By Max Rodriguez and Marissa Papanek, KRCR News Channel 7
EUREKA, Calif. - The Eel River is one of the largest tributaries in Northern California, and according to natural resource experts, it is under serious stress.
The director of the Eel River Recovery Project, Patrick Higgins, said parts of the river are doing better than others.
"The Eel is a mix bag," Higgins said. "The estuary is recovering and the eastern part of the basin. But the south fork, we need to get to work," said Higgins. "We need to be more in harmony with nature, restore forest health, we need to conserve water, these are all things that are possible. But can we generate the public will?"
He said some of the issues facing the Eel River can be traced back to the flood of 1964, and now, over 50 years later, Higgins said the river is seeing some natural recovery.
"In the lower Eel we can use concrete, rock, and willow in combination to reshape the riverbed and change the fluid energy to re-dig the riffles for easier passage and to scour the pools so that this magnificent fish can come in and hold early in the season."
Wildlife is also a concern: The river holds valuable salmon.
The river is a magical thing, but it's also an engine that produces food: significant amounts of it, and so to disrupt the river's cycle is to deprive us and the animals of these food sources," Higgins said.
Salmon provides sustenance to local tribes. Allan Renger, a biologist with California Fish and Wildlife said his agency is responsible for maintaining the health of the Eel River and its wildlife.
"They are culturally important for Native American tribes," Renger said. "They use them as their food source and are strongly tied to their cultures."
Higgins said the salmon need deep and cool creeks to travel and spawn.
However, they are instead swimming murky, polluted water.
"The lower South Fork is actually in a condition that's deteriorating somewhat," Higgins said.
"Its flows are diminishing, and there's a great deal of sediment coming out of the watershed as a result of disturbances, roads, residential, and disturbances related to agricultural activities like marijuana."
The state's department of fish and wildlife is aware of the issue, and are brainstorming solutions.
"In some places that would mean the removal of a road crossing, or change of a road crossing in a way that allows fish to pass that site, so fish passage is an aspect of fish recovery," Renger said.
He said the recovery process will take a long time. So far, they have divided the river into 19 sections.
"We're going to develop detailed restoration plans for seven of those areas," Renger said.
He said they have not chosen the seven sites yet; they will take public input through future meetings.
The first meeting will be held at Beginnings Octagon in Briceland on Nov. 27. The second meeting will be at Harwood Hall in Laytonville on Nov. 29. Both meetings begin at 6 p.m.
Higgins said public engagement on the issues facing the Eel River is a good start.
"It would certainly be a shame if ocean conditions remain good, if spawning conditions remain good, the estuary allows high survival, and come back to a river where they are in peril," he said.