More of the Eel River is protected as wild and scenic than any other river system in California. The 398 miles of protected river include segments of the main Eel, Middle Eel, North Fork Eel, South Fork Eel, and the main Eel’s tributary, the Van Duzen River. The Eel was protected in the state system in 1972 and the federal system in 1981. State and federal river designation precluded construction of the massive Dos Rios Dam on the Eel River, which would have diverted a significant amount of the river into the Central Valley for irrigation. Another Eel River tributary, the Black Butte River, was added to the system by Congress in 2009. Portions of the river flow through the Round Valley Indian Reservation, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and other state parks.
The Eel River’s foremost outstanding value is its anadromous fishery, including threatened and endangered populations of coho salmon, chinook salmon, and steelhead. The South Fork Eel is considered the largest producer of coho salmon in the system and perhaps one of the largest produces in all of California. The whitewater recreation values of the Middle Eel River are also considered outstanding.
PG&E’s Potter Valley hydroelectric project on the upper main Eel River upstream of the protected segments has contributed to the long-term decline of the river’s anadromous fisheries and is the focus of an effort to remove the dams and restore the fishery. More recently, diversions of Eel River tributaries to irrigate cannabis crops, have also raised concerns about impacts to flows and fisheries.