Tag Archives: Eel River

California Supreme Court issues ruling in closely watched North Coast rail case 

Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that publicly owned railroads are not exempt from the state’s bedrock environmental law, a decision hailed by environmental watchdogs on the North Coast and opponents of California’s high-speed rail project.

Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, called the court ruling “vindication.”

The Arcata-based group sued the North Coast Railroad Authority in a bid to force the state-chartered agency to study the environmental impacts of running freight along a 316-mile rail line that traverses Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties and runs through the Eel River canyon.

Greacen said as a result of the Supreme Court decision, NCRA won’t be able to rebuild the line through the canyon “without taking a hard look at the environmental impacts, which has been the goal all along.”

More broadly, the court ruling could have major implications for the state’s high-speed rail project. Several court cases are pending in state courts seeking to hold the California High-Speed Rail Authority accountable for construction and operation of the service.

Read more at: California Supreme Court issues ruling in closely watched North Coast rail case | The Press Democrat

Filed under Transportation

Surge in lamprey population in Eel River

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Swimming by the thousands up the Eel River this year, Pacific lamprey are literally climbing the wall of a dam near Potter Valley in Mendocino County.

Driven by the biological imperative to spawn in the river’s gravel beds, the snake-shaped, prehistoric fish — commonly mistaken for eels — have almost no chance of scaling the 63-foot high Cape Horn Dam.

For decades, their best option has been a fish ladder that flanks the dam, but even it halts the migratory journey for most lamprey, a largely ignored ocean-going species that shares the stream with federally protected chinook salmon and steelhead trout. Those that do clear the passage, by inching their way up the concrete walls, take up to five weeks to do so.

“They go crazy at night just trying to find a way up,” said Scott Harris, a Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who runs the Van Arsdale Fisheries Station next to the dam.

The surge of lamprey numbers at the dam this year is a mystery, but wildlife watchers welcome the spectacle as a possible sign of a rebound in the population that mistakenly gave the Eel River its name in the 19th century.

Read more at: At Eel River dam, thousands of spawning lamprey make for natural spectacle | The Press Democrat

Filed under Water, Wildlife

Fate of Russian and Eel River flows rests in big fight over small hydroelectric project

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Even the record rainfall that dowsed the North Coast this winter, filling reservoirs and streams, will not be enough to head off a looming clash over the water that courses down two of the region’s largest rivers, the Russian and the Eel.

Together, they drain a swath of territory, including cities, forests and vineyards, that stretches from central Sonoma County to Fortuna, in Humboldt County — an area larger than Connecticut.

A key link between the two rivers, a small powerhouse more than 100 years old, is now the focal point in a fight over the water that flows down these rivers. It’s a standoff with many of the main players in western water wars — farmers, environmentalists, water districts serving urban customers and fishermen. And it raises many of the same questions: Who benefits and who loses from water taken for decades from one river — at over 20 billion gallons a year — and funneled into another river?

In this case, it is the Eel River that has been tapped, its water sent down a milelong tunnel through a mountain in Mendocino County, into a PG&E powerhouse and ultimately into a fork of Russian River, which flows down through Sonoma County.

Water drawn from the Eel River sustains Lake Mendocino, the main source of drinking water for residents along the Russian River from Redwood Valley down to Healdsburg.

Turning off that supply could devastate agriculture and diminish that primary water source for thousands of people, according to interests on one side of the tug-of-war.

The vast majority of the more 600,000 North Bay residents who depend on the Russian River for drinking water are unaware of the plumbing arrangement and the controversy that has long swirled around it and two related dams on the Eel River, where once-prolific runs of salmon and steelhead trout have dwindled amid various human impacts, water diversion among them.

But for the partisans — the water managers, environmentalists, public officials, ranchers and scientists — the dilemma of parsing out this water between competing interests, between people and fish, between town and country, is revving up again over the relicensing of the PG&E powerhouse, called the Pottery Valley Project.

“It’s a critical moment,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, the San Rafael Democrat whose North Coast district spans the adjacent watersheds.

Read more at: Fate of Russian and Eel River flows rests in big fight over small hydroelectric project | The Press Democrat

Filed under Water, Wildlife

The booming marijuana industry has a major environmental footprint

Judith Lewis Mernit, CAPITAL & MAIN

A study on water demand from marijuana growing shows that 25% to 100% of the water in the study watersheds may be diverted during low-flow periods.

Another study estimates that indoor marijuana cultivation uses 3% of California’s total electricity.

In his sunny office on the edge of town in Arcata, California, Scott Greacen pulls up a slideshow on his large high-resolution monitor. As wildflowers sway in the wind outside a window, a woodsy guitar solo starts to play along with the pictures. Greacen mutes it; he wants to focus on destruction. Aerial images of clear-cut plots within the coastal forest, bounded by dusty roads and dotted with trucks, show the intrusion of industrial marijuana cultivation into redwood groves and hillsides. Some plots are small, barely detectable. Others cover hundreds of acres with row upon row of oblong structures covered with white tarps, blighting the landscape like giant predatory maggots.

