Can lessons from the Mattole help solve water issues in Redwood Creek?

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

What can rural homesteaders do to reduce their impact on their watershed - and even to heal past damage? Can the techniques that are improving stream flows in the Mattole River watershed be transferred to Redwood Creek in the South Fork Eel River watershed?

The Salmonid Restoration Foundation (SRF), a non-profit based in Garberville that educates individuals, organizations, and agencies about innovative techniques for salmonid restoration, sponsored a workshop to address those questions at the Beginnings Octagon on Saturday, Feb. 2.

Over 50 people attended the workshop and interested persons from other watersheds attended as well as a majority from Redwood Creek. Following a morning of informal presentations about the causes of declining water levels, conservation, water storage, and groundwater recharging, attendees toured some of Sanctuary Forest's successful projects in the Mattole watershed.

Redwood Creek, which flows into the South Fork Eel near the Briceland Road bridge in Redway, has seen a decline in water levels in recent years. The 26-mile watershed has historically supported all three local salmonid species - chinook, coho, and steelhead - as well as being one of the earliest watersheds settled during the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

With the help of Humboldt State University sociologist Sara Schremmer, SRF has been conducting a voluntary anonymous water use survey in the Redwood Creek watershed, and holding "house meetings" to talk with residents about their concerns and ideas.

Tasha McKee kicked off the Feb. 2 workshop with a brief history of Sanctuary Forest's program, which began when Mattole River residents noticed unusually low flows in 2002.

As Sanctuary Forest reviewed circumstances since more normal flows in the 1990s, it became apparent that rainfall patterns were greatly altered. McKee recalled that the rainy season always began before her birthday in September when she was growing up.

In recent years September has become a dry month, and significant rainfall does not arrive until November, causing the groundwater to dry up months earlier than it historically did.

Humans can respond to impacts of overall climate change slowly, McKee said, but at a local level there's an immediate need to improve stream flow for humans and for fish.

"The community longing for a healthy watershed" made Sanctuary Forest's programs possible, McKee said. When enough residents changed their water use patterns, the Mattole River maintained enough flow to keep fish alive.

McKee introduced Schremmer, a graduate student in sociology at HSU. Schremmer was encouraged to work on SRF's project by her thesis adviser, Betsy Watson, who also serves on the board of Sanctuary Forest. Schremmer is conducting the water use survey and feasibility study to determine if Sanctuary Forest's water storage and forbearance project can be productively copied in the Redwood Creek watershed.

The purpose of the survey is to determine if the "technology transfer," as this effort is called, is both appropriate and socially acceptable. The two house meetings that have already been held indicate that "people are excited but they have concerns," Schremmer reported.

One meeting, in Miller Creek, a major fish-bearing tributary of Redwood Creek, drew 40 people, a good mix of ages and genders, according to Schremmer. Another meeting drew 17 people. She expects to hold several more house meetings, as they are yielding "useful talk with solutions and ideas."

At the same time, Schremmer sent out surveys to 400 households in the area and has received 60 responses.

This information-gathering process is still in its early stages. "We're not sure how it's going to manifest yet," she said, but she urged the community to "keep the conversation going."

Hezekiah Allen, a lifelong SoHum resident and executive director of the Mattole Restoration Council (see related story in our Jan. 22 issue), spoke about causes of water level declines, including a historic perspective and references to recent scientific studies.

Allen's family was the first to homestead on former Eel River Sawmill property in an area that now has 24 families, he said. "To me that's not a bad thing," he said of human residence on former resource lands, but he added that homesteaders need to work together to live better in their watershed, with regard for both human and ecological interests.

Among the factors that have limited stream flows, recent studies indicate that the re-growth of young forests on previously logged timberlands causes greater sequestration of water than old-growth forests because young trees that are growing fast regulate their water use less effectively than older trees, and there are more of them per acre.

In the past 50 years 150,000 of 170,000 acres of forest in the Mattole have been logged, and there are two to three times as many young growing trees as there were old-growth trees in the area.

While forest thinning and selective logging may help, Allen feels strongly that rather than suppressing every fire, humans should use fire as a management tool to keep grasslands open as the Native Americans did.

"Fire-assisted" native grasslands were dominated by bunchgrass, a perennial that can live as long as 300 years, Allen continued. During that long lifetime, bunchgrass develops a root system that goes 20 to 30 feet deep, creating an "awesome underground sponge" to hold groundwater, he said.

In 1940 the Mattole watershed had 60,000 acres of native grassland, and this was reduced to 25,000 acres by 1988. What's more, the bunchgrass has been largely replaced with annual single-blade grasses that have shallow roots and die back each year, causing loss of the grassland "sponge."

Sungnome Madrone, a watershed management consultant, who was born in the Petrolia area and now lives in Trinidad, joined McKee for a discussion of water conservation.

Madrone talked about using and developing water sources away from streams, particularly how to select, develop, and maintain a spring, which has less impact on the watershed than drawing directly from a stream.

If possible springs should be dug out by hand rather than using heavy machinery that can dig too deeply, damaging the underlying clay layer that holds the water. "Use the shovel and eyeball method," he said. Often an excavation only two by three feet and no more than two feet deep is adequate.

