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Blast From the Past: A Wasteful Watershed Meeting, July, 1995

JaundicedEye(Note: This is a typical report from a "watershed group" meeting almost 20 years ago to discuss the status of a "study" costing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars which produced nothing but a "report" which ended up doing nothing but summarizing generic stream restoration materials from watershed restoration textbooks and recommending them as "voluntary" measures which no one besides those who would have done them anyway — sans study — would have done. Louisiana-Pacific has since cut and run, of course, and the new owner, the Fisher family, billionaire owners of The Gap and other retail outlets, is doing a better job of road maintenance, at least. The resultant report, which cost over $300k of money that could have been spent at least monitoring stream flow and maintaining minimum stream flows over the next two decades, was wasted on a study that did nothing but sit on the shelf and collect sediment. — Mark Scaramella, 2013)

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“Putting Numbers on What We Already Know”

Muddying Sediment

by Mark Scaramella

The Navarro Watershed Advisory Group met Thursday, May 22, 1995, to hear the Group's consultant, Trihey and Associates, present Chapter 3 of their long-awaited report, “Sediment Production and Channel Conditions in the Navarro River Watershed,” aka the “Sediment Budget.” The group is headquartered in downtown Boonville in an office replete with color computers, plush room dividers, wall-to-wall carpeting, and people walking around with vague smiles amd coffee cups clutched in their hands. The prevailing local suspicion is that the enterprise exists to feed itself with outside grant money all the while promoting an illusion of real watershed repair.

The Sediment Budget has been a relatively contentious item ever since the group’s managers removed it from the initial consulting contract without coordinating with the Advisory Group shortly after Trihey had been selected as the consultant, because Trihey didn't have the technical capability to do it. A howl arose from certain local enviro Advisory Group members. The sediment budget was the heart of the study, they said. It was put back in, but with limited funding, after arrangements were made for Trihey to farm out most of the sediment budget preparation to Humboldt State staffers with the requisite expertise. However, due to the budget limitations, all that could be done was a “rapid” budget with limited field work.

The impressively thick sediment budget report contains the usual pseudo-scientific bafflegab. It breaks sediment down to “non-road related” and “road related.” Non-road related is from “soil creep (3.7%), shallow slides (10.6%), stream-side erosion (40.5%), deep land­slides (5.3%) and gullies (17.1%).” (There was even a weird reference to the sediment produced by “burrowing rodents,” i.e., gopher holes. That’s right, gophers.) Not surprisingly “road-related” sediment is from roads (22.8%), mostly logging roads, although the timber industry reps present insist that Trihey’s report overstates the obviously large amount of sediment produced by their logging roads. Since the report is based on what Trihey calls an “order of magnitude estimate,” the annual sediment production is thought to be somewhere in the large range of 100,000 and 1,000,000 tons per year. (A good sized dump truck can handle maybe two tons of gravel, so this would represent perhaps 50,000 to 500,000 truckloads of sediment coming down out of the Valley’s hills each year, on average.)

The Watershed Advisory Group’s prime mover and matron, Connie Best, began by noting that the project is “running out of money in a lot of areas, but that's to be expected at this point since we are getting some products now, however slowly.” Best added that her group is looking for money to continue the study effort and that the Land Trust has come up with some additional funding to pay for a few more months of Coordinator Dan Sicular's time since, Best added, “he is essential.”

Helen Libeu was the only person who pointed out that Trihey had been contracted to provide a certain service for a certain amount of money. “And that service should be provided,” noted Libeu. “Why is that (running out of money) our problem? Don't they have to provide the service? And since they are responsible for the delays, shouldn't they pay for Mr. Sicular's extended services?”

Best and Sicular replied that they wanted to defer the funding questions until after the (costly) presentation. (Trihey’s reps charge by the hour to attend these meetings. Except for Sicular, everybody else is expected to work gratis.) But of course due to the length of the presentation and the tame, tedious question and answer period that followed, the funding questions, fortunately for Trihey, Best and Sicular, never came up again.

After requesting and getting permission, Bruce Gwynn of the Regional Water Quality Control Board handed out copies of a technical critique of Trihey's Sediment Budget which he had paid another environmental consulting firm, Tetratech, to prepare. “I don't want this to be disruptive,” said Gwyne, insisting that the Tetratech comments were “real constructive.” (These meetings are heavy on therapy-speak aimed at, of course, coercive harmony.) Gwynn also offered to find some more funding “to get additional technical work done if elements of the sediment yield are addressed.” Gwynn's agency is under a court order stemming from a 1995 Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund lawsuit to determine Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) (sediment and temperature maximums) since the Navarro River was declared “impaired” due to sediment and high temperatures by the EPA in 1995. “This (the Trihey exercise) is a quarter of a million dollar grant!” said Gwynn, trying to justify his outside consultant's separate paid review. “We have to comply with the law,” he added. Then Gwynne apologized to the landowners present, assuring them he’s a reasonable guy, not a “tree-hugger” disguised as a bureaucrat:  “I live in a wood house. I eat fish. I can't change things, I can only inform.”

