Eel River (California)
The river near Dyerville, California
|County||Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Trinity|
|- left||South Fork Eel River|
|- right||Middle Fork Eel River, North Fork Eel River, Van Duzen River|
|Source||Pacific Coast Ranges|
|- elevation||6,245 ft (1,903 m) |
|- location||Humboldt County, California|
|- elevation||0 ft (0 m)|
|Length||196 mi (315 km) |
|Basin||3,684 sq mi (9,542 km2) |
|- average||7,315 cu ft/s (200 m3/s) |
|- max||752,000 cu ft/s (21,300 m3/s)|
|- min||10 cu ft/s (0.3 m3/s)|
The Eel River (Cahto: Taanchow) is a major river system of the northern Pacific coast of the U.S. state of California. Approximately 200 miles (320 km) long, it drains a rugged area in the California Coast Ranges between the Sacramento Valley and the ocean. For most of its course, the river flows northwest, parallel to the coast. The river has both State (1972) and Federal (1981) Wild and Scenic River status. There are 97 miles (156 km) classified as Wild and 28 miles (45 km) classified as Scenic along the river's course. The river provides groundwater recharge and industrial, agricultural and municipal water supply.
The Eel River's watershed of 3,684 square miles (9,540 km2) is the third largest entirely in California. The river and its tributaries total 3,448 miles (5,549 km), flowing through five counties. The river was given its name in 1850 by Josiah Gregg and his exploring party after they traded a frying pan to a group of Native Americans in exchange for a large number of Pacific lampreys, which the explorers thought were eels.
The river originates on the southern flank of Bald Mountain in northeastern Mendocino County. It flows southeast, then west, through Mendocino National Forest and Lake County. It is impounded in Lake Pillsbury, the reservoir created by Scott Dam.
Below Lake Pillsbury the Eel River re-enters Mendocino County, turning northwest approximately 15 miles (24 km) east of Willits. It flows northwest in a long isolated valley, collecting many tributaries including the Middle Fork Eel River and the North Fork Eel River. Between these two tributaries the Round Valley Indian Reservation lies east of the Eel River.
After the North Fork confluence, the Eel River flows around Island Mountain in the southwestern corner of Trinity County then crosses Humboldt County from the southeast to northwest, flowing in a winding course past a series of small mountain communities. The South Fork Eel River joins as the river valley widens. U.S. Route 101 runs along the South Fork Eel River and then the main Eel River's lower course.
After passing Scotia Bluffs near Rio Dell, the Eel River is joined by the Van Duzen River. Below that confluence, the Eel passes Fortuna and enters the Pacific in central Humboldt County, approximately 15 miles (24 km) south of Eureka. Eel River estuary is recognized for protection by the California Bays and Estuaries Policy.
The Eel River drains an area of 3,684 square miles (9,540 km2), the third largest watershed entirely in California, after the San Joaquin River and the Salinas River. The Sacramento River and Klamath River are larger, but their drainage areas extend into neighboring states as well. Its major tributaries, the North Fork, Middle Fork, South Fork and Van Duzen Rivers, drain 286 square miles (740 km2), 753 square miles (1,950 km2), 689 square miles (1,780 km2), and 420 square miles (1,100 km2), respectively. The Middle Fork is the largest of the tributaries by drainage area, but the South Fork is longer, and carries more water because of its location closer to the coast.
Northwest-southeast ridges of the California Coast Ranges constitute the Eel River watershed, which is bordered on the north by the Mad River, on the east by the Sacramento River, on the west by the Mattole River, and on the south by the Russian River and Ten Mile River. Major cities on the river include Willits, Garberville, Redway, Scotia, Rio Dell, Fortuna, and Ferndale. The river's relatively large estuary/delta, which includes the soon to be restored Salt River tributary and related creeks, is located just one low ridge south from Humboldt Bay and 12 miles (19 km) south of Eureka, the main city for the entire region.
Average flow of the Eel River varies widely due to its location, which places it as a major beneficiary of significant Winter storms. These storms produce enormous wet-season flows, while in the summer and early autumn provide only minimal precipitation, if any, allowing the sometimes mighty river to slow to a trickle. Monthly average flows at Scotia range from 19,700 cu ft/s (560 m3/s) in January to 138 cu ft/s (3.9 m3/s) in September – a 143:1 difference. The Eel's maximum recorded flow of 752,000 cu ft/s (21,300 m3/s) on December 23, 1964 was the largest peak discharge of any California river in recorded history. Reduction in flow occurs also in part due to deliberate water diversion from the Eel to the Russian River watershed by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company's Potter Valley Hydro-power Project, located to the south in Mendocino County, although the dams used by the project do provide additional baseflow to the Eel River during the dry season.
Since the 19th century, logging activity in the watershed has loosened soil and destabilized aquifers, reducing the river's base flow, although the river's watershed is slowly recovering. Logging and other resource exploitation activities are one of the primary causes of the river's massive surges and dry spells. In the 20th century, much of the watershed area became protected under state parks and national forest, including Six Rivers National Forest, Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness, and Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Many tributaries and the mainstem Eel River have also been designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers.
Several tribes of the Eel River Athapaskan group lived along the Eel River for centuries before being discovered by Westerners. The first westerner to enter the Eel river was Sebastián Vizcaíno, sailing on behalf of Philip III of Spain, seeking a mythical northwest passage described in secret papers as being at the latitude of Cape Mendocino, sailed into the mouth of the Eel in January 1603 where instead of the cultured city of Quivera the papers had described, they encountered native people they described as "uncultured.":170–171
After the end of the California Gold Rush in the early 1850s, thousands of Americans from the eastern United States who did not manage to find gold settled in the state. Most of the early settlers along the Eel River were prospectors from the Gold Rush. American negotiator, Colonel Reddick McKee's treaty would have given the Indians a large reservation around the mouth of the Eel, but the treaties were never ratified:916 American settlements were made along the flat terraces of the Eel, near the confluence with the Van Duzen River and toward the mouth of the river where there was more arable land than the steep upper canyons. The river's watershed was soon converted to agriculture and ranching purposes, the then-abundant salmon runs attracted fishermen to the region, and the generous supply of redwood trees allowed logging operations to prosper.
