More than 100 attend Salt River open house; 2017 work on $34 million ecosystem restoration project showcased

From the November 9, 2017 print edition

When you combine a free lunch, compliments of No Brand Burger Stand, with a free bus tour, compliments of Humboldt Transit Authority, you’re likely to get a pretty good turnout for a sunny Saturday afternoon meeting in Ferndale. And that’s what happened last weekend when the Salt River Watershed Council (SRWC) hosted an event that began at the Veterans Hall in Ferndale and extended to Port Kenyon Road, attracting a crowd of more than 100 people, who received a bird’s eye view of 2017’s version of the Salt River Ecosystem Restoration Project (SRERP).

Ferndale Mayor Don Hindley, who has also served for the past year as the chairman of the SRWC, welcomed a standing room only crowd to the event last Saturday and was joined by other leaders in the SRERP in providing an overview of the project, before joining in a guided visit of this year’s project footprint.

“I think you’ll be amazed,” said Hindley in his welcoming remarks to the crowd.

The mayor was referring to progress made in the 2017 chapter of an ambitious and unparalleled restoration project designed to return to a functioning status a river which for the past 100 years had become clogged with sediment, filled with trees and vegetation and inhospitable to everyone and everything that depended upon it.

As reported at Saturday’s meeting and tour event, approximately $34 million has been spent in the SRERP since the first backhoe of sediment was removed in 2013. This year’s phase of the project cost $3.25 million in a bid that was awarded to Eureka’s Figas Construction, a company that removed a reported 200,000 cubic yards of sediment from a relatively small area adjacent to the City of Ferndale’s waste water treatment plant on Port Kenyon Road north of the city limits. The most recent edition of the SRERP also cleared sediment and reestablished Francis Creek as the eastern-most tributary to the Salt River, as well as reconnecting the city’s east side drainage system, all in an effort to eliminate flooding, while returning the waterway as home to fish and wildlife.

In addition to Hindley, Humboldt County Resource Conservation Executive Director Jill Demers also spoke at the event, providing visitors with an historic perspective for the Salt River, as well as a review of accomplishments over the past four years.

“With European settlement in the late 1800s, the productive agricultural land use you see today was established on this landscape,” said Demers. “The Salt River was key to this establishment and it hosted the Port Kenyon area, which at that time was a major port for the shipping industry to move agricultural products to other areas. At that time, Salt River was about 200 feet wide and 15 feet deep.”

Demers then illustrated a series of photos showing how Salt River had degraded to such a point that, just prior to the beginning of the SRERP, it had been narrowed to a simple six-foot wide ditch, completely overwhelmed by sedimentation and vegetation.

According to a 2005 Salt River Watershed Assessment Report produced by the California Department of Fish and Game, both natural causes and changes introduced by early settlers contributed to the dysfunction of Salt River. The 2005 report points out that because of the relatively young geologic age of the Wildcat Mountains south of Ferndale, sediment had readily found its way to the Salt River from its many tributaries, including Coffee, Williams, Francis and Reas Creeks, precipitated in part from the effects of high rainfall in the area, steep terrain and earthquakes. The report also points out the negative impact on Salt River’s ability to drain the swamp, so to speak, due to a multitude of changes introduced by early settlers in the Eel River Valley who converted what historically had been sections of marsh and wetlands to agricultural land uses. Among the changes noted in the report were the introduction of dams, levees and floodgates, the straightening and realignment of tributaries, removal of shade trees and future degradation of the Wildcat Mountains due to major logging operations and development of roads to support those operations.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn also spoke at the event and, after taking a lion’s share of credit for the project’s success, introduced Congressman Jared Huffman, who more appropriately shared that success with the many individuals and agencies who have played key roles over that past three decades.

“It’s really amazing to me what a community can do when it comes together and does the hard work of genuine collaboration,” said Huffman. “This has been in motion, I’m told for about 30 years, so Rex is right, we inherited a lot of good foundational work from our predecessors but that all means we’re deeply invested in keeping this on-track.”

Two buses donated by Humboldt Transit Authority provided transportation for attendees to the 2017 project site, located between Market Street to the east and California Street to the west along Port Kenyon Road. The guide on one of those buses was Jeremy Svelha, an environmental engineer for Eureka-based GHD who played a key role in the project’s design. Svelha pointed out various improvements to Francis Creek, Ferndale’s east side drainage system and to the much larger segment of Salt River benefiting from efforts in 2017.

While standing on the Port Kenyon Bridge and overlooking recently completed work, Svelha and his tour group received a cameo appearance from one of the benefiting landowners along Salt River, who offered his thoughts after stopping his tractor on the bridge.

“Did he (Svelha) tell you that it’s all going to fill back up with sediment again,” said local rancher Willie Lorenzen. “No, he just tells you what he wants you to hear.”

Svelha thanked Mr. Lorenzen for sharing his thoughts, before politely encouraging him to move his tractor out of the way of the tour group. In his closing remarks,

Hindley invited community members to attend the monthly meetings of the SRWC, which are normally scheduled for the third Tuesday each month. At its November meeting (which was changed to the second Tuesday because of Thanksgiving) the SRWC will begin the process of naming a new chairman, as well as fill other board positions, as some of those will be vacated. Once formed, the new SRWC board will be tasked with coming up with a funding mechanism that will allow it to maintain the SRERP, once the final parts of the project are completed and its turned over to the local non-profit.

Over the past three years, the SRWC has discussed the possibility of establishing a district, or utilizing another that may already exist, in order to consider assessing a fee-structured funding alternative applicable to all property owners who will benefit from improvements to Salt River.

In addition to landowners along Salt River who have already benefited from the project, the City of Ferndale has also realized benefits from it, as discharge from its waste water treatment facility can now actually connect to the river via Francis Creek, a function it has not enjoyed during the many years the area was plugged by an abundance of sediment.

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