Desperately Seeking Salmon to Count

John Driscoll/The Eureka Times-Standard
October 2, 2010

Divers aim to get a picture of how Eel River diversion affects fish

Divers scoured holes on the lower Eel River on Friday looking to get an estimate of how many salmon and steelhead have moved in from the ocean so far.

Fisheries biologist Patrick Higgins, joined by divers with the Wiyot Tribe, the Bear River Rancheria and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, briefed the group on how to go about counting fish in different types of holes, letting them know that poor visibility from algae growth would make the task difficult.

”This is a challenging exercise,” Higgins said on the banks of the Eel River at Fernbridge.

Higgins has been contracted by Friends of the Eel River to get an idea about how the first salmon and steelhead in the river are affected by the diversion to the Russian River. Currently, some 130 cubic feet per second of water is being sent through the diversion tunnel to Potter Valley into Lake Mendocino. Only 28 cfs is being released into the Eel.

At the same time, Lake Mendocino is substantially more full than is allowable in the winter, when space is needed for floodwaters.

Dressed in wetsuits and donning snorkels, the team worked through pools from below Fernbridge up to the Van Duzen River confluence. Higgins said he saw hundreds of chinook salmon and steelhead two weeks ago when he dove, and was hoping to see several hundred more Friday. If the team can get a good count, he said, the California Department of Fish and Game may follow the dive with weekly surveys.

These salmon are not migrating upstream due to the low flows in the river, and could be vulnerable in dry years if a heat wave sparked an algae bloom that stripped oxygen from the water, Higgins said.

Wiyot Tribe Councilman Alan Miller said that the tribe wants to get the river back to health, to where tribal members can harvest salmon and lamprey sustainably. With the river so shallow and so choked with algae — in parts of the watershed harmful to contact or drink — there’s clearly a long way to go, Miller said.

”Where do you even start with such things?” Miller said. “The river is a mess.”

Councilman Brian Mead said that his efforts this year to catch lamprey, which are traditionally provided to elders, turned up a single lamprey, a profoundly weak catch.

Friends of the Eel River earlier this year asked the State Water Resources Control Board to consider cutting diversions to the Russian River to improve conditions for salmon.

The Potter Valley Project was born in 1908 with the building of Cape Horn Diversion Dam, which created Van Arsdale Reservoir, tunnels and a powerhouse. Scott Dam followed about a decade later, creating Lake Pillsbury. The project generates 9.4 megawatts of electricity. A single commercial windmill produces about 2 mw.

Cities, farms and vineyards in Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin counties rely on diversions from the Eel mixed with releases from Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, but the project water right belongs to PG&E, and it is up for renewal in 2022.

The Friends of the Eel River said that it was an unreasonable use of water under state law to send so much water to the Russian — whose flows have been deemed too high for fish by the federal government. More water should go to the Eel River, whose historically booming salmon and steelhead have continued to decline despite a 2004 National Marine Fisheries Service to cut the diversions to the Russian by 15 percent.

In May, the water board denied the Friends’ petition.