The Eel River Forum, a coalition of stakeholders including public agencies, environmental organizations, tribes, and other groups concerned with the Eel River watershed, met in Benbow last Wednesday, Oct. 23, to discuss a preliminary draft of their action plan and to determine their next steps.
Although this was their first meeting since June, members of the forum have not been idle during the summer months. Subcommittees formed in the spring got together, at least electronically, to work on chapters of the action plan, which the group set as a primary goal last year.
During the past year ERF identified watershed problems that could be addressed with specific projects, divided the issues into chapters, and assigned volunteer subcommittees to draft each chapter.
General categories, each assigned to a separate chapter and subcommittee, include water resources, water quality, sediment impairment and Total Minimum Daily Load (TMDL) implementation, habitat restoration, the Eel River delta and estuary, the Potter Valley Project, and monitoring of fish populations.
The text of the action plan is backed up by data that members share through a Google group, and which will eventually be posted in a document library available to the public on ERF’s website, http://caltrout.org/regions/north-coast-region/eel-river/eel-river-forum/.
Twenty people representing ERF member organizations attended last week’s meeting.
ERF members determined that the plan should be completed by mid-March 2014 so that organizations can use it to apply for funding for projects during the federal and state funding cycles that begin in April.
One important factor that needs to be included in the action plan is community outreach, the participants agreed.
Southern Humboldt activist Richard Gienger, representing the Eel River Recovery Project (ERRP), brought up the topic early in the meeting, stating that the plan should detail ways of incorporating communities into the process and to work on individual projects.
“Different communities have different needs,” Gienger said. “There are many sub-watersheds, different landowners, different situations in different parts of the river.... [communities] need to know what the plan means in reality.”
Other members of the group agreed that without community “buy-in,” action plans won’t work.
”A lot of people don’t know what’s going on except from the media,” Gienger said. “We should reach out to whole communities, not just the same people who are already involved, to get understanding and buy-in.”
Communities need to be encouraged to look at the big picture, added Guinness McFadden, representing the Potter Valley Irrigation District in Mendocino County, which receives water from Pacific Gas and Electric’s diversion of Eel River water into the East Fork of the Russian River downstream from PG&E’s hydroelectric plant.
The Eel River and Russian River communities are “worlds apart, but they’re closely connected,” McFadden said. He suggested that ERF invite conservation groups, public agency representatives, and landowners from both watersheds to a meeting in Willits.
The theme of community outreach came up frequently in discussions of individual chapters as well.
The first chapter, Water Resources, which covers hydrology, summer streamflows, and associated regulations, introduced the topic of winter water storage so that property owners could refrain from drawing water from streams during the dry season.
Sanctuary Forest’s storage and forbearance program, which the Salmonid Restoration Foundation hopes to adapt to the Redwood Creek watershed, was referred to as a model.
Joelle Geppert, an environmental scientist for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, felt that community outreach needs to be addressed specifically in the action items.
Additionally, the plan should include a provision for assisting rural landowners to develop safe drinking water, since stored water may become contaminated and require treatment, which is expensive for individual households.
”We need to assist watershed groups to go to their communities and get people to do things voluntarily instead of by enforcement,” Geppert said.
Tom Grover, a member of ERRP, observed that [the State Water Resources Board] lacks “regional understanding,” citing policies about water storage. “We need better connection between the agency and the people on the ground,” he said.
During discussion of the water quality chapter, a representative of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) pointed out that regional rivers including the Eel have become “unswimmable” in the summer because of algae blooms.
The group agreed that describing the rivers as “unswimmable” for humans is a good way of stating the problem to community members who are not interested in fisheries issues.
Several participants commented on the seemingly increasing role of pesticides, rodenticides, and chemical pollution of streams, presumably by large-scale marijuana cultivation, in deteriorating water quality.
But Gary Graham-Hughes of the Environmental Protection Information Center warned, “We want to be careful how we present this.” Other toxins are present, he said, and there can be many factors causing toxic algae bloom.
During discussion of the chapter on the Potter Valley Project, McFadden said that the Van Arsdale Reservoir, which is the point at which Eel River water is diverted out of the Eel basin, has been both a nursery and a trap for juvenile steelhead and could be useful to biologists studying these fish.
He also stated that if not for the impoundment of water from the upper Eel in Lake Pillsbury, the much larger reservoir from which water is gradually released to flow 12 miles downstream to Van Arsdale, parts of the river would go dry in the summer.
Releases from Lake Pillsbury that are diverted into the Russian River benefit fish in Lake Mendocino, a third reservoir on the Russian River side of the Potter Valley Project.
McFadden invited members of ERF to tour the Potter Valley Project and the entire Eel River watershed on an annual tour sponsored by the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, scheduled for April of 2014.
The tour is open to “one and all,” McFadden said, including any interested member of the public as well as public officials and environmental organizations. For more information or to make a reservation, contact the Mendocino County Farm Bureau at 462-6664.
Several board members requested that projects developed for the action plan be prioritized by chapter. Members discussed various ways of prioritizing projects, including the urgency of the issue, the feasibility of the project, and the overall benefit of the project.
The next two meetings were scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 12 in Willits and Wednesday, February 19, 2014, in Fortuna.
The Dec. 12 meeting will include a presentation of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s recently developed Salmonid Recovery Plan and further suggestions for improvement of the action plan.
At the Feb. 19 meeting the subcommittees will present final drafts of their chapter to the full group for approval and incorporation into the action plan.
For more information about the Eel River Forum, go to http://caltrout.org/regions/north-coast-region/eel-river/eel-river-forum/.