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Logging and an industry-friendly state agency imperil the Elk River and other California waterways

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In emails obtained by the Bohemian, Cafferata wrote to another Cal Fire hydrologist, Drew Coe, concerning the research essay. He stated that a "key piece" of his objection was that the paper was "advocating limits on [SPI's] harvesting rates" in Battle Creek. Coe responded that he similarly saw the article as "an advocacy piece rather than an objective analysis."

The research paper's co-author, Jack Lewis, stood by his analysis. "We believe that roads, logging, fire, and post-fire logging have all contributed to the degradation of water quality in Battle Creek."

THE FATE OF THE ELK RIVER

By 1994, Maxxam's liquidation style of logging was resulting in severe flash-flooding of the Elk River. Ironically, a simultaneous campaign further up the watershed sought to save the largest remaining area of unprotected old-growth redwoods in California, and thus the world: the Headwaters Forest. California and the federal government purchased the 5,600-acre tract in 1999, creating the Headwaters Forest Reserve, a deal that many lower Elk River residents contend left the rest of the watershed vulnerable to continued degradation.

The Fisher family scooped up Maxxam's land in 2008, after Maxxam went bankrupt. Ever since, Cal Fire's main counter to the call for limiting the logging in the Elk River watershed has been that HRC's logging operations are significantly better than that of Maxxam, and that it is unclear in the scientific literature whether HRC's logging is actually exacerbating the river's water-quality problems. HRC has foresworn traditional clear-cutting, though.

In the meantime, the Santa Rosa–based North Coast Regional Water Quality Board voted to delay taking action to limit sediment inputs into the watershed multiple times, dating back to 1998.

In 2015, a study by consulting firm Tetra Tech, hired by the water board, concluded that the Elk River is so impaired that no more sediment should be allowed to enter it. This study formed the basis of the board's development of a so-called total maximum daily load (TMDL), a calculation of the maximum amount of pollutants a water body can receive and still meet health and safety standards. Finally, this past spring, the board voted to adopt its own TMDL action plan for the Elk, which largely echoes Tetra Tech's recommendation.

"It's pretty damn unprecedented for a sediment TMDL to call for zero additional sediment input," says North Coast Water Board executive officer Matt St. John.

The water board's staff members proposed to restrict all logging in the five most impacted areas of the watershed and create a wider buffer between timber harvest zones and water courses, among other new restrictions.

But HRC representatives have strongly lobbied against any additional state-mandated environmental protections in the Elk River, as has another company with timberland in the watershed, Green Diamond Resources Company. The watershed is especially important for HRC, since the watershed and one immediately north of it, Freshwater Creek, account for roughly half of what HRC logs every year.

Jesse Noell and another Elk River basin resident, Kristi Wrigley, formed a group called Salmon Forever in the late-'90s to conduct their own water-quality monitoring. Wrigley is a fourth-generation apple farmer in the watershed, whose cropland has been destroyed by flooding.

Between 1997 and 2008, when there was a moratorium on Elk River logging followed by low harvest rates in the Elk River watershed, suspended sediment concentrations in the river's south fork diminished by 59 percent, according data collected by Salmon Forever funded in part by a State Water Board grant.

From 2011 to 2013, after Cal Fire permitted increased harvesting by HRC, the sediment concentration increased by 89 percent. The sediment concentrations below HRC's land is at 27 times the level of the Headwaters Forest Reserve, located upstream.

A NEW PRECEDENT

At a Nov. 30 hearing, HRC watershed analyst Mike Miles told the North Coast Water Board that his company already has strong restrictions on where, when and how to log in the Elk River area. "In this watershed, we have the strongest set of rules you can find in the state of California for private forestlands," he said.

In addition to his work for HRC, Miles is a political appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown and presides over the state's timber harvest practices: He is one of nine members of the Board of Forestry, and is the chairman of its committee that is most directly involved in the enforcement of the forest practice rules. Gov. Brown's wife, Ann Gust Brown, is a former attorney for the Fisher family, the owners of HRC.

The water board members had also received comment from Cal Fire that opposed restrictions on HRC's logging beyond those already prescribed by the forest practice rules. Cal Fire executive officer Matt Dias, a one-time forester for Santa Cruz–based timber company Big Creek Lumber, expressed the same point.

Elk River basin resident Jerry Martien was among those who also spoke up at the meeting. He had advocated giving "the Upper Elk River watershed a rest, for at least five years, with the possibility for another five, if that is bringing us cleaner water."

EPIC's Rob DiPerna said the North Coast Water Board should be taking action, precisely because the alternative would be to leave the river's well-being in Cal Fire's hands. "Do we really think that falling back on Cal Fire is the way to make sure that water quality is protected from timber operations in the state of California?" he asked.

The water board's Greg Giusti, an extension service adviser for the University of California, strongly opposed the water board staff's proposed restrictions. His objections were similar to those of Cal Fire, the Board of Forestry, Humboldt Redwood Company and Green Diamond. Only one board member, John Corbett, spoke up in the Elk River residents' defense, noting that "they are the only ones who have always been right about what's best for the river." Ultimately, the board voted not to adopt the logging restrictions proposed by the staff.

Elk River residents, whose suffering has been a silent residue of state agency decisions for two decades, were outraged but not surprised. Kristi Wrigley notes that the water board's new waste discharge permit for HRC allows the equivalent of 2 percent clear-cutting of the entire watershed per year—thus guaranteeing that more sediment will continue to wash into the river.

On Feb. 22, the State Water Board will meet in Sacramento to decide whether to certify the Elk River TMDL. The Activists at EPIC have filed an appeal to the water board's waste-discharge permit, and residents have filed a separate appeal calling for a cease and desist order forbidding any more logging by HRC until the river's water again flows clean.

"To people whose lives are already destroyed, their land is destroyed, and their water is destroyed," says Wrigley. "Do you think a permit allowing that much logging is really going to do anything to make our lives better?"

Will Parrish's website is www.willparrishreports.com.

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