After an unusually dry spring, the Eel River is dropping rapidly and water temperatures are rising, which means “algae season” is starting early this year, according to Pat Higgins, fisheries biologist and volunteer coordinator for the Eel River Recovery Project (ERRP).
Last Tuesday, July 7, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a letter urging the California State Water Resources Control Board to “expedite emergency funding from the North Coast Water Quality Control Board (NCWQCB) to support community action in a time of need.”
ERRP has already applied for funds to continue and expand its efforts to monitor water temperatures and salmonid migration in the Eel River watershed, which began in 2012.
NCRWQCB staff has indicated support for ERRP’s but the approval process is often painfully slow, Higgins explained, and funding is needed sooner than expected to keep the project going through the season. The supervisors’ letter underlines the urgency of the matter and may spur some of the extra attention needed to move the application forward.
The Wiyot Tribe also wrote a letter asking the Water Resources Control Board for expedited funding, as did Mary E. Power of the University of California-Berkeley’s Integrative Biology Department, which manages the Angelo Preserve in the upper South Fork Eel River.
In 2012 ERRP trained volunteer monitors and placed 53 automated water temperature gauges at different places in the Eel River watershed, particularly on the Van Duzen River, the South Fork Eel River, and the lower main stem Eel River.
Volunteer divers also made underwater counts of migrating Chinook salmon in the main stem Eel as the fish began moving upstream last October and November. The divers counted such large numbers of fish each dive day that Higgins estimated the total number of Chinook for the fall run could have been as high as 50,000.
Many factors interrelate in complex ways to contribute to the fluctuations in salmonid populations, including cyclical changes in ocean current patterns. Historically ocean currents on the Pacific coast of North America shift approximately every 25 years, Higgins said.
During one part of the cycle, the currents create rainy conditions that favor the sockeye salmon in Alaska while Northern California species like coho decline in low-rainfall years - and then the cycle reverses, the North Coast gets many wet winters, and the salmon return to local watersheds in peak numbers.
The severe drought on the West Coast in 1977 and 1978, also bad years for local fisheries, came just after the bottom of the cycle in Northern California in 1975. The next peak occurred earlier than usual, in 2000, and even included a couple of years, 2005 and 2006, when there was too much rain for ideal conditions, according to Higgins.
For now it’s impossible to know whether the unusually dry winters of 2012 and 2013 are isolated abnormalities, an indication of an early bottoming out of the current cycle, or a manifestation of greater climate change, said Higgins.
In any case, current conditions that combine low water levels with hot, dry weather make it all the more urgent to get as many volunteers on the job and as many temperature gauges in the river as soon as possible so accurate data can be gathered to help determine the best way to protect fisheries in stressful times.
ERRP’s proposal includes public meetings, such as the annual Water Day at the Mateel, volunteer training, technical assistance to tribes, small water districts, and concerned citizen groups, as well as a full citizen monitoring program from volunteer training through a final report that will be posted online.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF EEL RIVER RECOVERY PROJECT
1. During late summer and fall, loose hanks of algae like this one are often seen floating in the Eel River. The light-colored fluff is Clodophora and the darker blobs are Nostoc. These species are not toxic, although warm still water also provides ideal conditions for potentially toxic cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae. The small fish in the background is a Sacramento pikeminnow, an introduced species that thrives in warm water and predates on young salmon and steelhead.
2. Bruce Hillbach-Barger is placing a probe in the lower Black Butte River, which is tributary to the Middle Fork and Dane Downing is reading a tape measure to a landmark so the probe can be relocated, checked and removed before storms. This is the second year that Bruce and Dane are participating and they are also placing probes in Williams Creek and the Middle Fork Eel.
3. ERRP volunteer Sunshine Johnson prepares to dive beneath the main stem Eel River at Holmes Flat to “take a look at the secret lives of pikeminnow,” as Higgins put it. A volunteer dive team from Humboldt Redwoods Company counted over 3000 Chinook salmon at the “Holmes hole” in October 2012.