Senior troublemaker Helen Libeu handed out her own written critique of the Trihey Sediment Budget as well as a critique drafted by Dr. Fred Euphrat, an hydrologist and forester whom Libeu had asked to review Trihey’s report. L-P's Tom Daugherty handed out L-P's written critique of the sediment budget. There was no discussion or even acknowledgement of any of the critiques.

Trihey senior consultant Mitch Katzell then gave an overview of his firm’s report, repeating info from April’s meeting that the decline of the Valley’s fisheries was caused by high water temperatures, a lack of large woody debris in the creeks, and an excess of sediment, particularly fine sediment, in the tributaries and the Navarro itself. The worst sediment is in Anderson and Rancheria Creeks; other streams seem to be producing less sediment. Katzell attributed Anderson Creek's obvious sediment problem to its “melange terrain” and its wide, shallow channel which reduces its ability to transport sediment.

Katzell re-emphasized that this was an “order of magnitude” sediment budget, meaning that it was mostly professional guesswork which could be off by a factor of 10 either way.

The pointer was then handed to Humboldt State Professor Andre Lehre who presented numerous charts and photos to buttress his presentation on non-road-related sediment. The “rapid” sediment budget depends heavily on trying to apply past studies performed elsewhere to this project, without much Anderson Valley field work or original analysis. Andre said that even though they called it an “order of magnitude” estimate, he felt it was probably off by only a factor of two or three either way. It was, Lehre believed, proportionately correct, however, in terms of what sources produced what percentage of what sediment.

Katzell then returned for a tedious encore performance covering road-related sediment. In essence, Trihey and Associates had used aerial photos and a few local road walks to measure road densities in various basins in the watershed. Then they applied Dr. Leslie Reid's breakdown of road sediment in Washington state to guess the amount and types of sediment coming from the roads.

When asked if they considered the hillslope gradient that the roads were cut into, Dr. Lehre replied that they couldn't do that. “It took us an enormous amount of time to get what we got. Without GIS data (computerized mapping) that would be beyond our ability.”

When asked if there was any cumulative, exponential effect as road densities multiplied, Katzell and Lehre both replied, “We don't know.”

Lehre emphasized that much of the analysis depended on professional estimates and approximations of the relative amounts of sediment, adding that they used two “different” models to estimate road-related sediment: a “basin” model and a “roads” model. And since they came out “close” (within 50%) they had confidence in the results.

Libeu responded that it seemed to her that the whole report simply “put numbers on things we have known for a long time. There's no new stuff in these numbers, just putting the stuff in nice neat packages.”

Lehre continued, “The two models came out within 50% of each other which is an A+ for this level of crudity.” Lehre said that it would have been better if they had “a certain large timber company’s” (L-P's, obviously) road inventory. L-P's Daugherty, picking up on his cue, said that their road inventory had not been completed yet, and that they hadn't decided if they were going to turn it over to the group. Katzell’s presentation included a map of the Valley showing “polygons” (areas) with varying road densities from “very few or no roads” to “high road density — industrial timber roads but with fewer roads and skid trails primarily utilizing cable yarder methods,” and “very high road density — industrial timber roads utilizing tractor yarding methods.” Although the charts, as usual, do not correlate road density or land use to property ownership, the locals present noted that the highest road densities tended to be on L-P’s huge holdings in the Valley’s forested hills closer to the Coast.

AV Grange/logger rep Morgan Baynam said he liked the report overall, calling it a “Herculean task,” but that it seemed to him that Trihey had overlooked the big Indian Creek slide of years ago in their landslide accounting. Baynam also thought that the road contribution might be overstated since the logging roads are not used during the wet winter season, whereas residential roads are.

Tom Schott replied that, even so, road densities in logged areas are obviously much greater.

Lehre said that their road-related sediment yields were based on estimating miles of roads, using the Dr. Reid’s Washington study to assign road types, road use and corresponding sediment production, which took seasonal road use into account.

When Diane Paget said she thought local people ought to be more involved in the project in the future, Coordinator Dan Sicular interrupted. Paget immediately rebuked him: “Would you let local people talk? Certain people always seem to get shut up when they try to talk.” Paget went on to say that local people should be trained to do more surveys and participate more. Sicular then explained that he had only tried to interrupt to agree with Paget.

