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Posted on: June 16, 2021

Wiyot Tribe Declares State of Emergency Regarding Local Rivers

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Loleta— 06/16/2021    It was with heavy hearts that the Wiyot Tribal Council voted Monday night to declare a State of Emergency on the Wiyot’s ancestral rivers due to extreme low flows and drought conditions.   The Wiyot Tribe shares its name with its ancestral river, the Wiya’t (Eel River).  Waterways in the ancestral lands of Wiyot people include Baduwa't (Mad River), Hikshari' (Elk River), Wiya't (Eel River), and Gidughurralilh (Van Duzen River).  These rivers are sacred cultural resources to the Tribe and are considered the bloodlines of Wiyot culture, providing nourishment, medicine, spirituality, sustenance, and cultural knowledge to the Wiyot people. 

Before Euro-colonial settlement, Wiya’t produced the largest salmon runs in California and provided salmon for the rest of the United States. Beginning in the early 1900’s Wiya’t has suffered numerous deleterious impacts, including water diversions, invasive predators, logging, sedimentation, dams, overfishing, extreme summer conditions, and low flows, which have led to significant loss of habitat and ecological degradation, contributing to diminished native fish populations that are critical to the survival of the Wiyot culture and people.  In recent years the Tribe has continued its active stewardship of its rivers and has been a driving force for activities aimed at restoring the gou’daw (Pacific lamprey), malhuk (salmon), ba’m (green sturgeon), and other native species of the Wiya’t.

 Climate change is intensifying the impacts of drought on Wiyot lifeways, and our rivers are bracing for a second consecutive year of low rainfall and extreme summer conditions.  Water diversions associated with agriculture and excessive nutrient runoff have severely impeded water quantity and quality, particularly in smaller tributaries that provide rearing habitat and cold-water flow during the dry summer months.  

The combination of below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures has left unimpaired flows at the lowest on record: On June 10th of this year, the Wiya't discharge at Scotia, based on 108 years of data, was at 12% of the mean. In the fall of 2014, a year when flows were higher than 2021 (300 cfs at Scotia in 2014 vs. about 210 this year), the lower Wiya’t ran dry near Fortuna, immediately above the reach where the tides affect the river’s height, impeding the rriqhawu’rruwalh (Chinook salmon) run and causing fish death from disease associated with high water temperatures.  According to Pat Higgins, "The Eel River Recovery Project shares the Wiyot Tribe's concern about the health of the Eel River.  Without very unusual summer rains, we expect problems similar to 2013-2015 to occur, when surface flow was lost in some reaches and others passed a tipping point to a very warm, stagnant ecosystem mostly supporting exotic aquatic species and toxic cyanobacteria.  Lack of sufficient and timely rainfall is putting stress on salmon and steelhead stocks, and ocean conditions appear to be becoming less supportive of these fish as a result of climate change. To save the fish (and ourselves), we must remain hopeful and become even more dedicated to maximizing water conservation efforts throughout the Eel River watershed, to restoring watershed hydrology through measures like road decommission and restoration of forest and grassland health, and expeditiously restoring key pieces of salmon habitat like the lower Eel River."

According to a statement by our sister Tribe, Blue Lake Rancheria, water quality sampling done along the lower Baduwa’t (Mad River) has already shown a presence of toxins in the water that are hazardous and potentially life-threatening to pets and small children.  According to Jacob Pounds with the Blue Lake Environmental Department, “the timing and lack of precipitation this year is leading to poor water quality conditions much earlier in the year. In comparing this years' drought to the previous drought (Water Years 2012-2016) the amount of precipitation is less and the timing is much later than typical, with the present water year much below average, and the timing of precipitation off from the 58-year data period along the Baduwa’t.”   As of his June 11th sampling, “mainstem temperatures on the Baduwa’t were nearing the 18-degree Celsius mark, which is the level where fish begin experiencing acute levels of stress if exposed for extended periods of time.” (Jacob Pounds, Blue Lake Environmental Dept.)

The Hikshari’ (Elk River) is known as the most critically impaired Wigi (Humboldt Bay) tributary for sediment, and new evidence suggests that Eureka’s sewage plant has been contributing effluent to the lower river for many years, notes Jerry Martien with Friends of the Elk River; and “it’s hard to dispute that there’s enough mud there to choke the river, with the result being further aggradation and extreme low flows—as we’re seeing this summer.”  

Friends of the Van Duzen River reports that Girrughurralilh (Van Duzen River) is seeing lower flows (20% of the average) in the main stem and tributaries that are more typical of later summer and early fall. June flows are now more like typical August/September flows and will have a negative impact on wildlife and recreation as the summer progresses.  Blue-green Algal blooms have already been detected at Pamplin Grove and the William Dinsmore Bridge on Highway 36, where we usually see dozens of tswal (steelhead), but this June we only found three individual fish.  In a very unusual observation, many underwater algal blooms are more prevalent than at any previous time observed. The tributary of Hely Creek no longer provides a viable connection to Girrughurralilh and no longer supports an active salmon run.  

Presently, Wiyot people risk their health and safety when choosing to consume fish or eels out of Wiya’t because of hazardous algal blooms and diseased animals. The health of the Wiya’t is intrinsically tied to the health of the people. The survival of the people relies on the health of Wiya’t.  Threats to the Wiyot’s subsistence practices through irresponsible water diversion on the Wiya’t represent a continuation of settler-colonialism and environmental injustice. 

We know through oral histories about Wiya’t that salmon were so abundant that one could “walk across their backs” to cross the river. Elders have told us that they would go fishing and eeling and come home with more than enough food for their families so that they could always share with other Wiyot families who needed sustenance.  This rich oral history and hard evidence illustrates that the Wiya’t was once a thriving and great river, that nourished not only Wiyot people, but early Euro-American settlers as well.  There are so few salmon in the Wiya’t today that all permitted fishing is catch and release only.  

Now, with the voice we share together, we have an opportunity to plead for the restoration and health of the Wiya’t, by working toward furthering our stewardship and role as caretakers, and by promoting practices that enhance ecosystem health rather than impeding it through unwise water diversions and unsustainable usage of nature’s precious gift of clean freshwater.  We have an opportunity to allow this water to flow again freely in the Wiya’t, and to bring back our friends; the steelhead, salmon, sturgeon, and lamprey, to run again once more, on our majestic ancestral rivers. “Our relationships with Wiya't, Baduwa't, Hikshari', and Gidughurralilh was never broken, only suppressed. We remained quiet stewards throughout the last 160+ years. Now, it is our time to use our voices again. To raise them up and demand that responsible ecological practices are once again administered on our rivers,” Tribal council member Marnie Atkins.

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