Science and spirit can save rivers and fish, speakers declare at FOER symposium

The sun was shining brightly on the Eel River swollen by recent rains as approximately 50 supporters of Friends of the Eel River gathered at River Lodge in Fortuna for FOER's all-day symposium on "Drought, Resilience, and The North Coast" last Friday, March 7.

"We face a lot of challenges but we have a lot to celebrate," FOER executive director Scott Greacen told the participants in his opening remarks. Everyone present was aware that in spite of the welcome early-spring rains, the North Coast and the entire state are facing extreme water shortages resulting from the worst drought in California's recorded history.

"We can celebrate the incredible resilience of our fish," Greacen continued, citing a dramatic resurgence of salmonid and other fish populations in North Coast rivers in the last few years.

But this resurgence represents only a fraction of their historical numbers, and their habitat is so decimated that "the fish are left with only their own plasticity," to help them survive, Greacen said.

Josh Strange, senior fish biologist for Stillwater Services, gave the first presentation on "Moving Towards Resilience in the Eel River Basin in the Midst of Climate Change."

Resilience is the resistance to disturbance, Strange said. He explained that disturbances vary in time, scale and geographic impacts. Drought is a "human-scale" disturbance because we can experience one or more droughts within our lifetimes.

Humans' strength is that we can adapt more quickly to changing conditions than other species through cultural evolution, Strange said.

He cited the Yurok people of the lower Klamath, to whom fishing was a spiritual practice. Their strong sense of the sacred kept them from using their ability to trap fish with wooden weirs to decimate whole populations of fish.

We now face not only the relatively localized, human-scale crisis of drought but also global climate change, Strange said. The overall warming effects of this change are caused by both natural climate cycles and human activity.

We are already seeing the weather pattern becoming more extreme and erratic, with long dry spells broken by atmospheric rivers that create unusually heavy rainfall, as we are currently experiencing on the North Coast.

To respond to this, North Coast residents should work toward restoring the proper role of wildfire in maintaining ecosystems, restore estuaries and make sure they can form upstream when sea level rises, and make better use of the cold water stored behind dams to recharge the groundwater and provide good fish habitat.

Sustaining our ecosystem is like paddling a canoe, Strange, a former river guide, pointed out. "You have to know what happened upstream and where the rapids are, and you have to paddle together, stay balanced, and respect the river."

Eli Asarian, an aquatic ecologist and owner of Riverbend Sciences, described his study of stream flows in the Eel River watershed, in which he compared precipitation levels with actual stream flow data, and came up with some surprising results.

Although stream flow varies from year to year, overall flow has been declining in the South Fork at 1.2 percent per year from 1953 until 2012. While this is a small yearly decline, the cumulative decline for 60 years is huge.

The comparison of precipitation with flow however, shows that only about one-third of the decline is caused by a decrease in rain or snowfall. The remaining two-thirds must be due to other factors, such as water withdrawal by people, changes in vegetation patterns, and changes in air temperature or wind patterns.

Looking at rate of decline at various U.S. Geologic Survey gauges at various points throughout the Eel River system, Asarian found that flows from Scott and Van Arsdale Dams, part of Pacific Gas and Electric's Potter Valley Project in the upper main stem Eel, have actually increased during the study period.

This is due to the changes in protocols for the release of water required by PG&E's operating license, Asarian noted. PG&E was required to release more water in patterns that mimic natural flow by a series of license amendments in 1990s and early 2000s.

Likewise, gauges downstream from the dams at the Middle Fork near Covelo and Fort Seward in Humboldt also indicate some increase in flows.

But on the South Fork, which is not affected by the Potter Valley Project, gauges at Elder Creek near the headwaters and at Leggett show flows have decreased by one-half to one percent per year during the study period.

Farther downstream at Miranda and Bull Creek north of Weott, flows declined more than one percent per year, an amount Asarian considers significant.

When Greacen asked him what he thought caused this, Asarian replied, "It's hard to know" but added that he doesn't think diversions for homesteads and gardens "of any kind" have enough effect to account for the very large and steady decline.

Changes in patterns of vegetation are probably the major cause, in Asarian's opinion, particularly changes caused by logging and road building. The fast-growing young trees and underbrush that moves in when an area is logged intercept rainfall and draw more water than less dense old-growth forest, and the vegetation transpires less, he said.

