Dozens of volunteers for the Eel River Recovery Project (ERRP) monitored water temperature, flow and algae blooms in 2012 to provide information about the ecological conditions of the Eel River and to answer questions posed by the community.
The ERRP was organized in 2011 in response to concern about reduced Eel River flows and emerging water quality problems that include toxic algae. The 2012 citizen-monitoring project was aimed at collecting data to test community questions or hypotheses and was able to confirm that flows have diminished since 1996 when medical marijuana in California was legalized. Data also show major recovery in some parts of the watershed and provided the answer to questions posed by local volunteers.
The 2012 ERRP monitoring project was able to establish that three major tributaries of the Eel River, Outlet Creek, Tomki Creek, and Ten Mile Creek, were dry in late summer and fall 2012 when that was not their historic condition prior to 1996. All three creeks were formerly major producers of salmon and steelhead, including now endangered coho salmon, and also supplied large amounts of clean water that helped the main stem Eel River maintains its ecological balance.
The 2012 ERRP report recommends that Ten Mile Creek be targeted as a top priority for water conservation because of its historic productivity and because it is near the upper South Fork Eel River coho population that is one of the last functional population centers in northern California.
A positive surprise was a drop in tributary water temperature on Humboldt Redwood Company lands in the lower Eel River and Van Duzen River watersheds. Large landslides in both sub-basins occurred in 1997, and streams became wide, shallow and subject to warming. More restrained timber harvest since that time has allowed recovery of tributaries Bear, Howe, Price and Cummings creeks. ERRP 2012 data show a drop in maximum daily water temperature of as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures were formerly in the stressful range for salmon and steelhead and now they are optimal.
A shift in aquatic life was evident in Ten Mile Creek, a large South Fork Eel River tributary near Laytonville in Mendocino County. Warm water fish and bullfrogs dominated isolated pools that formed as the stream dried up in late August 2012. Non-native green-eared sunfish and black catfish escape from farm ponds annually but do not survive high flows of winter. Bullfrogs, however, do survive and decimate all native amphibians as they spread upstream and downstream of ponds.
A hardy steelhead trout was noted living in the Ten Mile Creek pool in mid-August, along with its warm water competitors. A temperature probe placed at the bottom of the pool showed conditions suitable for juvenile steelhead rearing until late September. The pool maintained cool water temperatures at depth because of groundwater influence that comes from underneath the streambed. The late-season rise in the temperature of the pool to over lethal for the trout was likely caused by groundwater depletion.
The Wiyot Tribe co-sponsored the 2012 ERRP fall Chinook salmon surveys and also helped collect lower Eel River water temperature data. Fall Chinook salmon are important to the tribe and they wanted to insure that conditions were suitable for holding adults. The early migration above Fernbridge began in mid-August, when water temperatures were above stressful, but the bulk of salmon run arrived after water temperatures dropped to optimal levels in early October.
Toxic blue-green algae or Cyanobacteria have been present in the Eel River for a little over a decade and the Humboldt County Department of Public Health has documented dog deaths related to neurotoxins produced by blooms. ERRP volunteers who surveyed potential toxic algae sites never saw any signs of threatening conditions, largely owing to late spring rains and cool summer air temperatures in 2012.
The 2013 ERRP citizen-assisted monitoring program plans to double the number of temperature monitoring locations this year and to add as many favorite public river beaches to its system of surveillance as possible. The intent of the latter project is to minimize risk to public health and pets and to let people know when it is safe to recreate.
ERRP will post photos to its website so people can check conditions before choosing where to take their family and pets. University of California doctoral student Keith Bouma-Gregson of the Mary Power Laboratory will be designing ERRP 2013 algae sampling methods for key locations. He is helping the group explore what made the Eel River pass its tipping point and become susceptible to toxic algae.
Continuing water quality and algae monitoring, along with photopoints, will allow communities of the Eel River to understand trends in conditions, including response to restoration actions.
ERRP operates under the fiscal umbrella of the Trees Foundation and funding for this study came from the Rose Foundation and Patagonia Grassroots Fund, as well as private firms Pacific Watershed Associates and Kier Associates.
Study results will be presented at Water Day III, which is the ERRP major annual public outreach event at the Mateel Community Center in Redway on March 30.
Ways that the community can improve Eel River ecological conditions will also be discussed, such as water conservation, pollution prevention, organic agriculture and permaculture, and how improved forest health can increase water supply.
To see a copy of the complete report or for more information, see the ERRP website (www.eelriverrecovery.org). To request monitoring assistance or participate in 2013 activities, please call ERRP volunteer coordinator Pat Higgins at 707-223-7200.
Patrick Higgins is the volunteer coordinator for the Eel River Recovery Project, 791 Eighth Street, Suite A, Arcata, CA 95521.
1. The South Fork Eel River at Phillipsville developed toxic blue-green algae in September 2009. Photo courtesy of Harriet Hill of Humboldt County Public Health who is in the picture.
2. In September 2012 there was no problem at the same location.