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 to be, in large part, due to very favorable ocean conditions. However, the severe drought experienced in northern CA in the fall/winter 2013-14 delayed the return of adult spawners, disrupted normal patterns of spawning activity, and forced most salmon spawning into the mainstem rivers instead of tributaries. This outcome may have huge implications for population recovery in the coming years.

Conservation Goals

  • Continue to drive the Eel River Forum and focus on improving the status of salmonid populations, and develop a comprehensive, basinwide Monitoring Plan for tracking salmon and steelhead abundance and water quality conditions.
  • Work with Regional Water Board to address critical low summer stream flow conditions currently impairing juvenile salmon and steelhead rearing habitat.
  • Restore access to ancestral spawning and rearing habitat.
  • Reconnect estuary tributaries and improve critical estuary rearing habitat.

Recent Accomplishments

  • Initiated and led by CalTrout’s North Coast office, the Eel River Forum continued to make tremendous progress in 2013-14. Comprised of 22 federal and state agencies, county resource conservation districts, water agencies / public utilities, tribes and NGOs, the Eel River Forum began reviewing and revising the Eel River Action Plan, a report prepared by CalTrout to summarize the major issues confronting salmon and steelhead recovery efforts in the Eel River.
  • Submitted a proposal to the Fisheries Grant Program seeking funding to prepare a comprehensive fisheries and water quality Monitoring Plan for the entire Eel River watershed.
  • Made great progress in implementing three restoration and recovery opportunities in the Eel system:
    Eel River Estuary
    Secured approximately $1 million in funding to develop restoration designs for tidal marsh estuarine habitat enhancement on the 1,200-acre Eel River Estuary Preserve located at the mouth of the Eel. The project footprint may expand to include restoration of Russ Creek and Centerville Slough on neighboring properties.
    Bridge Creek
    Secured approximately $450,000 in funding for removal of fish passage barriers on Bridge Creek, to restore access to coho and steelhead habitat. The team is poised to begin implementing the project once the construction season opens June 15, 2014.
    Woodman Creek
    Secured approximately $90,000 in funding to prepare an engineering design for removal of the fish passage barrier at the mouth of Woodman Creek, which currently blocks all salmon and steelhead entry into this 24-mile watershed along the mainstem Eel River.

What We Will Accomplish in 2014-15

  • Launch the South Fork Eel River Water Conservation Program (with state and federal resource managers and technical partners) to address the critical low summer streamflow conditions in the SF Eel, and the lack of state water policy regulating the extraction of water from fish-bearing tributaries.
  • Complete the restoration and engineering designs for The Wildlands Conservancy’s Eel River Estuary Preserve located at the mouth of the Eel River.
  • 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

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