Glenda Anderson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The main stem of the Eel River snakes northwesterly some 200 miles through canyons, forests and verdant farmland, gathering water from its many tributaries as it travels from its headwaters in the Mendocino National Forest to its terminus at the Pacific Ocean south of Humboldt Bay.
But this year, just 10 miles short of its final destination, the river vanishes from view as it passes by the small city of Fortuna, a sign that three years of drought is affecting traditionally water-rich Humboldt County, where the average annual rainfall of 55 inches is more than twice the state’s average.
Other factors, including sediment deposits in the river and escalating water diversions by marijuana cultivators have contributed to the rare, disappearing Eel River incident, according to state and federal fisheries authorities.
The river disappears but it does not actually cease running. It continues flowing under a deep gravel bed before reappearing 300 to 400 yards downstream, said Matt Goldsworthy, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“Some people are saying it stopped flowing,” he said. But “the water is still flowing below the gravel,” he said.
The differentiation means nothing to migratory fish, which, unless it rains soon, won’t be able to get past the barrier and head upriver to their spawning grounds this fall. That problem could turn out to be a blessing in disguise given the river conditions, Goldsworthy said, noting that the upstream spawning grounds may not be viable because of the drought.