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December, 2008



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Twenty Salmon Species Face Extinction
By Karen Nakamura

November and December herald the spawning season for Coho salmon and steelhead trout in Marin. Last year's tragically low run brought home the realization that the Coho population in the San Geronimo Creek Watershed is at 10% of historic levels. As of January 29, 2008, Redwood Creek at Muir Woods had zero Coho returns. Fears are that besides the already low numbers, the Cosco Busan oil spill could have been culpable. For perspective, in the 1940s, the overall number of Coho salmon was estimated to be 500,000. "The number of spawning salmon observed during the 2007-08 surveys, were at the lowest in 12 years of measurement" according to Marin County Ordinance #3482.
On November 19, 2008 nationally recognized salmon expert Peter Moyle of UC Davis and California Trout released a study. It's dire warning was that 20 of the 31 species of California's native salmon face extinction by the end of the century. Authorities have found that 49% of that reduction is due to urbanization and dam construction.

This isn't just a problem in West Marin where more than 800 properties are affected in Lagunitas, Forest Knolls, San Geronimo and Woodacre. There are similar concerns along the Corte Madera Creek watershed, the Greater North Coast salmon habitant and any other creek or river watershed system in the United States. Therefore it might be a good idea to revisit the situation as a new season and political environment commence.

The ramifications of a people vs. environment conflict is inherent in this scenario and need examination, but let's first look at how we can help the fish repopulate, the desired endgame of all involved. It's a matter of how to get there.

The Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) has, over the years, led efforts in West Marin to save the spawning Coho and steelhead. And while a number of residents have complained about the "pushy" methods used by the organization, it is highly dedicated to its mission. Its website recommends these backyard tips to help ease the crisis.

To prevent soil erosion and run off into waterways, take advantage of the warm soil and moisture to plant native bunchgrass. It'll stabilize the soil and reduce surface erosion. The grass grows fast in the winter and looks good. Native trees and shrubs planted during the fall/ winter along creeks further stabilize soil while trapping sediment runoff and providing cover during the summer.

Biodegradable erosion control blankets on steeper or exposed slopes avoid topsoil loss and help establish vegetation. Bunchgrass seeds can be planted under and over the blanket to help. Another important aide to build before the rains hit is sediment dams between "erodible areas and creek banks or storm drains to prevent fine sediment from reaching the creeks." These can be made from logs, straw bales or even woody plant materials "and if nothing else recycled cardboard."

"Woody Debris: Let It Be! is a SPAWN rallying call. "Salmon require shelter from stormy weather too!" And juveniles are vulnerable to being washed out of the creek during heavy flow conditions so woody debris in the water is used for refuge. That same wood helps form pools where fish can live. Use live vegetation such as willows, alders or maples instead of rock to protect creek banks, not only will trees shade the fingerlings as they grow, they add beauty and stability.

Other efforts implemented by many in West Marin include use of biodegradable or organic cleaning products and fertilizers and garden products while avoiding chemicals especially anti-bacterial products.

Which brings us back to Marin County Ordinance #3482. Issued on February 12, 2008 by the Marin Board of Supervisors, the Ordinance created a moratorium on building permits that exceed the construction footprint or "add more than 500 square feet of new development" for existing structures within the San Geronimo Watershed reaching from White's Hill to Samuel Taylor Park. It will be in effect for another year and a half at least until a more thorough study of man's effect on the creek can be examined.

An important study in 2001, FishNet 4C, discovered there were a number of vacant parcels adjoining the creek system with residential zoning. That meant owners could develop these parcels without "a discretionary review by County permitting agencies." Ordinance #3482 closed that hole. Among the dangers the Ordinance warns about is that "development next to a creek can result in oil, grease, soap, pesticides, fertilizers and other household hazardous waste entering the stream causing a degradation of the habitat for the Coho and steelhead population."

Needless to say the moratorium has caused consternation among property owners in the San Geronimo Valley and they have legitimate concerns. For example, there are complaints about the extension of horse facilities between White's Hill and the long established Dickson Ranch. This entire complex, while beautiful and desirable, is also built along the spring-fed marsh where salmon traditionally spawn and is the source of the San Geronimo Creek system. Residents wonder about manure residue polluting the creek.

One of the first problems to erupt was when Supervisors discussed the issue behind closed doors with no public discussion before Supervisors signed the ordinance. When there was a meeting, over 60 people attended. This flies in the face of the approach used for years by other entities in the county. The best example is San Rafael, which invites all interested parties into the planning from the beginning.

Among the opposition were representatives from Spirit Rock the meditation center in Woodacre, occasionally graced by the Dalai Lama. Quoted at the time in the Marin IJ, Gary Ragghianti, Spirit Rock's attorney stated: "There have been four days since we have seen this ordinance. Two were on a weekend."

And while Spirit Rock began planning to move some buildings away from the creek, even that work could be hit by the moratorium.

A San Geronimo landowner asked supervisors to reimburse him for the $150,000 he's spent on building a home on his creek side lot. Another property owner in Forest Knolls saw his long held dream of building a home dashed with the decision. There have been other complaints that while residents want the Coho to return, some provisions such as leaving a tree that had fallen into the creek was great for the fish but would cause flooding of adjoining homes.

Obviously, these conflicts will occur a hundred fold in the next ten years around the country. It's time Marin worked out a harmonious transition that can be replicated. And that means including all points of view at the table.

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