Marovich passes the streamkeeper baton

Outgoing streamkeeper Rich Marovich (right), with incoming stramkeeper Max Stevenson (left). (Turid Reid/Courtesy photo)

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Twenty-one years ago, the position of streamkeeper with the Solano County Water Agency was created by the Putah Creek Accord, an agreement ending 10 years of creek flow litigation with the mission of cleaning up Putah Creek. Rich Marovich, who has held that position since its inception, announced his retirement effective January. 

Born and raised in Palo Alto, Marovich grew up exploring. He recalls as a six-year-old collecting California Black Toadlets in a five-gallon bucket from the area’s cement lined creeks and releasing them into the family’s garden where they were able to gorge on insects. Over the course of a couple weeks, he said they grew to be fat, healthy toads.

His mother’s interest in science got him interested in collecting Monarch butterfly larvae from milkweed plants near his home. He took the larvae home, provided them with milkweed and watched the larvae pupate, or transform from caterpillars into butterflies before releasing them.

In 1978, Marovich graduated from UC Davis where he earned a bachelor’s degree in plant science with a specialty in nursery management. He worked for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation as a senior environmental scientist and was the endangered species program founder and lead scientist.

After a college reunion one year, Marovich looked up one of his classmates, Janet Krovoza, whose husband Joe sat on the Putah Creek Council. They shared in interest in white water boating and, at one point Joe told Marovich of the streamkeeper job opening and asked how he would like to get paid to go boating.

“That sounded irresistible,” Marovich said. Needless to say, he was hired and became Putah Creek’s first streamkeeper.

Job responsibilites
As streamkeeper, Marovich said he, “broadly looks after Putah Creek.” 

Responsibilities of the streamkeeper include educating the community, protecting the resources of Putah Creek, improving the habitat and water quality, protecting against excessive water flow diversions, overseeing a team of ecologists, soil scientists, aquatic, fish and wildlife biologists and working with landowners along Putah Creek. Marovich noted that 75 percent of the land along the creek is privately-owned, so to do creek work landowners must agree to it.

Marovich said there had not been a comprehensive study of Putah Creek when he became streamkeeper. One of his first grant-funded projects was to develop a watershed management action plan consisting of the creek’s physical and biological features. 

The first step was to make assessments of the creek, but the agency refrained from making recommendations until they talked to landowners. For decades Putah Creek was used as a dump, so identifying trash sites and reaching out to landowners to discuss cleanup was determined to be a step in the right direction. Also part of the discussion was eradication of invasive weeds, spawning of Chinook salmon and improving wildlife habitats.

Finding that most landowners were interested in cleaning up the creek led to obtaining a grant to remove trash in and along the creek. Auto and tractor parts, washing machines, empty pesticide containers, tires and just about anything you could think of had been dumped into the creek, Marovich said.

Marovich wanted to co-create with landowners along the creek so they could coordinate themselves as an interest group. It turned out that what landowners most wanted was to control trespassing, while the public wanted places to go on Putah Creek. These, he said, were complementary objectives for each stakeholder; the creek got cleaned up and the public got Winters Putah Creek Park.

Putah Creek importance
Putah Creek has more value than they ever knew thanks to the Putah Creek Accord, said Marovich. Shortly after the accord was signed in May 2000, the Point Reyes Observatory made a reconnaissance survey stopping at tributaries along I-5 and I-505 surveying for birds and ranking their habitat. Putah Creek was rated one out of a scale to ten, indicating very low value.

In the years since, with perpetual monitoring of wildlife along the creek, Putah Creek has been determined to be one of the best tributary streams in the Sacramento region for diversity of wildlife support, Marovich said.

“That value was concealed by the fact that it was kind of a diamond in the rough. The stream had been used as a trash dump, a drain, vegetation had been scoured out, the channel straightened for flood conveyance, mined for gravel and impacted in every way humans can impact a natural system,” Marovich said.

Marovich stressed the importance of creek corridors to wildlife because this is where water is that wildlife needs to survive during the summer months. Aquatic insects flourish and provide food sources for riparian birds. This is shelter and native riparian vegetation are for habitats.

“If the habitat goes away, so does our wildlife,” Marovich said.

“One of the things that attracted me about this position is that it was brand new. The sky was the limit.”

During his 21 years as streamkeeper, over $14 million in grant funds were raised for physical and biological assessments, weed control, bank stabilization, geomorphic restoration and habitat enhancement.

“That made a tremendous amount of improvement to the creek,” Marovich said.

Twenty-one years of accomplishments.

We’ve accomplished many objectives, Marovich said, like removing trash, controlling invasive weeds, promoting native vegetation, doubling the bird population, restoring the annual Chinook salmon runs in numbers that no one thought possible and resolving excessive diversions through dialogue with riparian landowners.

“Not only did we restore a creek, but we restored a sense of community. We’re all in this together. When we tap into collective wisdom, we also have community support,” Marovich said and added. “The City of Winters has been tremendous with their support.”

“When we walk into the room, we don’t want to put the solution on the table. We want to put the problem on the table. We don’t want to reveal our solution until we’ve heard from the stakeholders because they may have better ideas. If you’re not part of the problem, how can you possibly be part of the solution?” he asked.

The future
Marovich is passing the baton over to Max Stevenson. Stevenson has served since 2012 as the assistant general manager for the Yolo County Flood Control & Water Conservation District. He starts as the new Putah Creek Streamkeeper on Jan. 10, 2022. Stevenson holds a doctorate in Plant Eco Physiology from UC Davis.

“I’m thrilled to turn it over to Max Stevenson because he’s super qualified and has the right temperament for it and because we now have the confidence going forward,” Marovich said.

As for the future of the streamkeeper, Marovich said, “That’s up to the Putah Creek Coordinating Committee and Max Stevenson to figure out, but it’s likely to be better than ever imagined. As far as we’ve come, there’s equal or greater distance to go.” 

In retirement Marovich is eager to spend time gardening, whitewater rafting and to continuing to be of service for environmental enhancement. Rafting down the Colorado River is short on his bucket list.

After restoration of Winters Putah Creek Park, wildlife biologists found California Black Toads on the creek for the first time. Marovich said they must have been there all along, but who knew.

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