Redwood Creek Water Conservation Project

Record low flows bring on the heat for fish and landowners in what once was considered salmon refugia

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Redwood Creek, a tributary of the South Fork Eel River, includes five tributaries that have historically supported salmon runs.

Salmonid Restoration Federation, a non-profit organization concerned with instream flows for salmon, is initiating the next phase of the Redwood Creek Water Conservation Project — a low-flow study in Redwood Creek tributaries and a community water rights forum. Last winter SRF in conjunction with an HSU graduate student, Sara Schremmer, distributed a water usage survey to all landowners in drainages of Redwood Creek, an important coho-bearing tributary in the South Fork Eel River watershed. Redwood Creek is a 26-mile watershed that has historically supported strong runs of Chinook, coho salmon, and steelhead. Juveniles of these species are found throughout the watershed in spring and early summer, with coho and steelhead rearing in the watershed until migrating to the ocean the following spring. The best spawning reaches are found in Dinner, China, and Miller Creeks, as well as Redwood Creek and Upper Redwood Creek.

Seventy residents and landowners participated in the anonymous surveys that were designed to gather baseline data and obtain a clear understanding of human use patterns in the watershed. The surveys contained questions related to residential water usage, withdrawal rates, and on-site storage capacity. From the data, we found that there is a significant relationship between how respondents talk about the health of the creek and how interested they are in protective measures and restoration efforts. Several landowners expressed interest in participating in the low-flow study that will be conducted this summer in Miller and Seely creeks. To see the full report, download it here.

Gathering baseline flow data and increasing instream flows are key recovery actions for endangered coho salmon. The South Fork Eel River was once a significant fishery in California and is a vital link for coho recovery from Northern California to Southern Oregon. This spring had the lowest rainfall between January and April in Humboldt County history and summer begins on the Eel River with record low flows. This is due to climate change, alteration of the forest landscape and subsequent changes in hydrology, increased residential development, and water diversions for both legal and illegal activities. The Green Rush and water demands have increased dramatically in recent years and creeks that once supported salmon populations are now intermittent or sucked dry at the end of summer.

Recent enforcement actions in both China Creek and Seely Creek have spurred the State Water Quality Control Board to issue notices of “Potential Unauthorized Diversion and Use of Water,” and “Failure to File a Statement of Water Diversion and Use of Diversion in Humboldt County.” These water diversion and permit requirements are not new regulations but they have not previously been enforced in Humboldt County. According to the Resource Renewal Institute’s online atlas, only two landowners have established water rights in the Redwood Creek watershed. 27 landowners in China Creek have received an enforcement letter with one-month notice to file their permits. Representatives of the Department of Fish and Wildlife have said that this is part of a broader “enforcement sweep.”