Humboldt County, CA March 7, 2000 Election
Smart Voter

Up Francis Creek without a Paddle

By Carlos E. Benemann

Candidate for Supervisor; County of Humboldt; District 1

This information is provided by the candidate
My views on watershed protection

A few weeks ago, I made a brief presentation before the Watershed Council on my political position regarding the return of the Eel River to its natural course. As I spoke, I surprised myself by the vehemence of my remarks, especially in relation to watershed issues in Ferndale and Humboldt County in general. I brought up the issue about the forthcoming Humboldt County general plan revision, and I spoke to the members about the need for community activists to involve themselves in that process and to become proactive rather than reactive.

Here is a brief history of my experience. In 1981, I became aware that the local water company in Ferndale, which derived almost all its municipal water for Ferndale from springs and surface waters from the Francis Creek watershed (your typically horseshoe formation about 1/2 mile wide and three miles long, deeply wooded, with steep, highly erodeable slopes) was phasing out the system. It became obvious that a gradual dependence on a well which produced disgusting and objectionable water with high iron and manganese content, was eventually going to replace all of our traditional, sweet-tasting, spring water supply. The reasons are too complex to bring up here. Suffice it to say that privately-owned water companies do not make money by delivering water to the public from fully depreciated sources. These companies derive their income from an arcane concept called rate-base, on which the California Public Utilities Commission grants high interest rates which then become the basis of your bill. Consequently all utility companies in California love to overbuild or "gold-plate" their systems and make "investments" whether they are needed or not. PG&E by the way is not an exception. In fact they are the King Kong of ratebase manipulators. More on this in relation to the Eel river Potter valley diversion in the future.

What is important here to remember is that once traditional springs and streams can be shown to be no longer used and useful for public utility purposes, water companies can then petition to abandon these sources and then start the process of building roads, logging, subdividing, installing septic systems, and in general develop the watershed. It is obvious that in the 1950's, some sharp operators, for example, a Delaware company called Citizens utilities, bought up resource-rich( speak timber covered) water companies in California and other Western States merely because they could see the potential huge profits in the process of abandoning springs, installing wells and logging the living bejesus out of the watersheds, which were part of the water company's properties. This experience was especially noticeable in Guerneville, Monte Rio, and Felton in the Santa Cruz area.

In Guerneville, for example, the redwood-covered steep slopes above the Russian River were stripped by Citizens Resources, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Citizens Utilities Co. (Which by the way returned all profits to the shareholders rather than the ratepayers in contravention of California laws).

Given that experience and foreseeing a similar scenario for Ferndale, the then-mayor of Ferndale, Richard Farrington,(An engineering geologist and National Forest employee) and I, went to numerous meetings in Eureka in an effort to participate in the General Plan revision and secure a special designation for the Francis Creek watershed. Over the vehement protestations of the two main property owners in the watershed, we succeeded in convincing the planners to create a special zoning designation. Henceforth, Humboldt County General Plan has a designation of "critical watershed" for Francis Creek.

There was only one problem. Although it raises a red flag for every planner whenever someone applies for a subdivision or other permits, the State of California Department of Forestry completely ignored the "critical" designation. About the same time a series of timber harvest plans were authorized by CDF in our critical watershed. In spite of the city's requesting it, and in spite of CDF agreeing to do so, CDF failed to notify the city of Ferndale about a great number of logging plans in our watershed. Years later, when our current disaster was obvious (1998), a CDF official, at a meeting in Fortuna, actually remarked to me in the presence of numerous witnesses, that, "Oh, yes" they had been remiss in notifying the city as agreed. And oh yes, well, we do not have much of a monitoring or follow-up program, and oh,yes, oops, all that silt and increased turbulence in the creek might be earthquake related, but never fear, we will let you know about every THP from now on". Of course, at that point, eleven years later, the cumulative effects of whole hillsides of sand washing into the creek because of the clear cut on perpendicular slopes meant that parts of the fields surrounding our sewer pond on the other end of Ferndale are now eleven feet higher than just a decade ago. ( a foot a year!!) As a consequence, our sewer system is in imminent danger of complete collapse. One of the most infuriating remarks I have ever heard was a CDF official who told me as we left the meeting in Fortuna that "Well, you know Ferndale is built on an alluvial fan" and "Maybe the town was just built in the wrong spot." Well, excuse me guys. I wish you had told the Ferndale founders that 100 years ago.

But never fear, CDF has now recognized the errors of the past. There are some new faces on the Board of Forestry, and a new administration in Sacramento, and they are going to fix it. What with such concepts as zero net discharge for the Francis Creek watershed and what have you. And if you believe that I will sell you a piece of Fernbridge.

But we cannot just give up. We live here. The question really is will our efforts come in time to help the communities in the Elk River watershed or Freshwater, or anywhere for that matter. In 1986-87, when our fate seemed to be fairly obvious, I worked with a group of ranchers to form a soil conservation district, to include Francis Creek, Rees Creek, Williams Creek, and mainly the Salt River basin. This was a momentous occasion because trying to get a bunch of crusty ranchers to agree on anything, especially in the Eel River bottoms was like managing a sack full of cats. But surprisingly they all agreed that we were facing a community-wide problem of siltation and drowning in mud because of the watershed's degradation. But again, we were all frustrated, because our little organization immediately grew too large and today encompasses the entirety of Humboldt County, under state and federal supervision and under perfunctuory local hands and control. It has not accomplished a damn thing that I know of. As a matter of fact, the Salt River no longer exists except on maps. (By the community of Port Kenyon really was a port with ocean going ships docking there traveling up the Salt River.

Where do we go from here? The experience I described is repeated everywhere, and everyone of you already knows all of this. Your own horror stories are probably worse. (I recently was out at the Wrigley Apple farm on Elk River and could see the same process ) But because we have the experience and already know, we have to continue trying and we have an opportunity. That opportunity is putting some teeth into the Humboldt County General Plan by:

1) Identifying and supporting the concept of a county-wide watershed assessment. 2) And in aiming to improve watershed protection and restoration, design specific language to be included in the General Plan, which spells out what can and cannot be done in watersheds designated as critical or sensitive.

Go to the public hearings and meetings. Request special scoping sessions with the senior planners. Sit down and formulate workable policies and fight to have them included. It is our General Plan. Nobody elses. See you in the trenches. La lucha continua.

Carlos Benemann is the former president of the UC Berkeley alumni association of Humboldt /Del Norte counties, the Mayor of Ferndale, sits on numerous countywide boards and commissions and is currently running for 1st district supervisor.

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