Requiem for a Perc Dam

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I’ve been reading about a legal dispute over Phase 3 of the Putah Creek project. It reminded me to look back, in appreciation, at how far we’ve come in improving and preserving Putah Creek for us, and for those who come after us. The percolation dam which used to be just east of the railroad bridge (now the Pedestrian Bridge) probably presents a good historical chronology to use in tracing this Putah Creek realignment. Let’s go back to the 1930s. In 1929 a series of stock manipulations and poor banking practices had triggered the Great Depression. (Yes, I had the same thought.) One out of every four adults in America was unemployed. With no solution in sight, Congress passed in 1935 an Emergency Relief Act, granting President Franklin D. Roosevelt authority to issue Executive Order 7034, establishing the WPA (Works Progress Administration), a national public works program for the estimated 5 million men and women both skilled and unemployed. At its peak, the WPA employed over 3 million people with annualized monthly wages of about $21,000 a year in today’s dollars. Everything you can think of got constructed: roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, auditoriums, you name it. This included, in Winters, a percolation dam designed by the Federal Division of Engineering and Construction. Up came our percolation dam. Designed to hold back water in streams, creeks and rivers, the dam would help control flooding and allow the excess water to “percolate” into the soil. “Percolation” was to help maintain local wells. Farmers in the Winters area brought large wood panels to the top of the Perc Dam, extending to the creek banks on each side, to increase the water “percolating” and increase the water supply at their well sites. A 1964 study by the U.S. Geological Survey of ground water in Solano County specifically mentioned the Winters Percolation Dam and had a photo of it with flash boards installed. The study concluded that any effect of the dam on groundwater was highly localized and at the expense of groundwater recharge further downstream. Here’s what makes this farmer effort interesting. It turns out that this type of dam, a common design used in multiple waterways across the United States by the WPA, had a design flaw. In simplest terms, when water flowed over the top of the dam in wet weather conditions, it caused an undertow back towards the dam. The design flaw caused at least one death, to a boater in Washington State. With the farmers’ wood bracing the dam, this could not happen. Surprisingly, this design flaw was still noticeable on our Perc Dam during the environmental review process in Phase 1. A picture tube was seen floating over the dam, only to be sucked back into it. Wow! In the 1950s a serious flood undermined the Perc Dam, and it was no longer viable. Since that time, for over 60 years, the Perc Dam has eroded. Crumbling concrete, exposed rebar, and partial collapse. The Putah Diversion Dam at the east side of Lake Solano was completed in 1957, diverting water flows through canals into Solano County. By the 1960s Putah Creek west of the Trestle Bridge was a mess. Every kind of appliance, tires, truck frames, stripped cars, garbage, and containers had been thrown into the mud and silt of the creek bed. Thickets, stickers, poison oak and non-native plants also clogged the creek in places up to the Diversion Dam. During this period, if there was water flowing, you could catch Crawdads and Bull frogs. Crawdads had a certain value. Instead of frogs, we had Crawdads for dissection requirements in biology class. In the lab, out of the freezer they came, some still alive. I tried to pick a dead one, but who knows. Still leaves a sour taste since, to quote the movie “Jungle Boy”, “there are only two reasons to kill an animal – to eat, or to avoid being eaten.” That’s enough digression. Though used off and on since as a fishing site, swimming in the pond area itself was discouraged for years. This was due to (1) the swimming pool being a better alternative, and (2) to the not infrequent spillage of raw sewage into Putah Creek from the Sewer Treatment ponds (not to mention storm drain runoff). From the ‘60s on Putah Creek was considered basically unsafe and unhealthy. Further, the shallow pond abutting the dam produced water temperatures too high to facilitate fish coming up the creek. The only decent size fish I caught during this time was a Sucker, and I was just dumb enough to try and cook it. Talk about bones. Given what went into the creek, it was probably best that I didn’t succeed. In the 1990s, prolonged drought severely cut water flows down Putah Creek, resulting in massive numbers of fish dead in the resulting dry Creek bed. Litigation was initiated