Trinity River Restoration Project Wears On Locals (Part 1)

Jun 2, 2017

There was still plenty of chill in the March air as about 20 locals straggled into the Junction City Grange Hall for another meeting about undoing a century and a half of damage to Trinity County’s namesake river.

Mike Dixon, implementation branch chief for the Trinity River Restoration Program, a project of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation addressed the audience:

“And it’s primarily due to a combination of a legacy of mining over 150 years, and the impacts of the dam and the reduced flows that followed the dam," he said. "It’s going to take a long time to get the river back to where we’re trying to get it to go.”

Hydraulic mining and intensive logging altered the landscape and degraded the river as habitat. Then, a series of dams and a tunnel allowed officials to divert part of the Trinity into the Sacramento River, eliminating spring floods and taming the Trinity forever.

Dixon and his team have their work cut out for them. Settling decades of litigation, primarily with Native Tribes, federal officials agreed to essentially do what it takes to make salmon as plentiful as they were before the dams went up.  

If you think that sounds like a tall order you’re not alone. Restoration was supposed to take eight years.

Fishing Guide Lonnie Boles has become a bit of a skeptic.

“It’s been 17 years since the project started and a hundred million dollars later, they fail to tell you that the increase in juvenile salmon, smolt and fry, since 2000 and a hundred million dollars later has been 1 percent,” Boles said. “I find that to be a lot of money. What’s long term, a hundred years from now?

The project identified sites totaling 42 river miles. Since starting construction in 2005, roughly two thirds of the work is complete or underway. Construction may only proceed during a brief summer window — after the young salmon have swum out to sea, but before the two and three year old adults begin their epic, and final freshwater journey.

Here, in rural northwestern California, the ‘healthy river’ Reclamation’s Mike Dixon describes is more about diverse habitat than pollution. It’s bringing back rapids and eddies, deep pools, shallow riffles, shade from overhanging trees, sandbars, log jams, seasonal floodplains and a riverbed alternating from sandy to rocky to gravelly.

Salmon need all those ingredients, and more, to thrive. Already severely degraded by decades of gold mining, and worsened by logging, 1960s dam construction had profound impacts. The amount of water is now determined by algorithms in a control room. Floods no longer scour the river banks washing away trees that in turn become hiding places and habitat for young salmon. Gravel, where salmon build their redds and lay their eggs, can no longer wash downstream due to Trinity and Lewiston dams.

An earlier reconstruction site. A berm of rocky mine tailings remains on one bank, while an “engineered log jam” (center) creates shallows and currents in the river that salmon need and will divert water into a side-channel (obscured by trees) when the river rises.
Credit Marc Albert

Back at the meeting, the audience sat with a mix of resignation and trepidation. Many have property adjacent to this summer’s construction site.

“They told me to go to Europe, that’s how loud it’s going to be,” said property owner Jerry Payne.

Payne said he turned down cash offered to use part of his river fronting property as a construction easement. But the trucks, equipment and people in hardhats and orange vests will be coming nonetheless. A neighbor accepted the offer.

“It’s going to be noisy and dusty and it’s, it’s not going to be fun to live here while they do it, that’s for sure,” Payne said.

When the fish will reappear in large numbers is anyone’s guess.

Last summer, work on the river at the Bureau of Land Management’s Bucktail River Access boat launch was well within earshot of Heidi Tiura.

“That safety beeping, I can’t tell you, it was, it just about made me crazy,” she said.

Tiura, who describes herself as a deeply committed environmentalist, had some frank words of advice for Payne and others.

“First of all, they have to know that they’re in for a wild ride, and it’s not going to be a good one,” Tiura said. “It’s not going to be a fun one. It’s depressing, it’s oppressive, it’s maddening, it’s debatable whether they are going to attain what they hope they’ll attain. And I don’t think they are held accountable enough to prove what they attain. I, I really feel sorry for those people downriver. We took a beating up here and I didn’t appreciate it.”

And there’s the rub. Locals see the downsides, while the upsides—burgeoning populations of salmon have yet to return.

In part two of this story, we look more deeply into why the fish have yet to return in large numbers and how the on-going work is trying the patience of some locals.