Cameron Nielson & Sarah Bardeen, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
On paper, California’s Eel River is a prime candidate for restoration.
It’s a remote river that runs through rugged, lightly populated terrain in Northern California. As with many rivers in the region, a combination of logging, overfishing and dams decimated its once-plentiful salmon and steelhead runs. The introduction of a native predator, the pikeminnow, only made things worse.
But some of that could be put to rights: two aging dams in the Eel’s upper reaches are reaching the end of their life span — and one has been declared seismically unsafe. PG&E, which owns the dams, has chosen not to renew their licenses, setting the stage for removal if no new owner steps forward.
Eel River residents overwhelmingly support dam removal, the tribes are adamantly in favor, and a constellation of NGOs is pushing hard for it. If those dams come down, 150 square miles of cold-water habitat will open up to struggling populations of steelhead and salmon, offering needed refuge from the warming climate.
So why is it so hard to get done?
Part of the answer lies in the dam’s history. Part lies in the challenges of coping with a surfeit of aging infrastructure. And part lies in the complexities of who exactly constitutes the river’s community. Finding a solution has implications not just for the state but for the nation.