As a long-time resident of the Elk River basin, which drains the redwood-studded hills southeast of Eureka, Jesse Noell lives in fear of the rain. During storms of even moderate intensity, the Elk River often rises above its banks and dumps torrents of mud and sand across Noell and his neighbors' properties. The churning surges of foamy brown water have ruined domestic water supplies, inundated vehicles, buried farmland and spilled into homes.
It first happened to Noell and his wife, Stephanie, in 2002. As the flood approached, he remained inside his home to wedge bricks and rocks beneath their furniture, and pile pictures, books and other prized possessions atop cabinets and counters. The water level was at his thighs; his body spasmed in the winter cold. Across the street, two firefighters in a raft paddled furiously against the current, carrying his neighbors—military veterans in their 60s, who were at risk of drowning—to higher ground.
After crouching and shivering atop the kitchen counter through the night, Noell was finally able to wade through the floodwater to higher ground the next morning. But the home's sheetrock, floors, heating equipment, water tanks, floor joints, girders and septic system were destroyed. This experience wasn't an act of nature; it was manmade.
"California has a systematic and deliberate policy to flood our homes and properties for the sake of corporate profit," Noell says.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
The cause of the flooding is simple: logging. Since the 1980s, timber companies have logged thousands of acres of redwood trees and Douglas firs, and constructed a spider web–like network of roads to haul them away, which has caused massive erosion of the region's geologically unstable hillsides.
The deep channels and pools of the Elk River's middle reaches have become choked with a sludge of erosion and debris six to eight feet high. Each storm—such as those that have roiled California's coastal rivers this past week—forces the rushing water to spread out laterally, bleeding onto residents' lands and damaging homes, vehicles, domestic water supplies, cropland and fences, while also causing suffering that corporate and government balance sheets can't measure.
"The Elk River watershed is California's biggest logging sacrifice area," says Felice Pace, a longtime environmental activist who founded the Klamath Forest Alliance in northernmost California.
For roughly 20 years, the North Coast division of the State Water Resources Control Board, the agency in charge of monitoring water quality and hazards in the area, has deliberated on how to address the Elk River's severe impairment. But they have failed to take bold action, largely because of opposition from politically well-connected timber companies and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the state agency that regulates commercial logging.
Since 2008, the watershed's major timber operator has been Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC), part of a 440,000-acre North Coast logging enterprise owned by the billionaire Fisher family, best known as founders of the Gap and Banana Republic clothing empires.
Jerry Martien, an Elk River basin resident and former Humboldt State University writing instructor, says the government's failure to protect basin residents—and the aquatic life that calls the river home—should concern everyone in California.
"If they are getting away with it here, they can getting away with similar things in other places," he says.
FORESTS AND RIVERS
California's northern coastal mountains hold some of the world's most geologically unstable terrain, as well as some of its most ecologically productive forests. By anchoring mountain soil—which enhances the soil's ability to absorb water—these forests play a critical role in keeping these watersheds healthy.
In the mid-20th century, a logging boom swept across California's North Coast. The region's legendary timber stands went south to frame the suburban housing tracts of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin. For the first time, clear-cutting occurred on a large scale here—a practice of razing virtually every tree in a large swath—and, in many places, has continued to the present.
Logging roads tend to be the main source of soil erosion and landslides in disturbed forests, and they also alter runoff patterns and disrupt subsurface water flows.
In addition to causing flooding and reducing stream flow, sediment smothers the eggs and disrupts the reproductive cycles of fish, especially salmon and steelhead, which require pools where they can rest and feed. Erosion fills in those crucial pools, while removal of canopy can raise stream temperatures to inhospitable levels.
"The majority of the water bodies in the North Coast are impaired from excess sediment, much of it associated with past logging practices," said North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board geologist Jim Burke during a Nov. 30 agency hearing concerning the Elk River.
REGULATOR OR RUBBER STAMP?
The 1973 California Forest Practice Act instituted a uniform code for timber harvest practices in California, which are overseen and periodically updated by the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, whose nine members are appointed by the governor. The rules are then implemented by Cal Fire, which reviews and authorizes logging permits.
But the damage has continued despite the state's rules. In the 1980s, for example, a junk-bond-financed conglomerate named Maxxam Corporation engineered a hostile takeover of Humboldt County's largest timberland owner, Pacific Lumber Company. They acquired more than 200,000 acres, including more than 20,000 acres in the Elk River watershed—roughly two-thirds its total land area.
The company saw the redwoods and Douglas fir forests as underexploited assets, which could help pay off its bonded debt, and moved to liquidate the last remaining stands of private old-growth redwoods—but only after first raiding the pension fund of its employees. Numerous North Coast rivers, including the Elk, were buried under soil and debris.
In a landmark 1987 lawsuit by the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), a Humboldt County superior court judge ruled that Cal Fire was "rubber-stamping" the logging permits that came before it, rather than meaningfully reviewing them for compliance with laws and regulations. The court further ruled that Cal Fire needs to assess the "cumulative impacts" of logging on water quality and other aspects of the public trust.