TABLE OF CONTENTS
Outlet Creek Outlook
By Rosamond Crowder,
Willits Environmental Center
Most people entering the Eel River watershed from the south arrive via the Outlet Creek Basin. As you top the grade north of Ukiah perhaps you will notice a sign that says "Entering the Eel River Watershed."
Descending into Little Lake Valley towards Willits you are seeing part of the Main Stem of the Eel. This basin begins here with five tributaries that turn Little Lake Valley into an "inland delta" in the winter. As you leave the valley you cross Outlet Creek on a bridge that is occasionally closed due to flooding. North of Willits you follow Outlet Creek sometimes closely, sometimes over a hill from it. At Longvale you take Highway 162 towards Covelo to keep following Outlet. About halfway to Dos Rios, Outlet Creek meets the Main Stem of the Eel at "Legal Bridge." This bridge marks the spot where fishing became legal. Outlet Creek is recognized as an important spawning ground for all three species of anadromous fish: Steelhead, Chinook and Coho. In fact, Outlet Creek is the longest run the Coho make to their spawning ground in all of California.
A number of factors have caused the returning fish numbers to drop precipitously from historical levels. Of course dewatering of the Main Stem makes it difficult for fish to get into Outlet Creek spawning grounds and also for the fingerlings to get out, if they survive. The Main Stem is where the dams that currently divert water to the Russian River drainage are located.
Dewatering of Outlet Creek itself is a factor. Roughly 13,000 people currently live in this basin. All the water each person uses for drinking, cleaning and gardening comes out of the watershed, and these 13,000 people don't even begin to feed themselves from these gardens. Very little of the food consumed by these people is grown with water from the watershed. It is, as with most people everywhere in the U.S., imported from elsewhere. The amount of water measured by the stream gauge at Legal Bridge is an indicator of how much water all these people use. From the 1950s through the '80s the basin sent some 350,000 acre-feet per year into the Main Stem. In the '90s that number fell to 181,000 acre-feet per year (Outlet Creek Basin Assessment, 2009).
Another very large threat to the health of Outlet Creek watershed is the draining and filling in of the wetlands in the valley. Ranching and farming has turned the once meandering stream channels that deposited gravel and recharged the groundwater into straight channels and levees that direct the water as fast as possible to the bridge north of Willits. Pumping water from wells in the valley has further lowered the groundwater table so that all five tributaries are deeply incised. This means that they have steep banks like a canyon and when they flood they do not flow into their neighboring flood plains as they used to, recharging the groundwater and dropping gravel and nutrients. Instead they become raging torrents digging up riparian trees, digging into the banks and sending an excess of material downstream.
Currently there are two big construction projects happening and slated to happen in the valley. One is the sewer plant that serves roughly half the 13,000 people living in the basin. Although it is important that this sewage be treated and the water put back into the system, it is unfortunately being built right at the confluence of two of the largest and most important tributaries. When these two streams flood it is possible the aeration ponds could become inundated. The Water Quality Control Board has also allowed this plant to send unusually high concentrations of treated water directly into Outlet Creek.
The other construction project is the Caltrans-designed "Willits Bypass." This project would fill in roughly 89 acres of wetland. This is a huge impact, the likes of which Caltrans has never had to deal with before. The bypass would serve only an estimated 7000 to 10,000 vehicles per day. This is a tiny amount of traffic that could be served by an expressway outside the wetlands. The bypass is designed as a freeway the size of I-5 that would pinch down to the familiar two-lane road just north of Willits. The mitigation planned to compensate for the destruction of wetlands consists of a grazing plan that has yet to be written. The mitigation plan was so lacking in credibility that the Army Corps of Engineers, charged with protecting wetlands, was unwilling to issue a required permit in 2010. With the population of Mendocino County actually decreasing in recent years it is an unbelievable waste of money and resources to build this monstrosity. These transportation dollars would be better spent in places like Santa Rosa, which has 180,000 cars per day traveling its Highway 101 corridor.
Next time you pass through Willits you may notice the many small hotels up and down Main Street. Decades ago, when the fish were numerous, these hotels were filled with fishermen eager to stand on rocks beside clear streams to try their luck at catching a silver beauty. We who have made the Outlet Creek basin our home are tangling with the politics of development and living in harmony with the natural systems we love so much. Understanding how they work and what impacts we have on them is so very important. Please join us in learning all we can.