As part of the Potter Valley or Eel River Project, a pair of dams were built across the upper reaches of the Eel beginning in 1906 to divert water to the much more populous but smaller Russian River drainage area to the south, resulting in a much higher flow in the smaller river and a drastically decreased flow in the Eel.
In 1911 noted American engineer John B. Leonard designed Fernbridge, a 1,320 feet (400 m) all concrete arched bridge at the site of an earlier ferry crossing. Now listed on the National Historic Register, Fernbridge is the last major crossing before the Eel arrives at the Pacific Ocean. The last crossing before the Pacific Ocean is at Cock Robin Island Road a few miles to the west of Fernbridge.
In 1914, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad built a rail line running along much of the Eel River, and later, Pacific Coast Highway was constructed along the South Fork and along the Eel River downriver of the South Fork. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed in the 1960s to construct the enormous Dos Rios Dam near the confluence with the Middle Fork to provide water storage and control flooding. The project would have created the largest man-made lake in California and the fifth largest in the United States. The proposal was later defeated with public initiative to protect the remaining relatively wild rivers in the state. Nevertheless, the heavily changed ecology of the main stem downstream of the dam, combined with increased erosion from logging activities, almost wiped out the river's salmon run when several large storms hit in the 20th century.
In 1964, a severe Pineapple Express event, known as the Christmas flood of 1964, brought heavy rains to coastal northern California. The Eel River drainage area was particularly hard hit. As it lies close to the coast and mostly without dams, the storm produced a flow of more than 750,000 cu ft/s (21,000 m3/s), including 200,000 cu ft/s (5,700 m3/s) from the South Fork alone. Almost every river town was submerged, bridges were destroyed, and some were never rebuilt. The deepest flood waters were nearly 70 feet (21 m) above the normal river level. The Eel River estuary and its bordering towns, including Rio Dell and Ferndale, were particularly hard hit. Several thousand people were left homeless by the floods and hundreds of head of livestock died.
The river provides wildlife habitat for preservation of rare and endangered species including warm and cold freshwater habitat for fish migration and spawning. Major fishes of the Eel River include Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), Cutthroat trout, Pacific Lamprey (Lampetra tridentata), River Lamprey, Pacific brook lamprey, Sacramento sucker, threespine stickleback, staghorn sculpin, coastrange sculpin and prickly sculpin.
The Eel River has never contained true eels, but is named for the Pacific lamprey, an eel-shaped parasite that attaches itself to other fish during its ocean life-cycle. Like salmon and steelhead, lampreys are anadromous, meaning they live part of their life in the ocean but return to fresh water to spawn. They are Cyclostomes (Circle mouths), a primitive fish-like creature, and are not related to eels.
Aquatic mammals include beaver, muskrat, raccoon, river otter and mink. Beavers are confirmed in Outlet Creek (tributary to main stem Eel north of Willits), but may occur in other areas as well. That beaver were once native to the Eel River watershed is supported by the name of a tributary of the Middle Fork Eel River, Beaver Creek.
The four forks of the Eel and their tributaries provide many opportunities for whitewater kayaking and rafting on their upper sections. There is a class four and five run between the two dams on the main Eel which is a 12 mile run. A popular run is from Dos Rios to Alderpoint two and three class rapids, taking three to four days to run, depending on how many side tributaries are explored. From Alderpoint to Eel Rock is a lovely class one ad two during June with lots of beaches for camping. Below Eel Rock the ocean winds are difficult starting in the early afternoon. The South Fork Eel is a class three and four run in its up river section between Branscomb and Cummings portion with a waterfall that needs to be portaged. After this fork turns due north at Cummings it is mainly a class two and three, changing mostly to a class two run below Piercy. The Middle Eel has a great run from the confluence with the Black Butte to Coal Miners Falls which is portaged by all but dare devils. The Van Duzen also has some great short runs that are class two and three beginning below Goat Rock. The North Fork is difficult to enter because it is so remote. There are also many miles of river suitable for flatwater boating in the downstream sections of both the mainstem Eel and the South Fork Eel. The Humboldt Redwoods State Park leads paddle trips along that stretch of the river. Chinook salmon and steelhead are found in the river. Rainbow trout are found above Lake Pillsbury. The pikeminnow in conjunction with the diminished flows due to the Potter Valley Project water diversion, continue to take their toll on the native fish population. Camping and hiking are popular in Richardson Grove State Park, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Six Rivers National Forest, Mendocino National Forest. There is wilderness camping above Lake Pillsbury on both branches, the Rice Fork and Eel River, also known as South Eel because it is south of the lake, have swimming holes and camp sites.
There are two hydroelectric dams on the Eel, 130 feet (40 m) Scott Dam, which forms Lake Pillsbury, and 50 feet (15 m) Cape Horn Dam, which forms Van Arsdale Reservoir just north of Potter Valley. At Cape Horn Dam, the majority of the water is diverted through a tunnel and hydroelectric plant, and then to the headwaters of the Russian River in Potter Valley and is known as the Potter Valley Project.
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- Eel River Athapaskans
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- Source elevation derived from Google Earth search using GNIS source coordinates.
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