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The Albion River Is Dead

The Albion River is dry. That should be enough of an alarm for some people. Obviously, there is water at its mouth, but the river itself is not flowing. At the confluence of the south fork of the Albion and its main branch there is nothing other than dry rock for 200 feet on the south fork. At the same confluence, the main branch dead-ends into a gravel bar. Clumps of stunted willows camouflage this dead end, but anyone willing to explore a little will soon discover that the main branch of the Albion River sits in stagnant pools, most of which can be walked through with ankle high boots. In other words both branches of the Albion River that flow from sources south and east of Comptche do not come within several miles of reaching the sea.

It was evident when I walked the area around South Fork in late May and early June that this would happen, barring a Noah like rain event in summer. It is obvious now that the river has been dry at its confluence for several weeks, likely dating back to around the Fourth of July.

Just a few hundred feet east of that dry confluence, Mendocino Redwood Company had some sort of fish counting apparatus installed on the South Fork of the Albion. At least they did at the end of May. It's gone now (as of July 25th). The removal had to have corresponded with a time when Mendocino Redwood employees would have been certain that there would be no fish to count because the river was sitting in nothing more than ever shallowing pools. As of July 25th Mendocino Redwood Company, the largest landowner in this county, outside of the government, had made no attempt to inform the public that one of the major coastal rivers of this county has ceased to flow. When I contacted MRC's coastal forest manager, Russ Shively, by phone on the 25th he grudgingly stated that he would talk to the company's person in charge of public information. We will see how quickly MRC bothers to inform the public or if readers will find out in these pages first about the utter lack of water flow in the Albion River.

I approached the confluence of the Albion's two branches last week from Tom Bell Flats (beside the Comptche-Ukiah Road), then followed the trickle downstream past the Louisiana-Pacific quarry to the old Heaton place. Long parenthetical without parentheses: My father always said, “There's the old Heaton place,” when we would pass it on foot or more often in his pickup truck. He did this for all places of significance along the Albion until you beat him to the punch and announced, “There's the old Heaton place.” Thus was history and geography passed down in my clan. The old Heaton place was more recognizable in my youth; Masonite, Louisiana-Pacific, and Mendocino Redwood Co. bulldozers have destroyed not only the remnants of the buildings but also the fruit trees that once stood there.

Between the Heaton place and a drastic turn the river takes at a place once known as “the Cape” (our family used to camp there occasionally, below the “rock cut” the railroad blasted through the hillside to lessen the severity of that bend as the rails paralleled the path of the river) the Albion is nothing more than a rock bottom with a smattering of pools barely deep enough to wet the fur of a small dog.

Further south and west the confluence of the creeks from Kaisen Gulch and Clearbrook Gulch are bone dry. A few feet away, a pitiful puddle is in the process of letting gravity drop the last few ounces of brackish water it still holds into the main river. The Kaisen and Clearbrook streams normally would be two of the largest tributaries to the Albion's main branch.

The same rock and gravel bound pools continue as you travel on to the confluence of the south fork and the main river. Here at the Macdonald Ranch some of the pools have turned dirt brown as they shrink. Those who live along the Albion watershed, from Albion Ridge to the west side of Little River Airport Road to the environs of Comptche should consider themselves forewarned. There is no water moving in the Albion. Without rain, what little sits in the river itself may soon dry up completely. The water your wells are pumping from underground is all you have. Be judicious.

At this time of year the citizens and businesses of Fort Bragg use between 600,000 to a million gallons of water per day. At present the city has the capacity to store 6.3 million gallons of water, meaning six to ten days of water is in reserve at any given time in the summer. Last Wednesday evening the Fort Bragg Planning Commission held a public hearing concerning the construction of a reservoir off Summers Lane that would hold an additional 14.7 million gallons. About a dozen concerned citizens showed up to ask questions, most of which had already been answered by the previously published staff report. It is still accessible online after navigating the City of Fort Bragg's website to the Council and Committee agenda section.

The closest neighbor to the proposed reservoir was concerned about possible flooding. A breach inundation study has found that in a worst case scenario break of the reservoir wall that neighbor would experience 20 minutes of flooding with the highest water at or about one foot, with a wave velocity of 2.62 feet per second.

The reservoir will be fully fenced to prevent drowning accidents for animals and young children. The reservoir will largely be collecting surface water, thus it should not impact wells dug previously in the vicinity.

Now, we move on to rumors about the project. The reservoir site does not abut the former Georgia-Pacific bark dump. Soil testing has supposedly been done, finding no hazardous toxins in the area of the proposed reservoir. At the July 23rd hearing at least one citizen stated that the public had not been given enough notice. Planning Commission Chair Derek Hoyle and Community Development Director Marie Jones both pointed out that the plan had already been before the same planning commission last fall and a quick check of the Fort Bragg newspaper back issues shows that the hearing and proposal was thoroughly noticed in a June edition's legal notices.

This brings us to the wildest rumor. That somehow the whole project is some sort of devious ploy to use the water not for residences in Fort Bragg, but only for development of environmentally insensitive businesses on the former G-P mill site. According to this theory the entire reservoir project is secretly being funded by the Koch brothers. Time will tell on that one, but two sources within the Fort Bragg city oligarchy assured me that funding for the reservoir will come from a mix of different government grants.

This year bears more and more of a striking resemblance to the summer of 1927 when my father and his brothers had to dig deep holes in the bottom land along the river here in order to find enough water to sate the family milk cow. They also had to walk downriver and far up into the one gulch that bubbled up water from an underground spring in order to provide drinking water for themselves and their mother.

All we need in 2014 is for the Koch brothers to fund a truly adept rainmaker to open the skies above Mendocino County and this entire golden brown state.

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