“Look,” Greacen says, pointing to the screen. “Eleven greenhouses on the top of a ridge. Where does the water come from?”

Greacen, who has the genial appearance of a scholarly mountain man — neatly trimmed beard, wire-rimmed glasses, long hair parted in the middle and tied back — is the executive director of Friends of the Eel River, a nonprofit founded in 1994 to promote the restoration of California’s third-largest watershed. The 200-mile long Eel runs south to north from Mendocino County to the Pacific Ocean below the central Humboldt County city of Eureka. It has been hammered by industry for more than a century, dammed and drained to serve municipal water demand in Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Timber companies, too, have done their share of damage, stripping slide-prone land of stabilizing vegetation and causing sediment to clog the river’s already diminished flows.

“Our coast range has a seismic uplift equivalent to the Himalayas,” Greacen says. “If it weren’t for erosion, we’d have a Mount Everest.”

Mountains lifted out of the ancient seabed typically shed a certain amount of fine sediment into the Eel, but at a rate the river’s flow can handle. The accelerated spalling caused by roads, traffic and grading, sifts in much more. Anadromous salmon travel hundreds of miles from the ocean inland to spawn in the river bed’s oxygenated gravel. If that gravel is clogged with sediment, the eggs will suffocate before they hatch.

The Eel, its forks and many smaller tributaries had only recently begun to recover from timber’s assaults when, in the 1990s, a relatively benign, back-to-the-land cannabis movement exploded in Humboldt’s mountains. The Compassionate Use Act of 1996, passed by voters as Proposition 215, legalized marijuana for medical use, opening a whole new market for weed. Growing operations multiplied on public and private land in California, particularly in the forested reaches of Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties, a region so full of cannabis crops it’s known as the “Emerald Triangle.”

Read more at: High Times: Marijuana Growing and the Environment – Capital & Main

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Habitats, Land Use, Sustainable Living, Water, Wildlife

Wild and harnessed, Eel River a vital, troubled North Coast watershed 

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The dispute [over Eel River water] will be aired this summer when the Sonoma County Water Agency releases an environmental report on proposed changes to a decision by state water regulators who 30 years ago established the minimum streamflow requirements on the Russian River. The water agency intends to hold workshops and public hearings on the report.

The roar of water cascading over a 109-year-old concrete dam on the Eel River in Mendocino County was music to Janet Pauli.

“It should be a welcome sound for everybody on the North Coast,” said the longtime Potter Valley rancher, watching the river run down a remote canyon in the Coast Range, bound for the Pacific Ocean far away near Eureka.

Twelve miles the other way, the gates atop another dam had closed a week ago, and the Lake Pillsbury reservoir was filling fast with runoff from early spring rains, offering strong hope of a normal season after four years of drought for the multitude of people who depend on the Eel River for necessities and revelries, including water, wine grapes and stalking wild steelhead trout.

That group includes the 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties who get their drinking water from the Sonoma County Water Agency, ranchers and residents on the upper Russian River, and people along the Eel River as it courses nearly 200 miles through Mendocino and Humboldt counties, passing through nearly untouched wilderness, giant redwood forests, small towns, popular parks and attractions like the Benbow Inn near Garberville before it flattens in the coastal plain approaching the coast.

Most have no idea how these two dams and a mile-long tunnel through a mountain move about 20 billion gallons of water a year from the Eel River into the Russian River, crossing a geographically narrow but politically wide gap and inciting the North Coast’s version of California’s age-old water wars.

“It’s our chapter of western water (conflict),” said David Keller of Petaluma, a leader of the group that has tried for more than two decades to halt the diversion of Eel River water that has gone on for nearly a century. The dams, diversion tunnel and a powerhouse are known as the Potter Valley Project, operated by PG&E.

Read more at: Wild and harnessed, Eel River a vital, troubled North Coast watershed | The Press Democrat

Filed under Water, Wildlife

Study shows pot is sucking the Eel River dry

Linda Williams, WILLITS NEWS

California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife Study

Researchers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife published a study in March on the impacts of marijuana growing on several Eel River segments including the Little Lake Valley’s Outlet Creek.

The researchers concluded pot growing has become so prolific in this region it is literally sucking the streams dry. The study found the quantity of unregistered water abuse was many times the registered water use in the areas studied.

Unlike regulated forms of agricultural, livestock, home and municipal diversions, the clandestine nature of Emerald Triangle marijuana cultivation means that growers have been free to drain the Eel River with few controls in place to prevent it.

Water hungry marijuana plants need maximum watering just as California’s Mediterranean climate enters its dry period and normal flows in area streams drop naturally.

By regulation, the Brooktrails and Willits water reservoirs, located on tributaries of Outlet Creek, can only store water for human use during the wet season, allowing all dry weather flows to pass through the dams to benefit the fish. For much of the last 10 years it appears these water releases have gone, instead, to support marijuana operations.

Read more via Study shows pot is sucking the Eel River dry.