Pumping more slowly during the dry season can provide adequate water for a household while leaving enough water in the stream to keep it flowing, Madrone advised.

"The best storage tank is the earth," he concluded, urging measures to increase infiltration "in the right places," erosion reduction, and sound forest practices.

When Sanctuary Forest began looking at how much storage it would take to avoid pumping from streams in the extended dry season, they estimated average homestead use at 1,000 gallons per day during the dry season, McKee told the participants.

This figure includes domestic water use for three persons, a 3,000 square foot vegetable and ornamental garden, and 200 gallons per day lost to overflows and leaks.

Of these uses, indoor use for drinking, sanitation, and laundry are the least important, McKee said. "If you have a septic tank, when you flush the toilet you're actually recharging the groundwater," she pointed out.

The first step is to employ low-flow devices indoors, and outdoors to take advantage of the many gardening techniques and tools that reduce water use. Tank overflow can be stopped by simply installing a shutoff valve. Pipelines should be examined and repaired frequently.

By these conservation measures alone, many households can reduce their water use by half, McKee said.

The next step, when all conservation measures are in place, is water storage to get through the dry season. A quick show of hands indicated that nearly a third of the audience had more than 30,000 gallons of storage on their property, and a few had 50,000 gallons.

Sanctuary Forest calculated that a household using 450 gallons per day needs 50,000 gallons of storage to get through the dry season without pumping surface water.

Homeowners who sign on to the storage and forbearance program agree not to pump water during the dry months. In exchange Sanctuary Forest provides them with up to 50,000 gallons of storage, most frequently in 5,000-gallon food-grade tanks.

Building permits are required on tanks over 5,000 gallons because of their weight, McKee explained, but an array of tanks, as long as each holds no more than 5,000 gallons, is all right without a permit.

Sanctuary Forest, a non-profit corporation that is not required to pay property tax, retains ownership of the tanks for the 15 years of the agreement, after which the tank's tax value is fully depreciated. The homeowner thereby avoids paying additional tax for the tanks.

Members of the audience discussed how to cope with complex state water rights regulations, as well as permitting issues. Property owners whose land adjoins a stream can apply for appropriative water rights, which allow storage for beneficial use, to "stack" on their riparian rights, which do not allow water storage.

(For a brief outline of water rights, see the article about the Eel River Task Force meeting in our Jan. 29 issue.)

McKee also discussed groundwater recharging as a way to actually bring more water into a stream, particularly by building small ponds that mimic beaver ponds to slow down the flow of water without creating barriers to fish migration.

Sanctuary Forest has successfully completed a project in Baker Creek in the Mattole watershed that has kept the stream flowing and improved groundwater infiltration, as well as increasing habitat for insects and the fish that feed on them.

As an indication of their success, two coho carcasses were found in Baker Creek this year, the first coho McKee had ever seen in that part of the watershed.

Allen commented that recent reports from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), as well as other agencies, on the impacts of large illegal and quasi-legal marijuana grows on water quantity and quality has made all efforts more urgent.

Some participants expressed indignation over a recent CDFW report that showed an aerial map of the Redwood Creek watershed with both indoor and outdoor marijuana grows identified and sized. "They've slandered our watershed!" said one person during the first part of the workshop.

But during the later discussion, another participant noted that the workshop included no consideration of the impacts of illegal commercial grows. New people are coming into the watershed simply to make money and they don't care about the environmental impacts, she said.

McKee admitted that she, too, gets upset about the influx of commercial growers but added that Sanctuary Forest had adopted the principles of the Redwoods Monastery, a community of Roman Catholic nuns established near Whitethorn in the early 1960s. Nuns from the monastery have been enthusiastic supporters of restoration efforts since the early days of Sanctuary Forest.

These principles have led her to believe there are no "bad guys" - not the agencies, not the growers, not anyone, McKee said. "Everybody is invited to the table."

Dana Stolzman, the executive director of SRF, suggested that everyone who participated in the workshop should commit himself or herself to talking to one large-scale grower "neighbor to neighbor," to share information and "open the conversation."

"Culture is contagious," Allen added. There are those who love the land and those who want to exploit it. Put the love in the forefront, he suggested. Brag about how much water storage you have to the growers. "Bigger is better in their culture," he observed, getting some chuckles.

For more information about SRF's Redwood Creek project, go their website at, and click on the "SRF trainings" tab. Then click on "Redwood Creek Water Conservation Project" on the drop-down menu. You can also contact SRF at 923-7501.

For more information about Sanctuary Forest's projects in the Mattole watershed, see their website,, or call them at 986-1087.


1. Concerned residents of the Redwood Creek watershed and others join a lively discussion of water conservation and stream restoration. More than 50 people attended the Salmonid Restoration Foundation's workshop in the Beginnings Octagon on Saturday, Feb. 2.

2. Sanctuary Forest displayed pictures of their Baker Creek pilot project in the Mattole River watershed to show residents of Redwood Creek what can be done to restore stream flows and improve salmon habitat in a challenged watershed.