Chetco River: Death by a thousand cuts

By Carl Page, fisheries biologist, Wild Rivers Coast Chapter of Trout Unlimited March 15, 2013 10:22 pm

Carl Page, fisheries biologist, Wild Rivers Coast Chapter of Trout Unlimited

As a fisheries biologist I have conducted aquatic resource damage assessments for over 20 years. My surveys have ranged from chemical and oil spills to impacts from excessive siltation. Fine sediment is the predominant pollutant in most rivers, and is significantly avoidable in the Chetco with adequate erosion control measures. 

Open quarries have been identified as major contributors of this pollutant. Silt fills in deep pools and spawning riffles and reduces salmon-rearing habitats, and raises water temperatures by insulating and reflecting solar heat. The Chetco has long been classified as ‘impaired’ due to high summer water temperatures that are from stressful to lethal for young salmon. A five-year temperature monitoring of the Chetco and tributaries identified the coolest tributaries for effective conservation and restoration efforts, including Joe Hall and Jack creeks. These creeks are considered “essential fish habitat” for coho salmon that require cooler water than other salmon. Both creeks have open quarries on them, and the Salmon Run golf course on Jack Creek provides few riparian trees for shade cover.

This produces higher daytime temperatures that are stressful or lethal to coho. 

Because silt runoff reduces fish spawning and rearing habitat, two concerned fishing groups, not the watershed council, notified the appropriate resource agencies regarding the excessive runoff. Due to non-compliance with water quality laws, the commercial operations were cited and fined by the DEQ. As you may remember, one of these gravel operations caused the North Bank road to be closed after Christmas several years ago due to poorly engineered access roads and several landslides. The slides continue into Joe Hall Creek every winter from the highly unstable hillside. An adequate storm water prevention and erosion control plan is also needed on the Jack Creek quarry. 

With dwindling Chinook returns on the Chetco, replacing them with hatchery fish is not the answer. The current downward trajectory of population numbers in the Chetco is still reversible. While the Smith River fishery will receive about $880,000 this year, no funding has been sought for the Chetco to improve the fishery. Many resource agencies research has identified the major environmental stressors upon the health of the river and fishery, as well as restoration priorities. Their analysis identified limiting factors on the fishery including: impaired estuary (reduced size and water quality); reduced mainstem habitat complexity for rearing young salmon (channelization); and loss of the floodplain and its connectivity to the river (particularly crucial for coho).

To reverse this downward salmon population trend, resource agencies must increase protection and enforcement of laws aimed at protecting the fishery. Citizens should be encouraged to report potential violation of state and federal environmental laws, not chastised by the Brookings City Council. City Council members that encourage people to drive in the river are counterproductive and divisive. 

Why is conservation such a hard sell?