As subterranean water inches higher, so do threats to air and water.

Oceans do not stop where the sea meets the shore. Along the coasts, saltwater creeps through porous soil and rock, creating an underground saltwater table that can extend miles inland.
Many Americans are familiar with sea-level rise. As we crank up the planet’s thermostat, the melting of glaciers and ice sheets and the thermal expansion of seawater mean the oceans are rising and intruding farther and farther inland — both on top of the land and underneath it.
Few regions expect an inundation from below, explained Kristina Hill, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies rising groundwater in urban coastal areas. “They think that building a levee is going to protect them from rising seawater. But, of course, a levee doesn’t affect much about the way that groundwater rises behind it.”
One of many concerning possibilities is that rising groundwater will mobilize contaminants that have been lurking in the soil for years, left behind by industrial and military sites, and allow them to spread, unnoticed, beneath our feet. 
This slow-moving crisis is popping up in communities across the U.S., but there are some common steps that can be implemented anywhere to help stem the spread of contaminants through climate-driven groundwater rise. Hill said one of the most important for government agencies and municipalities to take is simply more monitoring — in particular, at “maximum groundwater moments,” such as a few days after a heavy rain or at a high tide. Currently, sampling tends to be so infrequent that it doesn’t catch the movement of the contamination. 
“There are ways that we could be sampling and trying to catch the maximum risk, instead of kind of smoothing it all over with sampling that isn’t related to rain events or tide events,” Hill said. “Ideally, we’d help local people be involved in that sampling so that they know what’s happening in their own neighborhoods.”
Understanding, though, has to be paired with action. Along with taking broader steps to address climate change and its impacts, agencies need to ensure polluters clean up toxic sites, rather than just capping them and hoping for the best. 
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Hunted nearly to extinction, northern elephant seals, native to the waters off the West Coast, now number more than 175,000.

“They were thought to be extinct,” said Adam Ratner, associate director of conservation education at the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center, an animal hospital that cares for wild elephant seals. “We basically had a second chance with this species — and what’s amazing about marine mammals and other wildlife is how resilient they are.”
Northern elephant seals, which can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and are named for the males’ distinctive trunk-like noses, live in the eastern Pacific Ocean. They spend most of their time diving for fish and squid in the deep seas between Alaska and Mexico but come to land to breed and molt. 

The seals were hunted so much for their blubber, coveted by humans as a source of fuel, that between 1884 and 1892, not a single northern elephant seal was seen anywhere in the world, according to the National Park Service.
Then a small colony of elephant seals was found on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California in Mexico. After laws were enacted in Mexico and the United States banning hunting of elephant seals, that colony — estimated to have dwindled to fewer than 100 animals — was able to keep reproducing, and the population rebounded.
Elephant seals started popping up in places they had long abandoned or had never been sighted before, as they sought more beach space for their annual breeding. Elephant seals recolonized the Channel Islands in California following federal protection in the 1930s, and were spotted at Año Nuevo, along the wind-swept San Mateo coast, in 1955. In later decades, they spread to Point Reyes in Marin County, the Big Sur Coast and farther south toward San Luis Obispo.
But there are new, growing problems linked to climate change.
When atmospheric rivers slammed California in January, an estimated 100 newborn seals at Point Reyes National Seashore died, as king tides overwhelmed the beaches. Pups don’t learn how to swim until they are a few months old, and many were too young when the storms hit, according to Sarah Codde, a marine ecologist at the park.
Rising tides in general threaten the habitats of these animals, many of which breed on narrow beaches backed by steep cliffs, with little space to retreat from the water. After the January storms, many pregnant seals at Point Reyes moved to previously uninhabited beaches in the park, Codde said, but there are only so many easily accessible places to relocate to.
Still, the elephant seal population is, for the most part, booming. There are now believed to be 175,000 of the seals worldwide, and they have even begun to occupy breeding grounds outside of what’s considered their historic range, including Humboldt County.
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A lift station malfunction caused 3,000 gallons of sewage to be released into a storm drain near Waterfront Drive and L Street on Tuesday. The sewage was untreated, according to Eureka Public Works Director Brian Gerving.
A malfunction in the Halvorsen Park lift station caused the overflow.
“In this case, there are a few factors that came together that made the overflow happen,” said Gerving.
During storms, sewer volume often increases. This is caused when runoff infiltrates older sewer lines with weak joints. Sump pumps and gutters sometimes also push stormwater into sewer lines, which is a problem that can cause sewage overflows.
A power outage from a wind storm also impacted the lift station, which Gerving says does not have a backup generator.
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The difference between water and land has been especially muddy this winter, but for the Elk River Estuary Restoration Project that was part of the plan. Two City of Eureka parcels near the mouth of the river, more than 120 acres of “reclaimed” pasture and degraded salt marsh, will once again be a functioning intertidal ecosystem. 
Throughout fall, travelers on 101 between Herrick Road and Humboldt Hill were entertained by a moto-cross of loaders and dump trucks taking out old dikes and dams, re-digging buried tide channels on the south side of the river. On the north side, along Pound Road and Hikshari’ Trail, crews with hand tools and weed whackers cut back invasive spartina grass while Swamp Masters crawled through newly uncovered channels. 
At high tide, it looks like part of the bay. At low tide it looks like a big muddy mess–but we all know recovery can be ugly in its early stages.

