Over 40 supporters of healthy rivers and restored fish populations met at the Krishnalaya Retreat Center on Sunday, Jan. 20, for the Eel River Recovery Project’s 2013 Vision and Action Meeting.
Following a long, thorough discussion of pros and cons, the group decided to continue to participate in the Eel River Task Force (ERTF), a coalition of representatives of state and federal agencies, restoration groups, local tribes, and others, which met last Wednesday, Jan. 23, in Benbow. (See related story in this issue).
ERRP also set a date for the annual Water Day, its main educational event, which it hopes to hold at the Mateel Community Center either April 6 or March 30.
Many of the vision and action meeting attendees have participated in ERRP’s data-gathering programs, placing water temperature monitors at locations along the Eel River and its Humboldt County tributaries, tracking the growth of potentially toxic algae, or taking part in dives to count fish during the fall migration.
Last fall more than 70 volunteer divers took part in ERRP’s fish count, and the results were encouraging. ERRP divers at pools near Ferndale and Fortuna and volunteer teams from Humboldt Redwoods Company diving between Scotia and Dyerville counted a total of over 11,000 adult Chinook salmon and nearly 2,000 jacks (immature Chinook) migrating up river during a half-dozen dive days in September, October, and November.
Additionally, the teams counted a total of 1,900 steelhead, 39 Coho salmon, and one live and one dead Pacific lamprey, the eel-like fish after which the river is named. Steelhead and Coho generally migrate later in the season than Chinook, and lamprey usually come upriver even later, in the winter and spring, according to the report.
ERRP’s final report, published in December 2012 notes: “The dive totals should be considered estimates only with the number of Chinook likely to be in the range of plus or minus 20 percent. Nonetheless, understanding the order of magnitude of the 2012 run is very useful.”
The report points out that since these counts were taken at specific times and places with many variable factors, the counts are only an indication of the total run.
The report also notes that “... Eel River water quality can become very poor as flows drop in late summer,” leading to higher water temperatures and toxic algae development that create conditions harmful to salmonids.
The principal business of the Jan. 20 gathering was to determine if the group wished to stay on as a charter member of the Eel River Task Force, which was organized by the local branch of California Trout, a statewide organization whose mission is “to protect and restore wild trout, steelhead, salmon and their waters throughout California.”
ERRP’s volunteer coordinator Pat Higgins, an independent fisheries biologist, said that when CalTrout originally asked him if ERRP would like to join the task force, he declined. Nevertheless ERRP appears on the list of charter members, along with other Humboldt restoration groups, including Friends of the Eel River, the Eel River Watershed Improvement Group, the Environmental Protection and Information Center, and the Salmonid Restoration Foundation.
Higgins and other ERRP members who attended the Eel River Task Force’s (ERTF) December meeting reported their impressions that the ERTF is a group of “major power brokers” who have so far determined what happens in the Eel River.
Federal and state agency representatives to the ERTF refused to listen to the results of ERRP’s studies on the grounds that the data was not collected according to protocols established by the National Marine Fisheries Service, one of the ERTF members.
Higgins’s impression was that the ERTF’s only interest at the December meeting was in de-listing the Coho from the threatened list under the U.S. Endangered Species Act rather than a comprehensive look at restoring all the species.
Furthermore, ERTF’s charter specifically excludes the public except for one informational meeting annually. At the December meeting, KMUD programmer Kelley Lincoln was initially asked to leave, but then allowed to stay after ERRP members defended her right to be present and to report to the public.
For these reasons Higgins argued that ERRP should withdraw from the task force. “It’s a power trap ... seductive but dangerous,” he said. “If we go into their room we gotta play by their rules.”
Several attendees agreed, pointing out that in joining ERTF they would be “owning” any decision the task force made whether they agreed or not. They also felt they would be constrained from talking about the meetings with those outside the task force.
But others felt that ERRP’s participation at minimum will keep the group informed about task force meetings and that by taking part they may ultimately be able to influence ERTF’s decisions.
The participants discussed the pros and cons for nearly two hours and then took a break. During the break a sign-up sheet for those who could agree to represent ERRP at task force meetings drew only two signatures.
The group reconvened, several more people volunteered to attend ERTF meetings when possible, and finally the question was called for ERRP’s “first ever” vote.
Thirty-two people voted to remain in the ERTF at least provisionally with two opposed and seven abstaining.
Following lunch ERRP unanimously approved a mission statement: “To empower communities to work through collaboration to monitor the ecological condition of the Eel River, to share information about the health of the watershed, and to work together to formulate and implement a restoration strategy.”
Along with the mission statement the participants agreed to the six guiding principles of transparency, collaborativeness, accountability, community involvement, evidence-based science, and good will.
As Higgins often pointed out, the purpose of the ERRP is not to advocate but to “provide a framework” for advocates by providing sound data for groups seeking to do watershed restoration projects. “It’s about science,” he emphasized.
The group then discussed plans for the annual Water Day, which is held in the spring to educate growers of all types of agricultural produce in ways to conserve water and promote healthy crops with minimum impacts to the watershed.
Different locations were considered, particularly to attract new attendees who live beyond Southern Humboldt, but it was eventually agreed that the Mateel Community Center was the best venue because it is the customary gathering place for the event’s target audience.
Following the general meetings, the Water Day committee, water quality/algae committee, and water conservation committees spent the rest of the day discussing their plans for the new year.
For more information on ERRP, see their website, www.eelriverrecoveryproject.org, or call their message phone, (707) 223-7200. A complete copy of the report on the fall Chinook counts is available on the website.
PHOTO COURTESY OF EEL RIVER RECOVERY PROJECT
Participants in the Eel River Recovery Project’s vision and action gathering enjoy a lunch break in the midday sunshine at the Krishnalaya Retreat in Cook’s Valley on Sunday, Jan. 20.