by the Putah Creek Council, the City of Davis and UC Davis against the Solano County Water Agency (SCWA) and the Solano Irrigation District (SID) to establish continuing flows of water into Putah Creek at the diversion dam. This litigation, brought under both the Public Trust doctrine and sections of the California Fish and Game Code, resulted in 2000 in the Putah Creek Accord – finally establishing a release schedule that guaranteed continuing flows. Raised from the dead like Lazarus, Putah Creek began to live again. Since 2000, Putah Creek has flowed year round and contributes about 10 cubic feet per second to groundwater recharge between the Putah Diversion Dam and Winters. In 2002, the Lower Putah Creek Coordinating Committee (LPCCC) received a grant to assess the physical and biological condition of Putah Creek. Under the leadership of the Putah Creek Council and the LPCCC hundreds of volunteers began cleaning up Putah Creek, taking out the bad and putting in native vegetation. In 2008, the City of Winters adopted its Master Putah Creek Nature Park Plan for realigning the Creek. This included removal of both the Perc Dam and the old City sewer ponds. The construction of both of these had altered the original creek alignment, and a CEQA Mitigated Negative Declaration was adopted by the City with the approval of the Plan. California Fish and Game, in writing, consented to the Perc Dam removal because it obstructed natural form and ecological function. The City of Winters placed its Putah Creek properties under a conservation easement, to secure the Creek’s future. Millions of dollars in grants came in, with SCWA as lead agency, for the alignment and restoration. Why all the grants? Because the groups supporting this project represented a Who’s Who of environmental protection. Joining the Putah Creek Council and the Coordinating Committee were Audubon California, CalTrout, Fly Fishers of Davis, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, California Fish and Game, Putah Creek Trout, State of California – National Resources Agency, UC Davis Putah Creek Riparian Reserve, Yolo Basin Foundation – the list goes on and on. Just a ton of grant funding became available to bring back the natural alignment and restore the creek. Not surprisingly, this being Winters, objections were made to the City’s Master Plan on CEQA grounds. The time for objection having already passed, the project moved forward. Objection to the removal of the Perc Dam was made purportedly for the purpose of saving – “this community resource.” Spare me. Unsafe, with questionable water from runoff and spillage, the only real “community use” of this Perc Dam area consisted of high school kids “spooning”, drunkenness, and the purchase of certain mind-altering substances. At least one incident of vandalism resulted from the hullabaloo during the removal, namely damage to the fencing protecting the public from heavy construction equipment operations. File that under “no good deed goes unpunished.” What happened when the Perc Dam was removed? Hundreds of Salmon came up, from the Sacramento River, swimming right past the bridges. There’s the real community resource: a beautiful creek that attracts birds, salmon, and humans taking morning strolls. Rest in peace, Perc Dam, and thanks. P.S. This astounding change, from a creek that was basically a dump, to a valued community resource is why I find the litigation over Phase 3 troubling. On a personal note, I wish I had spent more hours working with the volunteers cleaning up the Creek. Putah Creek, during my youth, was always considered a horrible mess to be avoided, a mess at the time considered permanent. I never, ever, thought Putah Creek would be realigned, restored and the cleanup completed. My personal thanks and kudos to all those individuals and groups that made this transformation of Putah Creek possible. With the possible exception of the Giants winning it all in 2010, it was right at the top of my “never gonna happen” list.]]>

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  1. When I was a kid in the 70s, the lower part of Putah Creek from Winters to Davis was just a stagnant carp-filled cesspool. The idea of salmon swimming up to spawn laughable. Only fish that tolerated warm stagnant water – bluegill, catfish, and carp – survived the hot summers.
    I’d love to have my sons work on the rehab as a Boy Scout project.

  2. When I was a kid in the 70s, the lower part of Putah Creek from Winters to Davis was just a stagnant carp-filled cesspool. The idea of salmon swimming up to spawn laughable. Only fish that tolerated warm stagnant water – bluegill, catfish, and carp – survived the hot summers.
    I’d love to have my sons work on the rehab as a Boy Scout project.

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