Feature: The Dance of Restoration

Floodplain build-out along Lagunitas Creek to provide coho salmon with affordable housing

The heavy equipment operators were in full rumbling flower on a recent morning in West Marin, spread out in the now-cleared underbrush and bush along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard where it intersects with Platform Bridge Road, scraping out the earth, digging giant troughs, piling up the dirt, planting trees—what the heck’s going on?

What’s going on is an ambitious effort to restore floodplain habitat along Lagunitas Creek, so that the coho salmon and steelhead might have a fighting chance at a true rebound from a recent and oft-told story that speaks of anemic and alarmingly low numbers of the coho especially, an endangered species under state and federal law.

The two-year, $1.1 million project now underway, a multi-agency endeavor that will be completed by fall of 2018, will eventually touch 10 separate pieces along the storied Lagunitas, which, as the local joke goes, belches forth hops-heavy beer along its banks even as it supports one of the hardiest populations of coho salmon in the state of California.

The project’s major imperative is to create new floodplains for the coho and steelhead alongside the currently not-so-roaring Lagunitas, now in its sultry summer flow and with many of its residents out in the ocean.

The driving idea behind the project is to enhance the winter carrying capacity of the Lagunitas so that when the coho return from their summer vacation at sea, they’ve got plenty of floodplain opportunities for nooking up.

This is a big, sprawling project that loops in bureaucrats from the state and the county, and which is being undertaken this year largely on land owned by the National Park Service.

The log-jam for a greater restoration yield of the hammered coho fishery, says Gregory Andrew, fishery program manager with the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD), is the lack of sufficient winter habitat for coho returning from sea.

Now workers are busy creating new floodplain channels that run alongside Lagunitas Creek proper, “to provide more physical habitat for the salmon,” says Andrew, “so they can grow as big and fat and happy as they can—it’s not just about the numbers, it’s about the size and health of the fish that come out of here.

The Lagunitas is something of a regional crown jewel for coho restoration efforts, hosting “one of the best coho populations in the state of California,” says Andrew as he lays out the raw numbers: Between 500 and 800 coho return to the Lagunitas each winter, which isn’t a great number, but is better than any creek in the state and even outclasses the mighty Russian River to the north. One critical piece of the Lagunitas is that when it spills out into Tomales Bay, there’s no sandbar blocking the salmon’s route to the ocean.

The Lagunitas is a 20-mile jewel of a creek with about 50 miles of tributary-creek action that spins off of it, says Andrew, and the health of the creek is enhanced through some built-in protections: The MMWD owns the upper part of the Lagunitas Creek Watershed; the creek runs through Samuel P. Taylor State Park before hitting the federal National Park Service land in way-West Marin, where we are today, and where Andrew is giving a tour of the extensive and dusty work-zones.

The general recent history of the coho populations in the Lagunitas, and California generally, sees their number plummet in the 1980s; regulatory efforts helped push the numbers back up to some level of respectability around 2004-05; but by 2008, the coho numbers had plummeted again, and fish-surveyors found that an alarmingly low 100 coho had returned to winter-up in Lagunita.

After the 2008 debacle, the MMWD, whose agency-hand in these efforts stems from its role as watershed manager for Marin County, worked with other agencies to embark on more limited restoration efforts in the creek, “and there is some evidence that the work we’ve done has made a difference. Now with this big project, we’re hoping that it will have a profound effect” on future winter stocks. He’d love to see that 500-800 number spike up to a rate-of-return more in the 2,500 fish-per-year range. Anecdotally and unscientifically, Andrew says historical numbers were probably more in the 5,000 fish-per-year return range.

In these parts, there’s no pressure from extractors or vineyards or over-weaning real-estate development or pressure to log the land, and not much in the way of riparian pressures that can engender more of a “coho-versus pinot” dynamic in Sonoma and Napa county waterways.

The Marin project is broken into 10 distinct bits, and half of the work will be completed by October; the other half is on the docks for next summer and fall. The work needs to be undertaken when the rain isn’t falling (if the rain should happen to fall at all).

The biggest unplanned-for exigency in the project, says Andrew after a pause, was in protecting other endangered or protected species in and along Lagunitas Creek, even as workers set out to protect the coho.

He notes that there are bats, rare freshwater shrimp, spotted salamanders and owls, that all had to be herded or otherwise encouraged to move on while workers brought in the backhoes and front-loaders to create a 1,000 foot floodplain channel along Platform Bridge Road, on what’s called Site 10, and in other work-zones to come.

The idea behind the project, says Andrew, is to mimic nature in re-animating the historic creek-side floodplains “without causing anything that was unintended. It’s a highly sensitive spot,” he says. “The watershed hosts a lot of species. We want to enhance the habitat, but don’t want to mess up what’s there already. It’s a challenge—there’s all sorts of critters.”  

Andrew says he hopes for a mild-to-average winter this year so as not to undo the work that’s been undertaken. Massive deluges could conspire to wipe out or otherwise damage the new floodplain channels and also the numerous log-jam structures that have been strategically built to encourage water flow into the newly-created floodplain troughs.

Today in the dog days of August, the creek is lolling along at a very slow-moving 8-cubic-feet per second. That number, says Andrew will typically spike to around 2,000 feet per second in the winter.

