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Clean Water or Industrial Waste Ditch—The Future of Elk River Still Hangs in the Balance

Flooding on Elk River Road.  Photo Credit:

Elk River and its residents, human and otherwise, continue to play second-fiddle to the industrial timber ensemble of Humboldt Redwood Company and Green Diamond Resource Company when it comes to state agency enforcement and regulation of logging.

EPIC expects this from CAL FIRE, an agency that seemingly never met a THP it didn’t like and want to approve. What’s more disappointing is the 20-years and-counting of heel-dragging by the North Coast Regional Water Board to develop and implement a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and TMDL Action Plan for Elk River, and to develop logging sediment pollution regulatory and permitting frameworks that will protect and recover the Elk River.

Elk River was listed as water quality-impaired in 1997 due to excessive sediment, turbidity and flooding resulting from intense second-cycle logging conducted by the Pacific Lumber Company under MAXXAM and the now-defunct Elk River Timber Company. In 2002, the North Coast Water Board and the EPA reached a Memorandum of Understanding in which the North Coast Water Board agreed to prepare a TMDL to address sediment impairments in Elk River.

Fast-forward to 2016, when the North Coast Water Board, eventually adopted a TMDL to address sediment impairments in Elk River. What happened in the interceding years? Studies, studies of studies, synthesis of studies, critiques of studies, then, more studies, and more synthesis of studies. As if all this isn’t frustrating enough, all the studies ever done on sediment impairment, with the exception of one, commissioned by PALCO, have concluded that the river is sediment impaired and that the logging was and continues to be the primary cause.

It took the Regional Water Board three attempts before it was able to finally adopt the TMDL to address sediment impairment in Elk River. The limit established in the TMDL, known as the Load Allocation is zero, meaning that the Elk River cannot intake or assimilate more sediment as it is currently overwhelmed with sediment.

The Regional Water Board also adopted a TMDL Action and Implementation Plan that relied on three major components to arrest sediment pollution inputs and to recover the beneficial uses of water: permits for continued industrial timber harvest for both Humboldt Redwood Company and Green Diamond Resource Company were to be re-visited and revised to ensure consistency with the new TMDL. A Recovery Assessment that would study the feasibility of in-stream and near-stream sediment remediation and removal projects was the second component and the third was to be a Watershed Stewardship Group to facilitate communication and cooperation among landowners and stakeholders in the watershed.

On August 1, 2017, the State Water Board ratified the Elk River TMDL and Action Plan. In doing so, the State Board strengthened the TMDL by requiring that the zero Load Allocation applied specifically to anthropogenic activities, like industrial logging operations. The State Board also issued a directive to the Regional Board to ensure a full attainment of the zero Load Allocation by no later than 2030. To accomplish this, the State Board directed the Regional Board to go back and revisit and revise as necessary the sediment pollution control permits for both HRC and Green Diamond by February 2019.

The Elk River Recovery Assessment Framework Draft paper has only recently been completed and released. And, while a few small and discrete remediation projects are underway, the Regional Board is entirely dependent on the large industrial timberland owners, most notably HRC to either fund or match funds to ensure project implementation. Meanwhile, the first version of the Elk River Stewardship Group crashed and burned spectacularly under the ill-fated leadership of Humboldt County. This group is not yet back up and running.

Even if the Recovery Assessment and its actions were fully and independently funded, basic questions remain as to the real goal of such remediation: is it to recover the river, or is it to increase the assimilative capacity of the river to facilitate yet more logging and more aggressive logging?

Meanwhile, nuisance conditions continue to prevail in Elk River, as heavy winter rains cause heavy overbank flooding that delivers sediment into salmon spawning grounds and continues to threaten the health, safety, ingress and egress of local residents, as well as the safety of public facilities like roads and bridges.

The North Coast Water Board is set to miss its directive deadline to adopt revisions to the sediment pollution control permits for HRC and Green Diamond and those timber operations in the Elk River watershed by the end of January 2019. Astonishingly, the North Coast Regional Water Board is still accepting permit enrollment applications for both companies under the old permitting frameworks while the clock continues to run.

40-years and counting, EPIC is keeping its watchful eye on the Elk River and will continue to fight for clean water and enforcement of the law.


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