When Libeu complained that the report didn't address the causes of excess sediment production, that it overemphasized geology and underestimated human land use, Lehre replied that such considerations would be in the “next planning phase.” Katzell added that perhaps they shouldn't have mentioned the few “restoration implications” that they did (i.e. put logs in small creeks) since that whole topic would be covered in the next phase: “restoration.”

Besides having successfully avoided any uncomfortable public discussion of the funding problems, the various written critiques of the Trihey report were never discussed; the consultant's time consuming presentation pushed the meeting into such a late hour that there was no time left for the critiques. Here is a summary of what could be called Sediment Budget Deficits:

• L-P's critique (“provided by the Wildlife and Fisheries Group of Louisiana-Pacific Corporation... by an individual with watershed science, geomorphology and soil erosion experience and training.”) — Not enough field surveys and too much “professional” opinion. (L-P's quotes.) Road-related sediment delivery to waterways is overstated since some doesn't make it into the streams. Road classifications and associated sediment production is based on data from another watershed. Log roads are closed during the winter. “Order of magnitude” estimates for road-related sediment are not appropriate. The conclusion that pools are filling up with sediment are based on only one summer of measurement. I.e, overall, L-P thinks their roads aren't so bad.

L-P’s critique is instructive. The Valley’s 800-pound gorilla, controlling a third of the Valley’s land, is putting the group on notice (with a suitably subtle professional tone) that if the watershedders or the government come up with anything that might cost them much or negatively impact their long vanished “good neighbor” image, they will roll out their own staff of slick “professionals” to dispute the findings, muddy the water (so to speak), and minimize their expense. Mammoth corporations like L-P can always out-professionalize the professionals. Of course, if the taxpayer pays, L-P will be happy to cooperate.

• Tetratech's critique — The report does not provide targets for sediment or thermal loading; no connection made between sediment source control and instream impacts; considerable uncertainty in the estimates; too much emphasis on restoration, not enough on “load control”; “promised analyses of instream stores and rates of transport were not included”; “does not provide a complete picture of rates of transport”; no attempt to “calibrate sediment production estimates to instream measures”; no attribution of sediment to land use even though “roads, timber harvest, agriculture, grazing, grading and other land disturbances” are listed as generic sediment sources; no mention of watershed fire history or timber operations history; no predictions of stream responses if sediment load is reduced… “The report does not actually develop the foundation for a legally defensible TMDL”; not enough temperature data. In addition, Tetratech’s review of the meeting minutes concluded that the sediment budget was added “after a lot of bickering among the advisory group members” — strong words for a technical consultant. The Tetratech critique also refers to several tasks which will be required later (with additional grant funds, of course) to comply with the court order to undo the Navarro’s “impaired” designation. The Tetratech document asserts, oxymoronically, that one of the project’s three goals is to “enhance the efforts of those who live and work in the Navarro watershed in taking personal re­sponsibility for managing their land and activities in order to minimize negative impacts on the health of the watershed, respecting both the rights and responsibilities of private property.” I.e., besides a few token logs in some small creeks on the property of a few greenish members of Advisory Group, nothing will be done.

• Dr. Euprhat's critique — The report is not a sediment budget, only a sediment production estimate; the estimates are “very loose”; insufficient mention of land use contributions to excess sediment production; no distinction between historic or recent land use actions; inadequate substantiation of sediment production estimates; no explanation of whether streamside erosion is due to tree removal or stream erosion itself, and no estimate of how retention of tree root systems would improve hillslope shear strength.

• Libeu's critique — The report is not a sediment budget since it addresses only sediment production, not storage, transport or output; too much emphasis on geology, not enough on land use and human activity; too much data from elsewhere, not enough measurement in the Navarro watershed; naivete about the likelihood that very many local landowners will participate (if only a few participate, their efforts will be for naught); no reference to forest practice rules and their adequacy, nor County land use regulations; no mention of the court-ordered TMDL target establishment; too many vague recommendations…  Libeu adds this point: “Anderson Creek has the highest sediment yield (31% of total) ‘due primarily to erosion processes associated with Melange terrain.’ Geology did it? Come on now. Anderson Creek ALWAYS had this geology, but it used to have coho. Geology alone did not cause the filling in of this basin. If geology was the villain, there would NEVER have been coho there. If geology makes good land use more difficult in these basins, that means landowners have to try harder, NOT that they can relax and just blame it all on geology.” Libeu added that unless the report is more concrete it will only be “a nice volume for a library or the basis for someone to seek yet another grant, and then another…” ¥¥

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