The Current Magazine Winter 2016/17 - Page 54

Eel River continued from page 13

What the Future Holds

Although the Eel has suffered severe setbacks since the arrival of settlers of European descent, there is reason to be optimistic about a much brighter future for the river. With its comprehensive "estuary to headwaters" plan, CalTrout and other partners are addressing the highest priority needs of the watershed. In the Eel River Estuary, CalTrout is working with the Wildlands Conservancy, the Coastal Conservancy, and local ranchers to restore tidal marsh land, which will provide juvenile salmon access to highly productive rearing habitat. Working with researchers from Humboldt State University, CalTrout is quantifying basic flow requirements for fish and identifying spawning and rearing habitat that has been blocked by dams for over a century. Using a new regulatory framework, CalTrout is providing input on how to protect juvenile salmon and steelhead during the sensitive summer months from the devastating effects of water over-allocation. Another important initiative is opening up access to tributary streams that currently have barriers blocking migrating fish. CalTrout has identified several high-priority migration barriers on tributary streams, and has already removed one and made a start on fixing another. And, CalTrout is engaged in the FERC relicensing process for the Potter Valley Project to advocate for better flows and passage for fish.

Taken together, these coordinated and comprehensive actions hold the promise of returning salmon and steelhead to a state of abundance on the Eel River not seen in decades. Mierau sees a clear roadmap to recovery. "If we can protect the water from being over-allocated, continue with recovery efforts in the Eel River estuary, and implement other high-priority actions, I think we can achieve the abundance goals for salmon and steelhead in the Eel."

Curtis Knight, Executive Director of CalTrout, is very optimistic about the Eel's chances of regaining much of its former glory. "Along the entire west coast of the United States, the Eel possesses a unique ability to achieve native fish abundance," he says. "A lot of that has to do with the size of the watershed, and another key factor is the healthy genetic template of the wild fish. You go north up to Oregon and Washington and you have a lot of hatchery issues that compromise the genetic fitness of the fish, and you head south of the Eel and you fairly quickly run out of ideal habitat on the scale of the Eel. The Eel is a kind of sweet spot where we have an opportunity to get back to true wild fish abundance that we haven't seen in decades."