Water Day offers many ways to protect, restore watersheds

Our relationship with a river is "... not a balance but a dance," keynote speaker Erick Burres, volunteer coordinator with the State Water Resources Control Board, told approximately 70 participants at the start of Water Day 2014, held at the Mateel Community Center on Sunday, April 13.

Because a river interacts with many changing aspects of the watershed, balance is impossible. People must learn to dance with the river and with each other. The music constantly changes and we must change our steps in response, Burres said.

To understand the river, we ask basic questions: Can I drink the water? Can I swim in it? Can I eat the fish? Are there fish? How does my water use affect the fish and water quality?

Science is a tool we can use to answer these questions objectively and transparently, Burres continued. Throughout the United States, citizen groups in many communities are learning to use scientific methods to find and solve their watershed problems.

Burres’s job is to help local citizen groups identify their problems and find resources to help them with projects.

The Eel River Recovery Project, the principal sponsor of Water Day, has been putting together teams of volunteer citizen monitors for the past two years with the help of public agencies, nonprofits, the Humboldt Redwood Company, professional consultants, and dozens of residents from the entire Eel River watershed.

This year marked the fourth annual Water Day, bringing together representatives of many groups as well as consultants, property owners, and concerned residents eager to take part in protection and restoration of fisheries, wildlife, and rivers.

The all-day program included four panels discussing current conditions and challenges, conservation and pollution prevention, forest and watershed health, and getting children outdoors in nature and involved in watershed studies.

Additionally, presenters set up informational booths, some with interactive displays, for adults and kids to visit during breaks between panel discussions. The full day included lunch and dinner made with as many local, organic ingredients as possible, much of it donated or discounted, a poster-making session, and entertainment by the Human Nature Theater Company.

In spite of record-breaking low rainfall last year, ERRP volunteer dive teams counted over 20,000 chinook salmon in the lower Eel, including 6,000 counted on Nov. 9, 2013 in four pools between Dyerville and McCann on the main stem Eel, ERRP volunteer coordinator Pat Higgins reported during the first panel discussion.

The full report, including many photographs, can be seen on their website, www.eelriverrecovery.org.

Several groups of ERRP volunteers monitored the river near their communities for temperature and algae growth. With their help Keith Bouma-Gregson from the Mary Power Lab at the Angelo Preserve compiled a study of cyanobacteria, better known as blue-green algae, along the South Fork Eel.

Blue-green algae produces deadly liver and neurotoxins under certain conditions. Locally, toxic algae blooms have caused the death of dogs, and they threaten human swimmers, especially small children, as well.

Bouma-Gregson found the highest concentrations among the areas studied in Phillipsville, but blue-green algae is also present in other popular places along the South Fork where plentiful sunlight and shallow water enable the growth of cyanobacteria.

Andrew Stubblefield from Humboldt State University shared the results of his study on the interrelationship of forest health and water yield. Forests and rivers connect like fathers and sons, he said, quoting Gifford Pinchot, an early 20th century forester who was appointed as the United States’ first Secretary of the Interior by then-president Theodore Roosevelt.

Stubblefield’s studies show that while large trees individually use more water than small trees, as trees grow the increased canopy shades out smaller trees, thus reducing the total number of trees and decreasing the overall amount of water the forest draws from the ground.

In areas where older, larger trees have been taken out by logging, it’s important for landowners to thin the remaining trees to encourage the growth of fewer but larger trees, creating a healthy canopy and reducing overall water use.

Tom LeRoy of Pacific Watershed Associates, after noting that the state listed the South Fork Eel as an impaired waterway in 1998, described the importance of designing and maintaining roads to reduce erosion and to protect vegetation and natural water flow.

During the question and answer session, one participant asked how the speakers could explain the big numbers of returning salmon if the Eel River system has been so badly impacted by human activity.

The increase in salmon runs is the result of good spring rains in the last several years, ocean conditions that periodically cause a salmonid population boom, and severe restrictions on commercial fishing, Higgins replied. Burres added that increasing restoration efforts have improved stream conditions so that more salmon survive the freshwater parts of their life cycle.

The afternoon panels covered many aspects of wise water use and conservation, restoration of forests, grasslands, meadows, and streams, and involving others, including children, in studying, protecting, and restoring their watersheds.

Speakers included a wide range of specialists and consultants from Humboldt and Mendocino counties with many fields of expertise. The main message in all the discussions was how each person can contribute to creating a healthy watershed by making improvements in their homes, gardens, and communities.

Many of the speakers and their organizations had set up informational booths around the hall. Most of them are available for consultations. ERRP has been working on a grant application that will provide funds to cover the cost of their help on related individual and community projects.

Several of the presenters observed that California water law is changing to recognize and allow long-standing, successful, but technically illegal water conservation measures used by rural dwellers.

For instance, it recently became legal in the state of California to re-use bath and laundry greywater for outdoor irrigation. It is also legal to capture rainwater from your roof to use for irrigation or to flush your toilet even though it is untreated.

A bill currently before the state legislature offers counties more options when writing their local water use ordinances. It would allow counties to legalize the use of composting toilets and constructed wetlands for processing wastewater within established guidelines.

Southern Humboldt restorationist and permaculture practitioner Kyle Keegan summed up the message of many speakers during this day of wide-ranging discussion when he said, "The quantity and quality of


1. Participants in the fourth annual Water Day, held Sunday, April 13, at the Mateel Community Center, had an opportunity to get up close and personal with Eel River insect life at this booth sponsored by the Mary Power Lab at the University of California’s Angelo Creek Preserve.

2. This poster illustrates how water travels through our ecosystem and what people can do on their own land to make the most of water for the benefit of humans and wildlife. Besides several panel discussions, Water Day featured many booths about the science of water, practical help for using and protecting water, and how to participate in citizen monitoring projects.