The Eel River Task Force, a recently-formed coalition of stakeholders including public agencies, tribes, conservation groups, and others, met at Benbow last Wednesday, Jan. 23 to finalize its charter, discuss the role of public participation, and hear presentations on water quality issues in the Eel River watershed.
ERTF has been criticized by some observers and by at least one of its members, the Eel River Recovery Project, for holding closed meetings at which the public and media were not welcome. (See related story about ERRP in this issue.)
But last Wednesday, reporters for KMUD Radio and local newspapers were admitted to the meeting at the Benbow RV Resort Village Hall without incident, as were approximately three dozen members of the public.
ERTF was first convened by Darren Mierau, the manager of California Trout's North Coast region in July, 2012. "The Eel River has suffered from a lack of cohesive attention," Mierau explained to the public. "I saw the need to bring stakeholders together" to work collaboratively on salmonid restoration.
The 21 charter members of the task force include four federal agencies, four California state agencies, three county agencies, two tribes, and six non-governmental organizations involved in salmonid restoration, as well as the Potter Valley Irrigation District and Pacific Gas and Electric.
The ERTF has been meeting monthly since last July, rotating the meetings among Fortuna, Garberville, and Willits.
At the first meetings, ERTF members discussed a charter drafted by Mierau and determined that the task force should begin by focusing on monitoring with a "broad ecosystem approach."
Various facets of monitoring were the subjects of the November and December meetings. Mierau said he hoped there would be more time for discussion and brainstorming among the members.
"There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work," he said, adding that he hoped the group "can stay focused on dominant issues that can be worked on in collaboration."
Mierau listed ERTF's accomplishments so far as a nearly completed charter, a nearly completed listserve and website, an "excellent" information exchange among members, and a monitoring goals subcommittee made up of representatives from National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW, formerly the Department of Fish and Game), and himself representing CalTrout.
David Fuller, a trained facilitator with the Bureau of Land Management, has agreed to facilitate future meetings, which was one of the members' requests, but was unable to attend Wednesday's meeting.
During the past month members responded to a written survey about public participation. Ten members said any interested party should be able to attend meetings, eight members felt the meetings should be open to charter members only, and the remaining three selected "other" or no opinion.
Written comments emphasized the collaborative nature of the task force and pointed out that participants had all volunteered to take part.
One suggestion was to allow a "limited open forum time" at the beginning of the meeting during which the public could address the task force.
A written comment asked why ERRP was not allowed to present the results of its monitoring project at the December meeting. Mierau said that was his decision and that results of monitoring were not the agendized topic.
Some members of the group pointed out that the ERTF has no mandate and cannot make decisions, but rather is intended to share information. A representative of ERRP argued that the draft charter states that the group will make recommendations. "This group by its make-up has weight," he said, even though it may have no legal standing.
A representative from the Wiyot tribe countered that he had no authority to accept recommendations for his tribe, and added that recommendations won't be made without consensus, and that the exchange of information alone is valuable.
Informally the group agreed that each of the charter member organizations would have one vote no matter how many representatives come to meetings for discussion.
They also agreed that while consensus is the goal, if consensus can't be reached, a simple majority could be used to make a decision. While one speaker objected that a simple majority would be "divisive," another person said, "If we're that close to 50-50, it's a flag that we need to do more work."
On the subject of public participation, the group generally and informally agreed to make all meetings open to the public, to include a time for public comment on the agenda but to reserve most of the meeting time for presentations and discussion among charter members. Closed sessions could be called as necessary, and no one would be allowed to record or video the proceedings, although detailed meeting notes would be provided to the public.
The latter two points caused some comment from members of the public who wanted to be able to record the meetings for the benefit of people unable to attend and to create an unassailably accurate record of the proceedings.
Representatives of public agencies balked at this. Several said they would not be comfortable participating if they knew every word they spoke would be available to the public. One agency person said, "I'm an engineer, not a manager," and several people agreed that they could not make decisions on behalf of their organizations so it was unreasonable to record their statements.
"The alternative is that any one of us could invite everyone else to their office and have a private conversation, with no public information at all," one member said. This appeared to settle the question among the task force membership.
While no formal decision was made, Mierau agreed to make some revisions to the draft charter and send it around to the membership again before the next meeting. He also said detailed meeting notes would be available by that time.
