A Community Effort to Recover the Elk River


By Darren Mierau
CalTrout North Coast Regional Director

Elk River Watershed Stewardship Program: Creating a community-supported recovery plan

In December of 1849, eight forlorn gold hunters of the Josiah Gregg party arrived from the Trinity River goldfields at what is now Humboldt Bay, and after several days spent exploring the region, the men “pitched our camp near the bluff, on the top of which is now Fort Humboldt”, and hunted Elk for a Christmas Day feast. Thus, the Elk River, Humboldt Bay’s largest freshwater tributary joining the Bay at the south end of Eureka, got its name.

The Wiyot Tribe, present in the region for millenia before the explorers arrived, called the river Iksori - their name for the village at its mouth. As a side-note, those same explorers also named the Mad River, the Van Duzen River, and the Eel River where they bartered with Native Americans for pacific lamprey.



Cover Photo: The view looking southeast up the Elk River Valley, with Humboldt Bay in the distance. A thin strip of riparian trees line the Elk River mainstem, showing an isolated and confined river channel by Mike Wier


Photo: Elk River joining Humboldt Bay at the south end of the town of Eureka, CA. “Reclaimed” former tidelands converted to pasture more than a century ago are slowly beginning to revert back to tidal marsh. The state-owned Elk River Wildlife Area is shown in the left of the photo by Mike Wier



Photo: The roads and nearby fields are flooded by Mike Wier



Historical Habitat

It is now well-established that Elk River historically provided excellent habitat for our now-threatened salmonid species: Chinook and coho salmon, and winter-run steelhead. Abundant spawning habitat throughout headwater tributaries, ten miles of cold and productive mainstem river, and an extensive network of tidal marshes, sloughs, and estuary historically combined to offer numerous pathways for juvenile salmonids to grow, survive, and prosper. The native Coastal Cutthroat trout and Pacific lamprey were also abundant in this watershed.

The Elk River now meanders across a verdant valley of productive ranching and dairy lands, sourced from a watershed rich in redwood timber, and home to a very proud and engaged residential community. And despite the well-documented legacy of ecological impairment from this long history as a “working landscape”, this river offers an abundance of restoration opportunity.


The US Coast Survey map from 1852, prepared only two years after the Gregg party “discovered” Humboldt Bay. Elk River was a prominent feature in the early development of the region.



The Elk River Recovery Strategy

CalTrout and our partners have been conducting technical studies since 2014 to document the issues facing the Elk River and are working with timber and agricultural interests, local residents, and agencies to design and implement viable solutions. In 2018 the project team completed the Elk River Recovery Assessment, a detailed feasibility study intended to examine alternative recovery scenarios that the community could consider for Elk River’s future.

Throughout 2019, landowners and the broader stakeholder community have been engaging one-on-one with CalTrout and our project team to develop Actions to reduce flooding and promote channel and habitat recovery. The Actions we’ve identified have preliminary landowner support and comprise the first phase of the Elk River Recovery Strategy. These Actions integrate landowner input with the recommendations of the Elk River Recovery Assessment and have been developed with preliminary support from regulatory agencies. These actions are described for three main segments of the Elk River, from the Bay to Headwaters:


The South Fork Elk River flowing from the BLM’s Headwaters Preserve Forest in the upper watershed.



Next Steps

While the Stewardship team is very encouraged by the progress we’ve achieved in the past two years, we are still early in the process that leads to implementation of Recovery Actions. There is still a lot of work ahead. Recovery will be slow, but CalTrout is committed to finding the right balance to benefit the Elk River community and our native salmon and steelhead populations.

Questions or comments can be sent to ElkStewardship@caltrout.org or phoning the CalTrout North  Coast office at (707) 825-0420.

More Information

Elk River Stewardship Program Newsletter

Elk River Project Website


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