StEELhead Discoveries Series - Part 1

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*This is Part 1 of an ongoing series on the campaign to Free the Eel and efforts to better understand and revive the iconic steelhead in the Pacific Northwest by Native Fish Society Fellow Samantha Kannry. Additional parts and updates will be posted over the next several months. Stay tuned!

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"The fate of two aging dams and a defunct power generation system on the Eel River appears to be determined. The owner of the facilities, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), wants nothing to do with the project. No other entity has stepped forward with the financial means and cohesive force to take over the operation of the dams.

Recent seismic analysis shows the instability of the dam site and the potential for catastrophe from a major earthquake in the region. Necessary repairs to one of the transformers at the power generation facility are years out. Even when it was functioning properly, the facility produced a paltry 9 megawatts of power. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has demanded PG&E make serious modifications to the operations of the facilities as its permit for the take of listed species ended with the conclusion of the project license in 2022.

A small consortium of local fishing and river groups are suing PG&E for their current take of listed species. The project costs far more to maintain than it produces and is a major liability for anyone involved. The dams impede upstream passage of Pacific Lamprey, from whom the Eel River got its name. The upstream dam also blocks hundreds of miles of spawning and rearing habitat in the headwaters of what was, historically, one of the most productive salmon and steelhead rivers on the West Coast.

The Eel River Dams are moving towards decommissioning. The only questions remaining are whether FERC will require complete project removal and how long it will take until the process is complete.

Numerous entities have benefited from the nearly free Eel River water for decades that would prefer to drag the process out as long as possible. PG&E has some liability concerns that incentivize a speedy conclusion, but they would prefer a solution in which ratepayers and/or tax dollars pay for the costly removal. The project has been blocking fish passage, storing sediment, and altering natural flow regimes for over 100 years.

A coalition of local tribes, fishermen, river and fish advocates have initiated a campaign called “Free the Eel”. What we do not want to see is the maintenance of the status quo for any extended period of time. We are doing a disservice to the Eel River, to humankind, and the planet as a whole by allowing this type of harmful infrastructure to continue to exist unnecessarily. As such, we are beginning an annual floatilla down the mainstem Eel to let other river users, the public, agencies and PG&E know the time has come to remove the Eel River dams. This past weekend we did a small trial run as part of a recreational multi-day trip (see photos below).

Come join us next year as we continue to get the message out. There is no place better to recreate than a free-flowing river."

-Samantha Kannry

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About the Author:

Samantha Kannry has been monitoring, studying, and swimming with summer-run steelhead in the Eel River and other rivers of Northwestern California for the past thirteen years. She joined NFS as a volunteer in 2015, then became a fish genetics fellow in 2020.

While it has been clear to the native peoples of the region since time immemorial that summer-run steelhead and the congeneric spring Chinook are separate populations, not everyone else sees it so clearly. Her research has focused on using conservation genetic tools to elucidate the distinction between summer and winter-run steelhead.

When not minking (a combination of hiking, swimming, snorkeling, sliding, shimmying and boulder jumping) down rivers, she is usually growing and eating fruit, moving manure at Caudal Fin Farm or bike touring distances large and small. All working towards re-establishing the inherent continuity between rivers, land and people.

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