With the process issues completed for the day, the meeting moved on to presentations.
Brad Job of the Bureau of Land Management spoke about changing water balances and water quality implications in Northwest California. Because of a variety of human impacts in the last 150 years, the hydrologic balance has changed dramatically, with more water being lost from the region than comes in.
While only precipitation - on the North Coast this means rain and fog - brings water into an ecosystem, it can be lost in various ways, such as flowing out to sea, evaporating from surface water, being transpired into the atmosphere from trees, and being caught by vegetation.
Job gave many examples of how human impacts have increased the outflow of water, including logging, clearing land, diverting streamflows to ponds, adding pollutants of many kinds, and climate change generally.
In the last part of his presentation, Job discussed the role of marijuana cultivation on public lands and displayed some ugly pictures of cartel grows that are releasing large amounts of different types of pollutants into streams and groundwater.
But he noted that "Operation Greensweep" techniques are ineffective. Job sees legalization as the key to reducing the impact of cannabis cultivation. "If marijuana was legal, the NRCS (National Resources Conservations District) would come in to tell you to the teaspoon how much fertilizer you need to maximize your crop and minimize pollution," he said.
Segueing from Job's talk, Scott Bauer, staff environmental scientist for CDFW, gave a presentation on studies his agency is conducting on the impact of quasi-legal large scale medical marijuana grows on private lands.
CDFW has documented a wide spectrum of impacts, including erosion and sedimentation of streams, pollution, water diversion, improper construction of ponds and roads leading to failure, illegal logging, clearing of native vegetation, and contaminated soil dumped in streams.
As the price of pot drops, growers plant more to maintain their income, so grow scenes are increasing in size and number.
Currently CDFW has embarked upon new case studies in Salmon Creek and Redwood Creek, tributaries of the South Fork Eel River in Southern Humboldt.
Bauer showed aerial photos with green dots representing greenhouses and red dots for outdoor grows that indicate an increase in both number and size of large outdoor grows in both watersheds.
The only parts of these watersheds that don't have high numbers of grows are the remaining intact ranches, Bauer said.
CDFW's statistical models show that all these operations combined will use 20 to 30 percent of the summer stream flows in the watershed.
Like Job, who pointed out that any type of agriculture is illegal on public land, Bauer emphasized that CDFW is not interested in the type of agriculture but the impacts that are causing harm to wildlife and habitat.
The final presentation was an overview of California water rights law by Matthew McCarthy of the State Water Resources Board. McCarthy was in Sacramento and made his presentation remotely through a live conference call and Power Point.
He described the difference between riparian rights, which are granted to owners of properties on the boundaries of streams, a range of appropriative rights that allow landowners to divert water from a source to non-riparian parcels, and rights granted through permits and licenses for projects that create "beneficial use."
California water rights law is extremely complex, which was illustrated by the discussion about seasonal water storage that followed the presentation.
While riparian rights are granted automatically to anyone whose land borders a stream, the water cannot be "stored in time of plenty for use in time of need," according to the law.
A landowner in this situation who wants to store water in the winter to benefit the fish during the dry season would have to apply for "registration," a special consideration given to landowners who want to use some of their water for wildlife habitat restoration.
But if the watershed is considered "fully appropriated," that is, the State Water Resources Board has determined that no more water can be taken for human use, then the registration will not be approved.
On the positive side - and to the surprise of many in the room, including some CDFW personnel - McCarthy said that no rivers or streams in Humboldt County and only one creek in Mendocino County have been deemed "fully appropriated" by the Water Resources Board.
On the negative side, the fact that a river or stream has not been designated "fully appropriated" does not mean there is actual water available for use.
As the meeting was scheduled to end at 2 p.m. and some of the task force members had long distances to drive, the meeting was adjourned at the end of this discussion.
The ERTF will meet in Willits in February at a time and place to be announced. Mierau has tentatively scheduled topics for the next four meetings, with the February meeting to focus on Total Minimum Daily Loads (TMDLs), the March meeting in Fortuna will look at deltas and estuaries, the meeting in Garberville in April will center on monitoring, and the May meeting in Willits will tackle the Potter Valley Project controversy.
For more information about Brad Job's presentation, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 825-2355.
Scott Bauer can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 441-2011.