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April 2002

Important To Protect Streamside Conservation Areas

By Elena Belsky

Defending the Stream Conservation Areas (SCA) from development and human encroachment is becoming a major task for environmental advocates, often fighting local governments over lack of recognition for creeks and riparian areas. Marin County's own FishNet4C study evaluated Marin County policies, regulations, and practices related to endangered salmonid species (Steelhead Trout and Coho Salmon) and their habitat, and made recommendations for change. Yet it appears that the County has not achieved consistent recognition of circumstances, or enforcement, and therefore frequently sends mixed messages to the public.

The Stream Conservation Area (SCA) is defined as a 100 foot buffer zone from the top edge of the bank of any waterway or wetlands, or a 50 foot buffer zone from the edge of any riparian area (such as a stand of willow trees in a wet area), as mandated by the California Coastal Act through the Local Coastal Plan, and the Marin Countywide Plan.

Well recognized as critical habitat area, the SCA is essential to the health and well being of our creeks and wetlands, wildlife, and fish. Riparian vegetation provides shelter and woody debris for endangered species in our creeks such as Coho, steelhead, California shrimp, and red legged-frog, among others. Without the protection of the SCA buffer zone, habitat will be lost, water temperatures will rise, and the runoff from the sparse or bare ground will increase the waterflows, causing erosion and sedimentation of the creeks. Siltation from erosion can seriously damage spawning habitat by smothering gravel beds containing redds (nests), preventing oxygen from reaching the eggs and potentially killing them.

In order to reverse the habitat damage and help turn the corner for endangered species, we will have to not only prevent additional, new encroachment into the SCA, but as uses change on properties, strongly advocate restoring the SCA in order reverse the downward spiral of damage.

A number of groups have been participating in an informal coalition of local citizen planning and environmental groups called the Steelheads, in order to support each other on SCA issues and enforcement which has proven to be a successful formula.

Recent SCA planning problems in West Marin which were addressed and resulted in the successful protection of the SCA, include: Shakespeare at Stinson- illegal buildings placed in SCA, potential overuse and septic issues; Barnes/Tides writers cabins-three illegal buildings in SCA; Ecumenical Association for Housing/Point Reyes Station-community protests over encroachment of development into the 100 foot wetland buffer zones (wastewater issues in relation to Lagunitas Creek are still unresolved-See EAH articles in the March and April 2002 Coastal Posts).

A significant number of planning issues are currently under contest, a few are: Olema Ranch Campground-expansion into SCA, septic capacity and performance problems; Zeigler addition-building in SCA, problematic County evaluation of riparian areas on site; Olema Farmhouse expansion-continued encroachment into SCA, septic and property constraints.

The recent fire and destruction of the Wilderness Way and Music Program building on the Lagunitas School Campus unfortunately shows very clearly the dangers of placing structures next to creeks. When a key valve malfunctioned during the firefighting efforts, concentrated foam fire retardant was released into Larsen Creek, and flowed all the way down past the Inkwells in Samuel P. Taylor Park. While the product is mostly non-toxic, it may have reduced the amount of oxygen to the fish, causing problems; the run-off from the burned contents of the building could also be a contributing factor. There were a few fish deaths observed; water quality samples and fish tissue from the event are undergoing lab tests-results are pending. Maintaining proper setbacks from the SCA would have allowed the fire fighters the needed time and space to head off the spill and contain it without causing potential harm to the environment.

In an attempt to head off problems, one of the Steelhead group, the Tomales Bay Association, has been considering suggesting that a section be added to the County's planning application for any property development, with questions regarding proximity to waterways, seeps, and wetlands. That way, planning staff could immediately tell the applicant whether the project has environmental constraints, and the potential to cause planning problems. This would avoid the current situation, where applicants often spend months and tens of thousands of dollars in engineering and planning fees, before receiving staff comments regarding environmental problems which jeopardize their project.

Public participation in the ongoing revisions to the Agriculture and Environmental element of the Countywide Plan will assist in the future protection of the streams, wetlands, bays and riparian wooded areas. Copies of the proposed revisions are available in the County Planning Department, room 309 of the Civic Center. Notices of meetings are announced in the newspapers, or call any of the local environmental groups for more information.

 

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