The Coastal Post - March, 1999

Fish Protection Removed From French Ranch

By Submission

The sediment-catching protection mechanisms put in place at French Ranch Development to protect endangered coho salmon and steelhead that are now spawning in San Geronimo Creek in West Marin county were partially removed on Saturday, February 6, after Sir Francis Drake Boulevard flooded, causing a public safety concern. Marin County Department of Public Works was dispatched to the scene to remove numerous hay bales and sandbags placed in drainage courses along the roadway by the developer that were causing the rainwater to back up into the roadway. This occurred relatively early in the storm, after only three inches had fallen. Up to 10 inches of rain are predicted to fall in the coming days.

Meanwhile, sediment ponds, built to allow fish-killing sediment to settle out of dirty water, also failed and were breaching at dozens of points. Sediment in the creek is now considered to be the primary reason for the low success of coho survival, killing the incubating eggs and filling in the deep pools, critical for the survival of the juvenile fish. Ironically, over a million taxpayer-funded dollars are being spent to reduce sediment in the creek from other sources in the watershed.

"This is a tragedy for the threatened coho and steelhead that we are trying to restore," said Todd Steiner of the Marin County based watershed organization known as SPAWN, or Salmon Protection and Watershed Network. He continued, "We predicted there would be massive sedimentation from this development, and unfortunately for the fish, we were right."

The poor planning and oversight of the development's work plan had been criticized as early as October, 1998, for having inadequate sediment protection mechanisms, including none in place by the beginning of the rainy season. Complaints from community members and organizations resulted in several inspections by Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Fish and Game, Marin County Department of Public Works and others. Each subsequent inspection resulted in additional requirements on the developer to put in place more protection methods, and eventually to a partial stop-work order. The results of this piecemeal approach to sediment catchment has been described by one community member as a series of "Rube Goldberg contraptions" that were "sure to fail as soon as a significant rainfall event occurred."

Steiner said, "The developer and agencies responsible for overseeing this project must take responsibility for their actions or lack thereof. We need to get mechanisms in place to ensure that future disasters like this do not occur again."

Fish and Game sent an emergency work crew to stop sedimentation from spilling into San Geronimo Creek.

Group Is Trying To Protect San Geronimo Creek

Sedimentation is a critical issue for our local creek; the health and welfare of its endangered species population depends upon us. Properties with streams, wetlands, seeps or runoff creeks on site are particularly delicate and environmentally sensitive areas. Any dirt moving (grading, excavating, etc.) or vegetation clearing must be done with the utmost caution, and requires long range planning. These activities are best done during the dry season because of the difficulty involved in complying with the strict State and Federal Clean Water regulations while working in the wet season. State Department of Fish and Game has stated that there is a "zero tolerance" policy for turbid (silted) water being discharged off a construction site.

In order to better monitor conditions adversely affecting the San Geronimo Creek and its tributaries, Save the Valley (STV) and community members have formed an all volunteer team, who have developed and are implementing a comprehensive monitoring plan. This currently includes: water sampling and professional testing at specific sites, video footage, photo surveys, collaborations with other environmental organizations, and outreach to government agencies.

Lasting Relationships

Through our efforts during the past four months, STV has forged excellent relationships with staff members of various governmental agencies; State Fish & Game, Regional Water Quality Control Board, Environmental Protection Agency, National Marine Fisheries Service, Marin Municipal Water District, Marin County, and others. As one Regional Water staffer put it, we are "their eyes in the field". We are pleased to be able to share documentation and test results.

Siltation and Salmon

The French Ranch developers missed Local, State and then Federal deadlines for erosion and sedimentation control measures in early October. Then a series of winter storms hit. The site was completely unprepared, and with approximately 17 acres of graded land, silt began washing into the wetlands and creek system with each storm event. On December 10th, 1998, eleven inspectors from six different government agencies toured the French Ranch property with the aim of correcting violations and determining jurisdiction for enforcement. A major concern was water quality for the spawning coho salmon and steelhead trout (threatened under the Endangered Species Act). Runoff that carries silt, fills in crucial spawning beds and can smother eggs in existing redds (nests).

Action Taken

Regional Water issued an enforcement action to the developer; the next month the County of Marin issued a "Stop Work Order" for the winter for Area 1. Once a site has been exposed to rain without implementation of winterization measures, most agency experts agree that it is very difficult to achieve adequate containment after the fact.

Septic Appeal Update

The Save the Valley/Warner/Brumbaugh appeal of French Ranch septic permit from Regional Water Quality Control Board has been summarily denied by State Water Resources Control Board. No particular reason was given by Walt Pettit, Executive Director, or his staff, for the denial of a public hearing on the complex permitting procedure. Further recourse is under consideration, according to John Sharp, attorney for the appellants.
Elena Belsky, Exec. Board
377 San Geronimo, CA 94963
[email protected]

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