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use, Water

Court to review North Coast Railroad exemption from environmental review

Patty Clary, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics

Scott Greacen, Friends of the Eel River

The state’s highest court on Wednesday agreed to review an appeal of a lower court’s decision that would exempt publicly owned railroads from having to comply with California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

An appellate court had found that the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act pre-empted all state laws managing or governing railroads, including CEQA. But the case—brought by Friends of the Eel River (FOER) and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATs)—concerns California’s state-owned railroad, the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), which meant California would be forbidden to control the railroad it had bought and paid for with public funds.

A different court of appeals reached the opposite conclusion in a case involving California’s High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA). That court found that where the state is acting as an owner, not a regulator, federal preemption does not shield the state-owned rail line from having to comply with CEQA as a condition of its state funding.

The North Coast Rail Authority cases present substantially identical facts. The plaintiff environmental groups had argued that the split between the courts of appeals should move the Supreme Court to take the case, as it has now done.

CATs and FOER had challenged the NCRA’s 2011 Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on its plan to reopen a southern portion of the failed rail line. Once sued, NCRA claimed it was not legally bound to conduct the study – after spending millions of taxpayer dollars on the EIR, and tens of millions more provided by the state on the condition the project complied with CEQA.

 “Like any other actor in the marketplace, California has the right to analyze the cost and effect of its plans before deciding to undertake projects and it chooses to do this through the CEQA process,” said Patty Clary, Executive Director of CATs. “Federal law does not interfere with this right nor with California citizens’ right, as provided by state law, to challenge the adequacy of this environmental review. We look forward to arguing these fundamental issues before California’s Supreme Court.”

Scott Greacen, Executive Director of FOER, welcomed the news. “Fundamentally, our system of justice depends on citizens being able to hold our government accountable. It cannot be correct that we will allow state agencies to renege on their promises, and to fly blind with the public’s money and the public’s property, without regard to the potential risks to public trust treasures like the wild and scenic Eel River and its threatened salmon and steelhead.”

Californians for Alternatives to Toxics is represented by East Bay attorney Sharon Duggan, Helen Kang of the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic of the Golden Gate University School of Law, William Verick of the Klamath Environmental Law Center, and Deborah Sivas of the Environmental Law Clinic, Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford Law School. Friends of the Eel River are represented by Amy Bricker, Edward T. Schexnayder, and Ellison Folk of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger.

CATs and FOER are based in the Humboldt Bay area. The membership of each organization is from throughout northwestern California.

Filed under Land Use, Transportation, Water

Beautiful river, growing thirst: Looming battle over Eel River diversion to Russian River

Susan Sward, SACRAMENTO BEE

In the third-largest watershed in California, the Eel River rambles through some of the state’s most stunning landscape. Nothing about the river, with its clusters of redwoods along its sandy banks, hints at the looming battle over its blue-green water.

In about three years, though, a federal commission will begin reviewing an application by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to re-license its Potter Valley Project. The project includes a mile-long tunnel that began diverting Eel water to the Russian River more than a hundred years ago.

That Eel water becomes part of the Russian River flow now relied upon by 650,000 people in Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties and by farmers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties who irrigate millions of dollars’ worth of crops. Water users say the diversion project is vital for them. Environmental groups, however, want the project’s two dams removed to restore access to many miles of prime fish-spawning territory on the upper Eel, saying the project’s presence undermines recovery of fish in the river.

This license review follows more than a century of harm – including extensive timber harvesting, the Potter Valley Project dams and destruction of an estuary that functioned as a nursery for juvenile salmon. This has imperiled the river’s fish: The National Marine Fisheries Service has classified coho salmon, Chinook salmon and steelhead in the Eel as threatened.

via Beautiful river, growing thirst, looming battle over the Eel River – California Forum – The Sacramento Bee.

Filed under Water

State issues new water curtailment orders, plans swifter crackdown on diversions

Glenda Anderson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

..State officials said the new regulations were necessary because nearly 70 percent of the 7,910 curtailment orders already issued statewide in the past two months have been ignored.

State officials on Wednesday issued new water curtailment orders to thousands of users and adopted emergency regulations that allow them to more quickly crack down on people who ignore orders to stop diverting water from drought-stricken rivers and streams, including the upper Russian River.

“Water rights holders who fail to comply with the regulations face immediate fines or administrative actions,” state Water Resources Control Board officials said in a news release.

The action, which included the approval of fines for noncompliant users, came on the second day of board discussion about drought-driven regulations.

During the public hearing the day before, some water users voiced strong objection to the new regulations, particularly measures that allow the state to fine noncompliant users up to $500 a day without a hearing. Those cited can ask for a hearing after they’re fined.

via State issues new water curtailment orders, plans swifter crackdown on diversions | The Press Democrat.

Filed under Water

NCRA proposes to drop environmental review for rail operations

Friends of the Eel River

After six attempts to avoid defending an environmental report in state court, the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) is preparing to withdraw approval of its rail project at its April 10 meeting in Eureka.

The move appears to be a last-ditch effort to avoid a May 8 trial over whether the analysis complies with California environmental law. Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATs) and Friends of the Eel River (FOER) sued to demand the NCRA provide an accurate accounting of harm to the environment.
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Filed under Land Use, Transportation