Salmon three feet long seem to clog the water as the chrome-colored fish, fresh from the ocean, begin their journey upriver toward the high-elevation gravel riffles where they were born. Here, in the remotest tendrils of the watershed, they will lay and fertilize the eggs that ensure the next generation of salmon.
At least that’s how it once was early each autumn on the Eel River. But nature’s security system for fish survival is only as good as the health of a river. In the case of the Eel, a local power company built a dam on the Eel’s main fork in 1920. As a result, Chinook salmon lost access to about 100 miles of spawning habitat. Steelhead, which swam farther upstream into smaller tributaries, suffered even greater impacts. Intensive in-river commercial fishing, water diversions, logging and other land degradation took their toll, too. Today, annual salmon runs in Eel River that once may have totaled a million or so adults consist of a few thousand. Lamprey eels, too, have dwindled.
Now, there is serious talk of removing Scott Dam, owned by PG&E since 1930.
For fishery proponents, such a river makeover is the optimal way to revive the Eel’s salmon runs.