But during the heaviest of the heavy weather from the rain-soaked winter of 2016-17, upwards of 8,000 to 10,000 cubic feet of liquid love coursed through Lagunitas Creek channel per second. That’s not especially amenable to coho salmon looking for shelter from the proverbial storms.

The idea of the floodplain channels, Andrew says, is to give the coho a refuge from the ripping currents of winter. As an added bonus, the nooky little floodplains also give the salmon a place to hide from predators, in this case a healthy population of voraciously cute river otters who apparently don’t mind a fast-flowing creek.  

A backhoe groans and dragonflies flit around Site 10 as Andrew explains the scope and arc of the project, which involves a score of workers on site and numerous agencies of the county, state and federal variety. Here, workers have planted willow stumps along the now-dry floodplain channel, which will provide future shade. They’ve bermed-off the Lagunitas itself from the ground-scraping enterprise which has brought the adjacent land to a grade at or below that of the creek itself. When the rains come, the creek will find its own level and will naturally breach into the floodplain.

Andrew says to check with him in a few years for the answer to a question he couldn’t answer on this hot and dusty August afternoon: What sorts of beneficial unintended consequences might a project such as this engender? For now, he says as he points to the long and sandy trough that runs along the creek, dotted with yellow flags to indicate the way forward: “Coho and steelhead love this kind of habitat.”

It’s hard to find an enemy of coho restoration efforts underway throughout the state, but there’s an undercurrent inquiry I’ve picked up in reporting on the California salmon fisheries which says: Given the bleak numbers and return on investment, is it worth all this time and money to save a few fish? Is there an argument that says it’s high-time to throw in the towel and admit defeat?

Um, no.

Andrew insists on the urgent need and the popularity of such projects as he highlights that “people across the board want to see the coho and steelhead populations do well,” and that includes the cattle ranches that are all over this part of West Marin.

As we tour the sites, Andrew repeatedly cites the “public trust value” of preserving and enhancing the coho populations, now supplanted by a vigorous state program that’s seeing lots of coho spring forth from hatcheries and wind up in state creeks and rivers.

The MMWD has been counting fish for decades in the waterways that fall under its management rubric, says Andrew as we take a quick drive from Site 10 to Site 3, on the south side of  Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and which runs along the sublime Cross Marin Trail. Here workers scramble with chainsaws to square up a water-shunt piling, and a small bucket-loader is filling in a temporary diversionary channel as the work on this site is completed.  

Workers have created the big wooden shunt-the-water structure, and once they’re done with Site 3 they’ll move to Site 4, where this complex and fascinating dance of restoration will continue.

First they’ll have to remove any fish from that part of the creek, and relocate them while the work is undertaken. That process may include giving the coho and steelhead a little shock to their system, with the “zapper,” so state workers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife can scoop them up without harming them. They will also use seine nets to corral the fish.

Does shocking the fish represent cruelty to coho? Well, would you rather be extinct or a little shocked?

Andrew goes to great lengths to assure a reporter that this is a normal and routine aspect of fish-surveying. We have a shared laugh: It’s not like they’re chucking hand grenades into the creek, that’s the “old school” way of counting fish.  

Matt Erickson is an environmental scientist and watershed planner with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and he’s onsite today checking out the ongoing work at Site 3, where workers have created a little ox-bow-like diversionary flow while they install a massive wood-works to shunt water into the creek and hence, into the new floodplain downstream.

The dance of coho restoration is an intricate and interlocking enterprise where the utter fragility of the species (and its creek-to-ocean journey) is met with brute-force heavy equipment and chainsaws in order to provide some buffer to that fragility.

Another dance is the interaction that goes on in any of these projects, between numerous agencies that have a stake in the restoration—including, for example the State Water Board, which has all sorts of regulations around the allowable “total maximum daily load” of sedimentation in the creek.

As we linger around Site 3, I ask Erickson and Andrew—respectively, the state and the county point-persons on the job—“Who is the overall godhead here? Who’s in charge?”

They both laugh and immediately point their finger at the other. As we continue with the tour, Erickson digs in on the question and runs with the “dance of restoration” concept as he notes that here we are, on National Park Service land where a big project requiring many permits and construction contracts is underway.

As a practical matter, county project manager Andrew is the on-the-ground guy who coordinates and manages the privately-contracted work crews.

Toward the end of a media tour he communicates with the job foreman and engineer under contract at Covello Construction Management Plus, a heavy equipment operator with corporate headquarters in Walnut Creek and an office in Santa Rosa, about where machine operators can and can’t run their loaders over the next few days as the work shifts from Site 3 to Site 4.

Erickson has a broader charge to oversee the permitting processes and provide state oversight to the project, especially given the sensitive and endangered status of the coho. His job, he says, is to protect and enhance the coho’s numbers, despite the difficulties and cost. “It’s not in our DNA to give up and quit” on the coho, says Erickson. Twenty years ago he was working for the state as an ocean-salmon fish regulator. Now he’s on the other end of the creek trying to save a crippled fishery from outright extinction.  

The good news, says Andrew, is that with proper management and a steadfast commitment from civic leaders, “the coho population can rebound from very low numbers.”

Fishing is not permitted in the Lagunitas at any time. But, and ironically enough, the world-record steelhead trout was caught in the Lagunitas, when you could still fish it decades ago, Erickson says. That was a 26-pound fish. A big fish.

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