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Eel River Restoration plan looking forward to the next phase

A river rushing across boulders through a scrubby brushland.
The Eel River alongside Highway 162 to Covelo.

An initial report on restoration and conservation of the Eel River lays out the complexities of the watershed and future efforts to rehabilitate it. The report, funded by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, was prepared by CalTrout and scientists working with Stillwater Sciences, Applied River Sciences, and UC Berkeley. While the upcoming removal of the Potter Valley Project is expected to restore habitat above Scott Dam, the report focuses mainly on the many other factors that have degraded the river over the last two hundred years.

Unregulated logging and fishing are historical impairments, as are the two massive floods of 1955 and 1964, which were intensified by the degradation of the forest around the river.

The plan is not a roadmap to re-establishing the historic bounty of the Eel, which is the third-largest watershed in the state. Rather, it’s a plan to prioritize and restore a diversity of habitat, so that focal species like salmon, lamprey and green sturgeon have an appropriate environment for each stage of their lives. Restoring the hydrological connections between the river and the wetlands is part of that, and the report notes that stronger environmental regulations have had promising results. Tribes, non-profit organizations and grassroots efforts have carried out restoration projects the report characterizes as “game-changing.” But the pikeminnow, an invasive species in the Eel, present a persistent challenge, outcompeting, eating, and harrying young salmon as they try to bulk up for their voyage to the ocean.

The Eel River has seven sub-watersheds that course through a wide range of climatic conditions. Fifty-seven percent of the watershed is under private ownership. The 43% that is public is owned by a variety of agencies, making it impossible to come up with one approach to managing the efforts to restore and monitor the vast terrain.

Christine Davis, a project manager with CalTrout, says she expects Phase II of the planning project to start next year. The next phase is not yet funded, and the report estimates that maintaining a staff of ten would cost about $1.7 million a year.

Davis says “The first piece of the framework is identifying that project area, which, for freshwater species, is the riparian corridor, the estuary,” core places where freshwater species need the habitat restored most. The next step is identifying big chunks of land where restoration work can be most useful, and building a network of willing landowners or agencies that control large pieces of prime ecological real estate. Davis said the Great Redwood Trail is among the organizations that are interested in allowing restoration work on their property.

For people who live in the watershed and want to find out what’s going on or how they can get involved, she suggested signing up for the Eel River Forum mailing list and joining the quarterly meetings. In April, she reported, about 50 people attended a meeting at the public library in Covelo for a presentation from the Round Valley Fisheries Department. “And everyone did small working groups to decide on the program goals and objectives, which went into the first chapter of this plan,” she concluded.

The report offers examples of various river restoration projects and how they are structured, but none of them, even the Klamath, is completely analogous to the Eel River, because most of the land along the Eel is privately owned. “So that process for rolling out a restoration program would need to have those good parts of the Klamath plan,” like public engagement, Davis said. “But it would also need to integrate what actually goes on in each of those larger sub-watersheds of the Eel. That would take a lot of community outreach. Those kind of decisions would be made by the future Eel River Program governance board, which would be made up of different agencies and nonprofits and representatives from the communities…kind of a similar process to the Eel River Forum in the past, but applied to the needs that are really on the ground.”

The Eel River has played an important role in the lives of the people who live near it as long as people have lived on the banks of the river. That includes Davis.

“I am a project manager, but I grew up right on the Eel River in Ferndale, California,” she said. “So I grew up driving over the Fern Bridge and watching the sediment change over time, and I didn't know what that meant. I just thought, wow, the river there's totally different than it was last year…Later in life, I learned that rivers are dynamic. They have not just one place they go or one thing they do, but many.” She’s confident that many of the people working on the project share her awe of the river. “So we’re all excited to get this work moving forward.”

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.