Elk River Residents Challenge New Water Board Regs

February, 2016

More than 17 years after Charles Hurwitz (owner of Maxxam/Pacific Lumber Company) was forced to shut down his liquidation logging in Elk River, the Northcoast Regional Water Board has issued new regulations to deal with ongoing timber harvests and the 600,000 cubic yards of silt remaining in the river. A federal EPA official has described the years of delay as “analysis paralysis.” 

Upriver residents who have endured floods of increasing severity say the new regulations are just another chapter in the state’s failure to restore and protect water quality because regulatory agencies favor big timber over downstream property owners and fish. Despite a change of ownership, water quality has gotten steadily worse under Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC)  management. 

A new EPA-funded Technical Analysis for Sediment summarizes years of studies and recommends a “zero load allocation” for silt. A new Waste Discharge Requirement (WDR) states the amount of sediment HRC is allowed to contribute to the watershed is: zero. A long-awaited plan to restore water quality—known as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)—also says, “the loading capacity for additional sediment is defined as zero.” Clearly, the river is unable to carry any new sediment.

A Restoration and Stewardship Program proposes to increase the river’s capacity to absorb sediment, allowing timber operations to continue, and then expand as conditions improve. HRC presently harvests in Elk River at a higher rate than Maxxam, though it uses different methods and calculations. Green Diamond’s clear-cutting in the watershed is not addressed in the new plans.

Water Quality staff describes these standards as “stringent,” and points to numerous measures that will reduce sediment from HRC timber operations: increased setbacks from water courses, a reduced overall cut, a ban on winter operations, and a prohibition from logging in extremely erosive “high-risk” South Fork Elk River tributaries. Water Quality’s executive director has already delayed a 600-acre HRC harvest plan, adjacent to Headwaters Forest and residential neighborhoods, that will affect several of those high-risk watersheds.

Residents maintain that Water Quality’s zero doesn’t really mean zero. Kristi Wrigley, a third-generation Elk River apple farmer, asks, “Why permit any new logging, and generate sediment that will get into the river, if the TMDL says no new sediment?” She points to the “Tier 2” exemptions of the previous WDR, which also promised zero-sediment logging, but then only counted sediment if it was proven to have come from landslides within the timber harvest plan. Miles of roads have already been opened in the high-risk watersheds using those Tier 2 exemptions.

The new WDR would also empower the Chair of the Water Quality Board to grant “exceptions” to its prohibition against logging in the high-risk tributaries of the South Fork. If he finds that HRC has made “a meaningful contribution” to water quality, such as restoring a flood channel, a culvert, or a damaged water system, he can set aside those prohibitions. “And what about the North Fork?” Wrigley asks about the watercourse that has left several feet of silt in her orchard. “Water Quality seems to want to make it an industrial waste ditch.”

Environmental advocates also agree that the harvest rate—an annual average of 2% of HRC’s 20,000 acres of Upper Elk River—is still much too high for this steep and damaged watershed and that the proposed setbacks are still inadequate. Residents say they don’t feel included in the restoration process—which is not expected to begin for another five years. In May of 2014, residents submitted a petition to Water Quality asking for a moratorium on all Elk River logging until the watershed has begun to recover, but they have not received a response.

HRC maintains that its timber harvesting adds no silt to the river. They have protested the new restrictions, and behind their complaints are the deep pockets of John Fisher, heir of the Gap fortune and owner of both HRC and Mendocino Redwood (not to mention the long-suffering Oakland A’s). HRC has already sued the Board to approve their South Fork timber harvest plan.