy - the squaw fish.

"Squaw fish were illegally introduced to Lake Pillsbury (on the Eel) by somebody who's not yet stepped forward," said Scott Downie, a fish restoration specialist in Southern Humboldt.

"The squaw fish's preferred diet is small fish (salmon and steelhead babies)," Downie said. "We can ill afford any further negative pressure (on salmon) from any source."

Fishing derbies, informational drives and other projects aimed at reducing the squaw fish problem are in the works. There were even proposals to poison the river, but that plan hasn't moved forward. Until they noticed the squaw fish invasion, officials were getting excited because watershed restoration projects were showing cooler river temperatures and more salmon were returning to upper reaches. The numbers dropped again drastically once the predator fish showed up several years ago.


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