The Eel River flows from the Mendocino National Forest to the coast a few miles south of Eureka, CA, traversing a topographically diverse area of mountains, canyons and redwood forests. Including its tributaries, it drains more than 3,500 square miles and is the state’s third largest watershed. Its state and federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River prevents it from being dammed and is meant to limit industrial development.
The Eel River has flow rates that vary as much as 100-fold with changing Pacific storm patterns and seasons in general. The mainstem is about 200 miles long and connects to four tributaries: the Van Duzen River, North Fork, Middle Fork and South Fork. The Eel River is a major water supply source and recharges area groundwater basins.
Beginning on the south side of Bald Mountain in Mendocino, the Eel River flows south to the reservoir at Lake Pillsbury. As it flows westward, the river is diverted by Pacific Gas and Electric’s Potter Valley Project into the Russian River. As it flows north, it meets the Middle Fork, then the Northern Fork, both joining from the east and enclosing the Round Valley Indian Reservation. The mainstem then meets the South Fork from the West then the Van Duzen from the east. The Eel flows north until the city of Fortuna where it bends west through an estuary to empty into the Pacific Ocean.
Wildlife and History
The Eel is habitat for steelhead, Chinook salmon and lamprey. The basin also coexists with enormous forests, such as the redwoods, and since the arrival of the earliest settlers has supplied vast quantities of timber for trade. Such communities were established beginning in the 19th century, attracting settlers with promises of fertile soils rather than gold. For thousands of years prior to European settlement, several Athabaskan Indian tribes inhabited the lands surrounding the Eel River, including the Wailaki, Lassik, Nongatl and Sinkyone peoples.