The entire report with all the details will be released in the spring, Asarian said. It will be available on his website,

Bill Trush, who teaches environmental science at Humboldt State University and who has done extensive research in many watersheds, began his talk with a slide showing the attractively illustrated cover of the Policy for Maintaining Instream Flows in Northern California Coastal Streams, produced by the state Department of Water Resources (DWR).

"What I like best about this report is the cover," Trush said.

DWR's policy has led the state to encourage agencies and landowners who store water in ponds to "dam up the water and return a little to the stream" to aid fall migration, but Trush believes it would be better to let the water flow freely but to let users take out "a little" in different places.

The state policy does not take the actual lives and needs of fish into account, Trush said. During the summer months when the water is lowest, the fish need a connected system of riffles and pools to provide food, cool water temperatures that promote growth, and protection from predators.

During fall and winter migration, adult fish need water deep enough to enable them to swim through all stretches of the river. A set amount of flow established by the state policy and expressed as cubic feet per second (cfs) does not guarantee these conditions.

Trush gives his students wooden cutouts of adult chinook salmon to place at various points in local streams to test whether the water is deep enough for real fish, an exercise he calls "Dances with Wooden Fish."

Often the class finds that the amount of water, although it meets the state's flow standards, would not sustain migration.

"Fish don't care about cfs," said Trush.

Taking smaller amounts of water from different places at different times over a wide area would maintain more streamflow to support fish migration, survival, and growth much better than simply releasing more water from a single point, he concluded.

During the following panel discussion, a member of the audience asked how to overcome "regulatory resistance" to new ideas about measuring and managing the effect of water diversions.

Regulators need to develop a "core philosophy" based on how fish behave, Trush said. Observing and taking pictures of fish to illustrate actual conditions and fish behavior can help.

"Let the fish show you what they need," Strange added. Developing a spiritual sense of our connection to nature like the native people is essential to creating any meaningful change.

"Just get out in nature, by yourself. Let it sink in. Find a place close to your home and go there," he advised. "We need to talk more about [our spiritual connection] so that we feel more comfortable with it."

During the afternoon session, dedicated to ways of coping with decreasing stream flows in a time of increasing water demands, Dana Stolzman of the Salmonid Restoration Foundation (SRF) and Sam Flanagan, a geologist with the Bureau of Land Management who has been working with Sanctuary Forest on their Baker Creek project, talked about local efforts at conservation and restoration.

Stolzman emphasized the importance of working closely with residents to gain their trust, confidence, and support when developing projects. SRF began its Redwood Creek project by surveying residents and holding house parties, talking to residents about the things they valued most about the creek and what would work best to encourage conservation and restore the watershed.

"Nothing is more scary and sensitive to landowners than questions about their water use," said Stolzman. "You can't conserve water without people. Fish don't conserve water," she pointed out.

Flanagan described the long and complex process of developing groundwater recharging in Baker Creek, a tributary of the Mattole that has been a focal point for Sanctuary Forest.

Baker Creek, once an important stream for coho salmon, was so distorted and damaged by past logging that the stream cuts through bedrock, contributing nothing to the groundwater that can sustain habitat during the dry months.

Construction of the project included what Flanagan called "insta-habitat" -- log weirs that create deep, connected pools to help juvenile coho trapped in isolated spots -- and "debris jams" of loosely woven tree trunks and vegetation that gradually build up to create a more natural, complex habitat.

In the second year of the project, a few adult coho were seen migrating up Baker Creek this fall after an eight-year absence, Flanagan reported, and groundwater is being retained during the summer.

But he pointed out that the project will need several years more of "monitoring and hypothesis testing" before BLM and Sanctuary Forest can be confident of the results. "We're giving this a try, and we'll do our best, and we'll see what happens," said Flanagan.

[See related story with information on the Redwood Creek and Baker Creek projects in our Feb. 11 issue, "Water forum draws big crowd...."]

For more information about Friends of the Eel River, see their website at, or call them at 822-3342.


1. Executive director Scott Greacen presented long-time board member Michael Guerriero with this clock as a token of appreciation for Guerriero's many years of service to Friends of the Eel River. Guerriero, an artist based in Bridgeville, recently retired and moved to Yachats, Ore. with his wife.

2. Josh Strange, senior fish biologist with Stillwater Services, speculates on what life will be like if all the earth's ice caps melt, an event he thinks is likely, at Friends of the Eel River's symposium on drought and resilience held last Friday, March 7, at River Lodge in Fortuna.