Every year, for more than two decades, the Elk River in Humboldt County has risen out of its banks following rainstorms of even moderate intensity, vomiting torrents of mud and gravel across dozens of properties in its valley southeast of Eureka. On numerous occasions, these churning surges of murky brown floodwater have entered people's homes and threatened the health, safety, and lives of local residents, preventing ingress and egress from the neighborhood.
Hundreds of residents, who are spread out across more than 400 parcels, are impacted by the flooding. Many have moved from the area. They have caused loss of domestic water supplies, vehicles, fences, septic systems, and more. The floods are no natural disaster. In the view of Jesse Noell, a long-time Elk River resident and founder of the group Salmon Forever, they are part of “a systematic and deliberate policy to flood our homes and properties for the sake of corporate profit.”
Since the 1980s, the upper Elk River watershed has often been among California's most intensively logged lands. Timber companies have constructed vast spiderweb-like networks of roads that cause chronic erosion, and have logged thousands of acres of redwoods and firs. The removal of anchoring vegetation has undermined the structural integrity of hillslopes, which have collapsed in landslides both large and small, while also reducing the soil surface's capacity to absorb run-off.
A sludge of sediment six to eight feet thick spans the channel of the river's middle reaches. As a result, each storm – such as those that have roiled California's coastal rivers across recent weeks – now forces the rushing water to spread out laterally, bleeding copiously onto residents' lands and sometimes into their houses.
The problem began in the 1980s, when – as any long-time AVA reader will know – a junk-bond-financed conglomerate named Maxxam Corporation engineered a hostile takeover of Humboldt County's largest timberland owner Pacific Lumber Company, including more than 20,000 acres of the Elk River watershed (roughly two-thirds of the watershed overall). The company saw the redwoods and Douglas fir forests as underexploited assets, which could help pay off its bonded debt, and moved to liquidate the last remaining stands of private old-growth redwoods – but only after first raiding the pension fund of its employees.
A simultaneous campaign in the upper Elk River watershed sought to save the largest remaining area of unprotected old-growth redwoods in California, and thus the world: the Headwaters forest, located between Fortuna and Eureka. It forms the headwaters of both the Elk and Freshwater Creek just to the south. In 1999, federal and state monies were used to purchase the 5,600-acre Headwaters tract for a whopping $532.27 million in cash and assets, more than half of the roughly $850 million in inflation-adjusted dollars Maxxam owner Charles Hurwitz had paid for his 220,000 acres as a whole.
Senator Dianne Feinstein played a particularly important role in brokering the transaction, which is listed on her web site as among her top career accomplishments (notably, Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, was previously a business partner of Hurwitz).
But, long after the national environmental NGOs have headed to other pastures and the tree sits have come down, the environmental problems directly downstream of the Headwaters Reserve remain.
In 2008, the billionaire Fisher family of San Francisco – who also own Mendocino Redwood Company, the center of controversy concerning the practice of Hack 'n' Squirt, which last year's Measure V sought to address – scooped up Maxxam's land and assets. HRC relies disproportionately on the Elk River watershed, pulling as much as half of its annual volume from Elk River and the next watershed south, Freshwater Creek. It is one of the only areas of its land with large stands of merchantable timber, given that Maxxam cut so much and most of the other merchantable stands are protected from cutting until at least 2049, per a habitat conservation plan implemented as part of the Headwaters deal.
HRC says the problem was created by Maxxam, and that its own logging will improve the watershed over time.
Between 1997 and 2008, when there was a moratorium on logging, following by low harvest rates in the Elk River watershed, suspended sediment concentrations in the river's South Fork not explained by previous land use impacts diminished by 59 percent, according to monitoring the Water Board required Maxxam to conduct.
From 2011-13, after Cal Fire permitted increased harvesting by HRC, data that Salmon Forever has collected indicates that the sediment concentration increased by 89 percent. The sediment concentrations below HRC's land is at 2,700 times the level of the Headwaters Forest Reserve, located upstream, which has seen no logging since the '90s.
In 1998, the federal EPA informed state agencies that the damage to the Elk River violates the Clean Water Act. In the late-1990s, they enacted a "memorandum of understanding" with the North Coast division of the state water board requiring that the board develop a TMDL Action Plan for cleaning up the sediment in the river by 2002.
Nearly 15 years later, the Water Board still has not implemented the plan – even as sediment pollution has worsened.
The Regional Water Board – composed of seven members appointed by the governor – have voted to delay the adoption of a TMDL several times, despite requests from federal EPA officials.
The State Water Resources Control Board (which oversees the North Coast Board) is finally poised to vote on the Draft TMDL next month, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Officer Matt St. John said in an interview. The plan calls for the development of a “multi-stakeholder” restoration plan for the river, which will be developed by a panel composed of scientific experts, timber industry executives, and environmentalists. The TMDL Action Plan itself calls for zero new sediment to enter the Elk River.
“That's pretty damn unprecedented for a sediment TMDL,” St. John said in an interview.
The devil is in the details, however, and those details are enacted by a separate “waste discharge” permit. Water Board staff members proposed to restrict all logging in the five most impacted areas of the watershed, create a wider buffer between timber harvest zones and water courses, and other relatively strict measures. But the Regional Board members significantly changed all of these ideas at a series of meetings in Santa Rosa, leaving in place what the Environmental Protection Information Center's Rob DiPerna calls “a gutted shell of the proposal that was originally brought for by staff.”
Among those to advocate against strict restrictions on HRC's logging was Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, who signed a September 26th, 2016 letter to St. John saying that the rationale for expanded waterway buffers was not “sufficient or well-articulated enough.” His agency also advocated against restrictions on harvesting, on the grounds that HRC already uses “selection” logging techniques so should not be subject to extra regulations. A California Board of Forestry executive also lobbied against the stricter rules.
Cal Fire's Cal Fire Watershed Protection Program Manager Pete Cafferata, who is involved in many of the department's activities concerning the Elk River, defends the agency's record and says the Forest Practice Rules have helped improve river health overall.
“Monitoring work conducted over the past 20 years has demonstrated that California’s water quality-related Forest Practice Rules (FPRs) implementation rate is high, and that when properly implemented, the current FPRs are generally effective in protecting water quality,” Cafferata stated via e-mail, in reference to the 1973 state legislation that governs timber harvesting in California.
Kristy Wrigley is a fourth-generation apple farmer who lives along the Elk River's north fork, whose lands are no longer productive due to the flooding. She notes that the Water Board's new waste discharge permit for HRC allows two percent of the watershed to continue to be logged per year. “To people whose lives are already destroyed, their land is destroyed, and their water is destroyed – do you think a permit allowing that much logging is really going to do anything to make their lives better?”
The persistent problems in the Elk River are currently relatively unknown outside of Humboldt County, and certainly have not generated the sort of attention that the struggle to preserve Headwaters old-growth generated in the 1990s.
The situation, however, is now coming to a head, as the State Water Resources Control Board votes on implementation of the TMDL next month.