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The Eel: Restoring the River-Part 1

NORTH COAST –  The Eel: Restoring the River -Part 1

It’s the third longest watershed in the state and at one time it was home to some of the largest steelhead and salmon runs on the west coast. But hard times have come to the Eel River and for years it has seemingly languished in a shell of its former self.

In part one of my special report: the Eel – Restoring the River, we’ll explore a little bit of the history, look at the current state of the watershed and learn about a relatively new organization doing some great work to restore a once magnificent river.

 Brad Curtis:

“As a boy, I used to ply these waters. This was fly fisherman’s row where there’d be 8 to 10...15 fly fishermen working this whole Singley area.

It was a comradery of fishermen that were down here and some famous fly fishermen that were really some of the leaders of the industry during their time who broke new ground fly fishing for salmon. Guys like: Art Dedini, Lloyd Silvius, Woody Sexton, and Ben Anderson. My father was one of them. He came down here whenever he could and I tagged along. It was quite a time and lots of fish... But that has all changed.”

Two hundred year floods in less than a decade in 1955 and 64 altered the river. Questionable logging practices mixed with climate change and water diversions devastated a huge fishery that has never come back to its original glory. Depleted flows and warmer temperatures mixed with excessive nutrients have given rise to toxic algae blooms. In short, the river was a mess.

But there is reason to have hope. An organization has come forth made up of local stake holders, friends and volunteers to form the Eel River Recovery Project.

Its managing director is a familiar face to many local residents. Pat Higgins has been a Humboldt Bay Harbor Commissioner for some time. He’s optimistic regarding the Eel’s future.

Pat Higgins:

“What we’re noticing through monitoring fall Chinook, water temperature and other factors in the watershed is that it’s in a state of recovery in about two thirds of the watershed. And so, it’s recovered from the ’64 flood, spawning conditions for Chinook are really very good; the Chinook levels are back to levels that are equivalent to the 1950’s. A lot of lamprey returned last year. We see steelhead all over the watershed. But at the same time, there are tributaries within the watershed that are compromised and losing function and some of that is related to recent rural development and cannabis culture.”

That cannabis culture can really create a toxic environment that can pose significant obstacles to recovery. The fertilizers, rodenticides and excessive water diversion not only deplete precious needed moisture during summer months but ads a veritable Molotov cocktail of toxicity and excessive nutrients.

But instead of pointing fingers at law breakers, this organization is taking a less confrontation approach. It’s using science to glean information and come to some conclusions.

Pat Higgins:

“Our thing...if you wanted to bottom line it, is it’s like we engage in enlightenment and empower. We do scientific truth without judgement, without linking to causal mechanisms. If you get on your neighbor’s case, it’s probably only going to make them mad. If you get them more information, maybe we can get a better standard of behavior.

So, that’s the Eel River Recovery Project’s niche. And, they work in trust with the community in the Eel and try to improve behaviors through a spreading circle of enlightenment.

Pat Higgins:

“ In many regards, the sustainable marijuana culture is a more economical one. If you are building your own soils from scratch and not necessarily having to buy soil and nutrients annually, there’s economic savings. And, if you have living soils, you might use one tenth of the water. So, this can all work together if people are more conscious and put the time into their enterprises to maximize water efficiency and decrease nutrient leaking.”

In Part 2 of: The Eel - Restoring the River, school kids are helping to do some of the important scientific data collecting, learning a great deal and having a whole lot of fun. We’ll also meet a man passionate about the watershed whose love for the river and science is second to none.