Originally proposed by Aldaron Laird and funded by the state’s Coastal Conservancy, the project began as a way to accommodate sea level rise. But it also removes old tide gates and barriers to fish migration, opens up nearly three miles of water for non-motorized boating, and re-purposes thousands of cubic yards of sediment, the product of upstream logging, into a pedestrian and bike path that extends from Elk River to a new access point at Humboldt Hill.
The new trail is already popular. Elevated well above high tide, paved, two lanes wide, it even features a center line and traffic signs. A lot of trash was cleaned up. There are pull-outs for wildlife viewing. Walking and biking is almost like motoring.
Not everyone is pleased by these changes. Fishermen, beach strollers, and dog walkers used the old trail for many years. They complained about lack of public access during construction and called attention to the destruction of existing wildlife habitat. A big muddy mess.
Restoration also uncovers old mistakes. This place is still known to many locals as Stinky Beach. The pasture was once a place where they spread the solids of Eureka’s sewer plant. Across the river, Pound Road leads to the old concrete ruins where the City caged and disposed of its excess dogs and cats. They went next door to the rendering plant, along with dead livestock and leftovers of the slaughterhouse, to be cooked into a malodorous commercial product that mingled with the fog and sulfurous exhaust of two pulp mills.
Restoration has to ask what we hope to bring back to this place. Its older, Wiyot name is Hikshari’, a site of continuous settlement and “management activity” for many centuries.  When Laird and engineer Steve Salzman drew up plans for reconstructing the estuary, they made sure it would be done in consultation with Wiyot representatives. Laird prefers to call what they’re doing enhancement. “We are not returning the area to what it was before white people came here.” After recovery, it’s important to accept the things that can’t be changed.
Restoration means education and change, as much as engineering and botany. The City of Eureka has demonstrated, when it returned Tuluwat / Indian Island to the Wiyot, that it can also mean acceptance, reparation, and land return.  Making things right. Calling places by their Wiyot names. Hikshari’.
Restoration also applies to governance, changing the ways we make public decisions, being more inclusive and open. People in Elk River only learned of this project because it got attached to another murky issue we have followed for years. At a meeting of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, in 2016, while Elk River residents waited to ask the board to take effective action to reduce sediment (they didn’t), Eureka officials were told that their sewer plant was in violation of state and federal water quality laws. Its effluent was illegally going into Humboldt Bay (and Elk River’s estuary). But the timber companies got their zero sediment logging plan, and the City was given five years to fix their waste system.
Seven years later, Eureka and regional water quality staff were claiming the Elk River Estuary Restoration Project would “mitigate” their problem–basically, make it go away. That claim hasn’t come up again since an environmental law firm sued the City for its criminal behavior–and won–but meanwhile, time and effluent move on. 
Then another piece of the story came to the surface at a Humboldt Community Services District (HCSD) meeting. The old pound property, owned by Figas Construction, the low bidder on the project, would be the site of a $4.2 million Nature Center. Because HCSD is Eureka’s junior partner in the wastewater plant, serving ratepayers from Freshwater to Fields Landing (not Elk River), it would want to help pay for this additional “mitigation” of the plant’s pollution. HCSD strongly objected, and the Nature Center sank out of sight with the mitigation claims. Its status remains unclear.
Recovery from old habits requires time and constant vigilance. This project is a good beginning. Many people should be thanked for their contributions, but especially project manager Katie Marsolan, the drivers and equipment operators for their long hours, the tireless weed whackers and hand diggers of Redwood Community Action Agency, and Samara Restoration for its care in returning native plants to this damaged landscape. 
A few mallards have been seen checking things out. A hopeful egret. A small flock of sanderlings that came over from the beach. Nature will heal before we do.


City urged to consider environmental changes in future planning

On Tuesday, the Arcata City Council and the Arcata Planning Commission met jointly to hear about the risks sea level rise will bring to the city, and by extension the rest of Humboldt Bay.
The appointed and elected bodies heard from local, state and federal sea level rise experts on how Humboldt Bay is expected to see three feet of sea level rise in the next 40 years, which will likely overrun the dikes and flood areas with key infrastructure such as U.S. Highway 101 and the city’s sewer treatment plant.
“We really need to avoid putting any new things at risk in those areas. This was said before — sea level rise is not going to stop anytime soon,” Aldaron Laird, senior environmental planner at Greenway Partners, said. “It’s going to keep on going until we think we need to reduce what’s at risk and not put more development in areas that are vulnerable.”

Laird urged the council and commission to partner with other agencies, as Arcata will be limited in its ability to singlehandedly adapt to sea level rise.
The full study session can be viewed at
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