Eel River Restoration

Coho Populations Once 100,000, Now 1,000

At over 3,600 sq. miles, the Eel River watershed is the third largest in California. While the majority of the watershed is privately owned and managed for timber production, cattle and dairy ranching, the area also includes several State Parks, Wilderness Areas, and National Forests.

Historically the Eel River was a major salmon and steelhead producer with runs in wet periods estimated to annually average over a million adults (~800,000 chinook, ~100,000 coho, ~150,000 steelhead).

Today, nearly all the mainstem and large tributaries in the Eel River Basin have been listed as “impaired” under the Federal EPA’s Clean Water Act, primarily due to excessive sediment, habitat degradation and increased water temperatures.

As a result, salmon and steelhead populations have been severely depressed over many decades: fall-run chinook and steelhead runs fluctuate between 1,000 and 10,000 adults; coho likely number less than 1,000 adults annually.

In recent years, there have been some encouraging signs of recovery believed in large part due to very favorable ocean conditions. In 2012, Chinook salmon adult returns at the Van Arsdale Fish Station increased to over 3,000 compared to average annual runs in the low-hundreds thru most of late 1900s, and endangered coho salmon counts at monitoring stations in the South Fork Eel River have remained steady.

It is estimated that counts at the Van Arsdale station represent ~10% of the total Eel River return. While the current trend is encouraging, the Eel has a long, long way to go to once again support its historical productivity. With concerted efforts and continued restoration work, we have the opportunity to take significant steps toward salmonid recovery and ecosystem protection.

Conservation Goals

  • Continue to drive the Eel River Forum and focus on improving the status of salmonid populations, evaluation of Potter Valley Project (dam flow releases) and non-native pikeminnow eradication.
  • Work with Regional Water Quality Control Board to address warm water temperature and sediment impairment.
  • Restore access to ancestral spawning and rearing habitat.
  • Reconnect estuary tributaries and improve critical estuary rearing habitat.

Recent Accomplishments

  • In July 2012, behind the initiative and leadership of our North Coast office, CalTrout drove the formation of the Eel River Forum. This group, comprised of 22 federal and state agencies, county resource conservation districts, water agencies / public utilities, tribes and NGOs, represents a strong watershed-wide coalition to address recovery on the Eel. The group’s mission is to coordinate and integrate conservation and recovery efforts in the Eel River watershed to conserve its ecological resilience, restore its native fish populations, and protect other watershed beneficial uses. These actions are also intended to enhance the economic vitality and sustainability of human communities in the Eel River basin.
  • CalTrout leads this group in monthly meetings focusing on the many critical issues impairing salmon and steelhead populations and preventing meaningful recovery.
  • Over the last year, CalTrout secured funding for two critical restoration and recovery opportunities in the Eel system:
    Eel River Estuary
    Approximately $1 million in funding to develop restoration designs for the 1,200 acre Eel River Estuary Preserve located at the mouth of the Eel, a former cattle ranch now owned by The Wildlands Conservancy. This project will restore tidal marsh, estuarine habitat, and re-connect surrounding tributaries to the Eel itself. Our goal is to restore valuable nursery habitat for juvenile salmonids migrating to sea.
    Bridge Creek
    Approximately $560,000 in funding for removal of fish passage barrier on Bridge Creek. This will open up valuable coho and steelhead habitat and in particular allow access to critical summer cold water flows required for coho rearing.

What We Will Accomplish in 2013-14

  • Complete the restoration and engineering designs for The Wildlands Conservancy’s Eel River Estuary Preserve located at the mouth of the Eel River.
  • Work with state and federal resource managers to explore ways to address critical low summer streamflow conditions, excessively warm water temperatures, and sediment impairment.
  • Implement the Bridge Creek fish passage barrier removal project and develop engineering designs and construction plans for the Woodman Creek fish passage barrier removal project.

Key Partners: State Coastal Conservancy, CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, The Wildlands Conservancy, GHD Engineering, Russ Family, Kamman Hydrology and Engineering, HT Harvey and Associates, Mike Love and Associates, LACO and Associates, Roscoe and Associates

Click to see other North Coast Region projects