The Big River watershed is getting a makeover. After 150 years of logging and roadbuilding, agencies and environmental organizations are focusing their efforts on decommissioning and repairing roads, replacing failed and undersized culverts, and restoring diversity to the waterway. During the logging days, timbermen built 29 splash dams on the river to control the movement of the logs they were taking out of the surrounding wilderness. The fast-moving logs scoured the riverbanks, removing the naturally accumulated debris and other little nooks that provide fish with a variety of places to hide or catch food or take refuge from predators and storms.
The Big River watershed is about 181 square miles, with four main branches and the longest undeveloped estuary in the state, at about 8 or 9 miles. In 2002, the Mendocino Land Trust bought a little over 7,300 acres of the watershed just outside the town of Mendocino from a timber company and donated it to the state parks system. State Parks did not receive staff or funding at the time of the acquisition, and has been cobbling together grants — and working with organizations that are very good at chasing grants — to chip away at the massive amount of work that needs to be done.
On Saturday, a group of about twenty people took a tour of a few projects on the way to Dry Dock Gulch, a restoration site that involved an unexpected beaver dam, a heart-wrenching decision, and the possibility of increased salmon habitat.
The tour was hosted by the Institute for Conservation, Advocacy, Research and Education, or ICARE, in collaboration with Trout Unlimited, California State Parks, and local engineering geologist Elias Steinbuck.
Anna Halligan is the Project Director for Trout Unlimited’s North Coast Coho Project. She says Big River has a lot going for it. Though much of the land that borders the public property is owned by timber companies, the days of clear cutting old growth and using the river as a highway for logs are gone. And timber precludes other forms of high-density development.
While salmon returns throughout the state are low enough to close the fisheries, numbers in Big River are trending upwards, which Halligan says makes the watershed a promising target for restoration goals.
“The idea is to really invest in these watersheds where we still have wild returns of salmon, and in relatively decent numbers,” she said, between stops on the tour. “There’s a study that came out that basically said you have to restore about 80% of the watershed to see a recovery response. And so I think that’s guiding this idea of really focusing on the watersheds that have the most salmon, and then from there — it’s not to say we can’t work in other watersheds, but really making an investment in certain key populations to both ensure that the public funds that are being spent are going to yield the benefits that we hope to yield, and also to recover the species, which is the main goal.”
One project that’s still in the planning phase is Rail Dump, a historic logging dump site and one of eight tidal flats in Big River. It’s a marshy meadow full of pickleweed and all kinds of animals that love to eat fish. It’s abruptly bisected by a road that prevents young salmon from escaping rising saltwater into one of the system’s few freshwater streams. It’s not a spawning stream, but Halligan says salmon need much more. “Juvenile mortality is a big part of the reason why salmon and steelhead populations have gone down,” she told the group. “So that’s one of the big focuses right now in steelhead restoration, is to make sure we are giving access to, and then enhancing these special habitats that are generally on the floodplain, or that are in these lower estuary areas, so that these fish can seek refuge during these big storm events, and be protected.”
The next stop on the tour was Dry Dock Gulch, which was just completed last month. There, an unexpected culprit had been creating another kind of barrier.
“Over the ten years, we’d never seen a beaver dam,” Halligan said. “And of course, the year that we go to do the project, they build a beaver dam, and it impounded water!” The beavers were chewing on redwood, which is unusual for them. They haven’t come back, which means they had probably already abandoned their small dam. “If they were occupying this area while we were doing the project, they would 100% come back and try and rebuild the dam immediately,” Halligan concluded. “I’ve worked on other sites where beavers are, and they will just fix it, immediately.”
Not far from the site, a young red-legged frog hopped in a puddle. It’s not one of the winners in this scenario. At Dry Dock, an impassable culvert that dangled from the roadbed above the river had blocked access to another freshwater stream that does contain spawning habitat. The culvert also created a pond, which is currently decked with picturesque water lilies. The dissolved oxygen in the pond is lethal to salmon, but over the years, it’s also become ideal habitat for a type of red-legged frog that’s not endangered, though it is a species of concern. After studying several options, the team decided to take an action that will eventually cause the pond to return to a meandering, fish-friendly stream.
Terra Fuller, a Senior Environmental Scientist with State Parks, says it’s some of the best frog habitat she’s ever seen. As a trained herpetologist, she told the group, “I love amphibians and reptiles. And I love red-legged frogs, and this is a red-legged frog pond. They are breeding like crazy here. But you kinda look at your options. You look at the historic, you look at the current, you look at the maintenance, you look at what it was, and I just think we had an obligation to turn it back to something like it used to be.” There is some consolation: “The good news is, there’s an oxbow pond across the way. So there’s no lack of pond lentic habitat in this system. I mean, it makes me feel a little better that there’s something nearby. But these are generations that have evolved to this system, and are tied to this system. Herps, amphibians especially, have a very strong site fidelity to a site. Even within thousands of feet, they will literally go back to their natal location. Even within a few hundred feet. But I think we just have to look at the evidence that’s in front of us as a land manager, and make the best decision we can. And again, this lower system is very important to salmonids. There’s not a lot of habitat. We’re basically grabbing the few habitats that we can provide for salmonids in this system. We know that we have other drowned tributary mouths, like Laguna, that are more natural in the system. But it doesn’t make it any easier. I think that these are the hard decisions that you have to make…This will probably be the hardest project that I’ll have to do as a biologist.”
Christina Aranguren, president of ICARE and a former director of the Mendocino City Community Services District, organized the tour because she wants to encourage people to make informed decisions about water. “The more I learned about our water security, and the more I’ve studied about water supply and the possibility of Mendocino and our surrounding region constructing a public water supply, the more I’ve come to the determination, my own personal opinion, that direct potable reuse is the answer for coastal communities like ours,” she said. “The idea of using water once and discarding it is past.”
She’s also concerned about the possibility of diversions from freshwater streams, which can interfere with the chemistry of a brackish system and wreak havoc with the spawning signals of anadromous fish. “Just as little as several years ago, there have been people who have been advocating for using the water from Dry Dock Gulch as a public water source,” she cautioned.
But Alyx Howell, another director of ICARE and a member of the Mishewal Wappo tribe from Sonoma County, was inspired by his first visit to Big River. He’s involved with Save California Salmon, which emphasizes the perspectives of Indigenous people and youth. He’s seen some pretty beat-up rivers. “Back in our rivers, the Sacramento River, the Russian River, there’s a lot of vineyards and a lot of ag-land all around that,” he said. “We really truthfully don’t even know what a healthy river should be. So to come up here and to see these natural landscapes without intrusion from the people, it’s giving us ideas for what the natural landscape should look like in our hills.”