The Salt River watershed is located along the northern California coast in Humboldt County and encompasses an area of approximately 47 square miles and is bordered by the Eel River to the north and east, the Wildcat Hills to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. This watershed derives its name from the Salt River that courses west-northwest for 13.6 miles through the watershed’s alluvial floodplain and outlets into the Eel River estuary within one mile of the Pacific Ocean. Tributaries originating in the Wildcat Hills feed the Salt River include Coffee, Williams, Francis, Reas, Smith, and Russ Creeks. The watershed is in the ancestral territory of the Wiyot Tribe. The Salt River watershed has undergone significant changes and modifications since Euro-American settlement of the Eel River Delta in the 1850’s, with unforeseen cumulative ecological and hydrological impacts. Today, most of the Salt River watershed is now managed as agricultural pasture lands, dominated by family-owned pasture-based dairies, many of which are certified organic. The upper slopes of the Wildcat Hills in the upper watershed are almost entirely in private ownership and support several small-to mid-sized timber and ranching operations

The natural ecology of the Salt River watershed not only includes the forested upper watershed and floodplains of the lower watershed, but it also contains dune and estuary systems along the western border that supports native and non-native vegetation as well as habitat for resident and migrating birds that include Snowy Plovers, Aleutian geese, Brant’s geese, Harrier hawks, and White-Tailed Kites. The estuary and freshwater waterways are also home to aquatic marine species such as top smelt and Dungeness crab, anadromous species including Coho and Chinook salmon, and freshwater species such as three-spined stickleback, sculpins, and invasive Sacramento pikeminnow.

The Wildcat Hills are composed of steeply sloped, loosely consolidated sedimentary rock formations and are susceptible to large scale landslides and significant erosion. Coupled with the intense, short lived winter rains that frequently occur on California’s north coast, significant sediment erosion occurs in the Wildcat Hills where extremely turbid water enters the five tributaries to the Salt River. These sediments settle in the channels of the tributaries and within the Salt River, decreasing channel capacity. Therefore, sediment laden flood waters escape onto the floodplain, across pasture fields, roads, and around infrastructure and houses leaving drifts of sediment. This sediment aggradation causes significant hydrologic dysfunction in the lower Salt River watershed, prompting the Salt River Ecosystem Restoration Project and other restoration efforts in this agricultural watershed.

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