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Eel Talk & Trip

[Apr 5, 6]

People normally think of the reach of the Eel River within the Potter Valley Project (PVP) as the center of controversy over water diversion, made even more so as dam removal or relicensing is considered. In fact the reach between the dams is a hidden treasure with immense recreational and restoration potential whether the dams come out or remain. The Eel River Recovery Project (ERRP) is starting a feasibility study on restoring salmon habitat between the dams and developing a trail parallel the river that would allow salmon watching and increase recreational infrastructure available to people in Mendocino County and beyond.

This potential will be explored in a talk by ERRP Managing Director Pat Higgins on the evening of Friday, April 5 at 7 PM at the Willits Environmental Hub at 630 South Main Street. On the following day, Saturday, April 6 there will be a field trip to the upper Eel River to see some of the problems and potential of this beautiful Eel River reach. We will depart from the Hub at 8:30 AM. 

One of Pat Higgins’ discoveries about Chinook salmon between the PVP dams is that habitat is very poor because recruitment of gravel for spawning substrate is blocked by Scott Dam and other gravel is perched on terraces disconnected from the active river channel. One hundred years of hydropower operation with relatively static flows has allowed riparian willows to form a very narrow stream channel in the middle of what used to be a meandering river bed. The result is very poor spawning and rearing habitat for Chinook salmon. 

During his talk on Friday night, Pat will show examples of how the Trinity River Restoration Program remedied this problem in a dam effected reach below Lewiston. They found that strategic removal of riparian willow on alternating sides of the river, called feather edging, reconnected flood terraces. That, in turn, gave juvenile Chinook access to slower waters for rearing in winter and increased the availability of spawning substrate for adult Chinook salmon.

PG&E owns the land on both sides of the Eel River channel. The land has been placed under a conservation easement as a result of a Settlement Agreement related to bankruptcy proceedings in 2000, which has restoration as one of its objectives. Although PG&E is looking to divest from the PVP, the conservation easement will run with the land, so there seems to be potential for future cooperation on salmon habitat restoration. While the upper Eel River is not far from communities like Willits and Ukiah, it is seldom visited. The section of river within the Potter Valley has extraordinary scenic value.

On Saturday, April 6 there will be a field trip to the upper Eel River by way of Potter Valley. The trip will begins with a visit to the origin of the potential trail at Pioneer Bridge, where the road from Potter Valley to Lake Pillsbury crosses the Eel River. Trout Creek Campground will be the next stop, because it demonstrates how flood terraces can be cut off by over-grown willow. 

Soda Creek is the last spawning tributary below Scott Dam and Pat will lead a tour of a restoration project there that helped permit and monitor. After lunch on the shores of Lake Pillsbury, we will look for Tule elk on the grassy plain above the lake. The group will then take a short drive up to an overlook to assess the damage of the Mendocino Fire in the upper Eel River watershed.

Those wishing to get a ride for the field trip can call Robin Leler (459-0155) to reserve a place in the Willits Goes Wild van, but others are encouraged to join the trip in their vehicles. The road is rough in places, so people may car pool from the Hub as well. Anyone wishing to join the field trip from Ukiah can meet the group across from the Potter Valley store at 9:45 AM. Bring a lunch and shoes appropriate for walking. See and the ERRP Facebook page for more. Or call Pat Higgins for more information at 707 223-7200.

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