Elk River Update—Deciding to Decide

By
Tuesday, May 24th, 2016
Elk River flowing over road. Photo courtesy of Elk River Residents Association

Elk River flowing over road. Photo courtesy of Elk River Residents Association

Decisions, decisions, decisions…It has happened to all of us, surely, at one time or another. It can seem so complicated to make even the most basic of decisions, at times. We can talk ourselves into a state of paralysis, turning over the relative merits of one choice over another. In the end though, regardless of how much we debate, we eventually have to make decisions and live with the consequences.

On May 12, 2016, the Regional Board finally moved to adopt a sediment impairment remediation and watershed recovery plan for the Elk River, some 14 years after its self-imposed deadline. The tale of the “how’s,” and “why’s,” that this has taken so long, can be untangled when looked at through the lens of history, politics, and fear of backlash.

Background

The Elk River watershed was severely damaged in 80’s and 90’s by the reckless and irresponsible liquidation logging of MAXXAM/Pacific Lumber Company. Then, the combination of this reckless logging and the advent of the 1996/1997 New Year’s storms that brought heavy rains to the North Coast, saw the river system and the upland watershed begin to unravel as massive landslides, streambank failures, road and road infrastructure failures introduced overwhelming amounts of sediment pollution to the river system.

In the wake of the obvious devastation, in 1997, an inter-agency team conducted field investigations of the Elk River watershed and four other Humboldt County watersheds, finding in every case that these systems were “significantly adversely cumulatively impacted from sediment with logging as a contributing factor.” The Elk River watershed was designated as sediment impaired and placed on the 303(d) list of impaired waterbodies under the federal Clean Water Act. The federal and state water management agencies both agreed that the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board would take the lead on preparing the remediation and recovery plan for Elk River, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), and would complete it and adopt it by 2002.

The Wait is the Hardest Part

In the 18 years since the 303(d) designation of Elk River, not only has the Regional Water Board failed to produce the TMDL, but the impaired and polluted condition of the so-called “impacted reach,” i.e. the reach of the river where massive amounts of logging-related sediment pollution have been stuck and languishing for nearly two decades, is actually continuing to worsen, not improve. And despite changes in ownership and management practices, the timber industry’s own Report of Waste Discharge to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board on its sediment pollution discharges in the Elk River watershed actually shows that contemporary timber harvest activities in the watershed are still contributing new pollution to the river system, incrementally compounding the problem.

The sediment pollution has caused unnatural and frightening increases in the frequency and intensity of flooding in residential areas, resulting in impairment of domestic and agricultural water supplies, loss of traditional land-based economic activities, the flooding of roads, homes, and properties, and threaten the very health, safety, and lives of local residents, as the flood waters prevent ingress and egress from the neighborhood.

Local residents and fisheries and environmental advocates have struggled for nearly two decades to compel state and federal regulatory agencies to act to restrict further logging and logging pollution, clean up the mess left behind by MAXXAM/Pacific Lumber, and begin to restore the Elk River watershed. However, bureaucratic lethargy has virtually stymied citizen’s and citizen group’s efforts at every turn. The weapon being used to forestall the process has not been lawsuits, but largely the planting of seeds of doubt and insisting on “certainty” in the science and analytical documentation detailing watershed conditions and root causes.

Paralysis by Analysis

After the initial inter-agency investigation in 1997, a litany of studies and reports have been produced, almost all of which have come to essentially the same conclusion: logging practices have resulted in massive an incomprehensible amounts of sediment pollution being introduced to the river system, and that massive quantities of this sediment pollution are now stored in the lower reaches of the watershed, the so-called, “impacted reach,” the virtual ground-zero for local residents in the watershed.

However, after 18 years of science and bureaucratic process, the most basic, and fundamental finding of all the study and analysis—that the watershed is crippled with impairment from logging-related sediment pollution—has never actually changed. What has transpired can be characterized as a battle of the experts, with the agencies, the timber industry, and the general public alike marshalling scientists to study, re-study, critique, tweak, and study again, the studies and reports generated to serve as the basis for the actual decisions to be made about how to resolve the sediment pollution problem.

In 2013, Janet Parrish, representing the EPA, wrote a letter to the Regional Board to chide its lethargy and inaction to stem the tide of sediment pollution from logging and begin the process of recovering the river and its water quality. Parrish described the heel-dragging and delays as “paralysis by analysis.” The quest for “certainty” obfuscated the essential facts of the situation and the clear legal mandates of the Regional Board to act to correct the problems.

De Ja Vu All Over Again

Regional Board staff have brought at least two or three other action proposals before the Board Members to address problems in Elk River over the last 18 years, all of which have been rejected, mostly on the basis that further study and refinement of the studies has been necessary before final action can be taken.

On April 7, 2016, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board met in Eureka, poised to decide whether or not to finally adopt the TMDL for Elk River, now some 14 years tardy, and whether or not to adopt a new pollution regulation and control permit for the primary timberland owner in the Elk River watershed, Humboldt Redwood Company, successor to the now-bankrupt MAXXAM/Pacific Lumber Company.

After hours of testimony, hearing, and deliberations on the proposed adoption of the TMDL, members of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, weary and blurry-eyed from over 12 hours of meeting, decided to defer making a decision, long after a substantial number of hearing participants and interested parties had succumbed to the attrition of the day. The rest of the agenda, including the new pollution and control permit for Humboldt Redwood Company, was kicked down the road.

Then, on May 12, 2016, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board once again made the journey to Humboldt County, again poised to decide whether or not to decide. After considerable deliberation and vociferous decent from certain Board Members, the Regional Board finally, at long-last, adopted the Elk River TMDL. As for the new pollution regulation and control permit for HRC? The Regional Board, after much public testimony and deliberations, decided once again to defer, or to not decide, until a later date. The reason? The Regional Board members want to study and consider the permit further, before finally deciding to decide.

The Regional Board is poised to meet again on June 16, 2016 and perhaps this time it will finally decide to decide. After some 25 years or more of engagement and advocacy for the forests, watersheds, wildlife, and downstream residents of the Elk River watershed, EPIC knows all too well that sometimes it is vigilance, and not discretion, that constitutes the better part of valor.

Click here to read the Times-Standard article about Elk River.