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Forum planning restoration and conservation of Eel River watershed

Large rocks surround a pool of water.
Bloody Rock Roughs, above Scott Dam.

The watershed is larger than the Bay Area, and includes seven sub-watersheds, including an estuary and vast tracts of land under public and private ownership. There are four phases to the program, which is currently in phase one, the planning stage. Part of the planning process will be answering intricate questions about which parts of the river are used by key species at which points in their life cycles, since the needs of juvenile and adult fish within a single species vary widely. The five ‘focal species’ will be chinook, coho, steelhead and rainbow trout, green sturgeon and lamprey. Any restoration efforts will have to take into account the diversity of habitat these species require to complete their life cycles.

Suzanne Rhoades, an aquatic ecologist with McBain Associates, one of the firms working with CalTrout, said modeling and other analyses have narrowed down a few of the questions, as well as raising more. Scientists still need to figure out how to link the data sets they have compiled so far, and determine which parts of the watershed to prioritize.

“How do we actually restore life history diversity?” she asked. “We can’t tell a salmon when to smolt and how long to spend in which habitat. But we can work to restore functional habitat diversity. And we know it’s this diversity of habitats that breeds diversity of traits. In this program, we’re considering cool tributaries, coastal mainstems, arid tributaries, and that each of these different habitat types might have played a role in supporting some different tactics through space and time.”

Abel Brumo, a fisheries biologist with Stillwater Sciences, another scientific firm involved in the effort, broke the plan into program goals, sub-goals, and specific objectives, which include removing barriers. While CalTrout is one of the organizations at the forefront of advocating for the removal of Scott Dam to open hundreds of miles of fish passage, Brumo also tagged culverts and other pieces of smaller infrastructure that have been impairing the health of the river.

Tim Caldwell, another aquatic ecologist with McBain, said prioritization will be the next phase of the program. That will include practical considerations about cost, data gathering, and engaging with landowners along the river to get their support. At this point, the forum has parsed out public and private ownership using GIS data. Only 18.4% of the land in the Eel River watershed is currently protected, according to the standards of the Governor’s 30x30 plan. Caldwell gave a rundown of some possible and ongoing restoration projects in what he called “an ecosystem approach.”

“We’ll be embracing both active restoration projects, for example, gravel management, sediment management, large woody debris, traditional restoration projects, but also conservation of lands,” he said. “That’s important because we want to make sure the strongholds in the ecosystem that are relatively intact remain that way. We want to protect them from any future development or any future degradation. These could be big picture projects that are pretty well understood. These lead into some of the passage barriers that we’ve talked about. Scott Dam comes to mind as a high-priority project that should be implemented. It’s not limited to just restoration or passage barriers, but could also be the identification of a key conservation parcel, for example conservation of Cock Robin Island in the estuary.” But he was frank about the difficulty, asking, “Can we realistically provide coordinates on where exactly large wood placements need to be done? I don’t know that we can. And so at that point, we need to start thinking about boots on the ground.”

Christine Davis, a project manager and landscape ecologist with CalTrout, tallied up some of the work that has already gone into the planning process. She said the effort has included vegetation health analysis through satellite imagery for the entire watershed, determining how much of the land is in public and private ownership and how much is protected, as well as data on biodiversity.

Darren Mireau, the North Coast Regional Director for CalTrout, said the monitoring plan will include keeping track of adult salmon in the river, but the details haven’t been worked out yet. “I think we’re getting close to, if not already arriving at, a place where we’ll have sonar cameras deployed throughout the entire Eel River basin, and capturing at least the majority of fish in the main forks,” he reported, adding that as of this month, CalTrout will have four or five sonar cameras in the watershed. “We’re working on it,” he concluded. “It’s exciting to know that we’re going to have some recent new data for the first time ever at this scale of watershed monitoring.”

Caldwell cautioned against high expectations when someone asked about the possibility of restoring a harvestable fishery. “I would say we don’t necessarily have an X number of fish that want to come back,” he said. “It’s a restoration and recovery program. We could look back to the historical runs of a million fish. It’s hard to understand if that’s achievable or not in the current state, with not only anthropogenic change, but also climate-driven change. What we’ve talked about internally is looking at trends, and seeing sort of a reversal of existing trends, and moving us towards increasing those numbers rather than trying to hit a specific target as a way to evaluate how the program might be in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years.”

The draft plan for the Eel River Forum’s restoration and conservation program will be ready for review in March of next year.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.