Putah Creek restoration — is this what we want?

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By DAVID SPRINGER/Friends of Putah Creek

Guest columnist

In a heartbreaking move that will destroy valuable Putah Creek wildlife habitat and eliminate a prime viewing area, construction was initiated this past week on a third project to relocate and narrow the channel of Putah Creek in Winters. Much misinformation has been spread to support this project. The approximate $1 million cost for Phase 3 represents a continuation of the misappropriation of public funds that destroy habitat in the name of restoration.

Some of the misinformation relates to the recent history of the creek. Gravel mining is blamed for deepening and widening the channel. The need to remove the old sewage ponds is also cited. There was some gravel mining many years ago, but the ancient channel has been shaped in recent years by the Monticello and diversion dams, actions by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), and the current flow regime. The dams prevent high water flows most winters and block the deposition of sediment and gravel.

As noted by fisheries biologist Peter Moyle, “The flood waters, no longer allowed to leave the channel, expend their energy cutting downward, making a miniature canyon where there was once swamp.” Relocating the channel will not change this, and Moyle’s assertion suggests it may result in deeper cuts.

The sewage ponds were planted with natives by volunteers about 15 years ago and were thoroughly covered in vegetation before being cleared as a staging area and source of fill for prior restoration phases.

One of the cornerstone objectives of the three-phase Winters Putah Creek Park project has been to improve fish habitat. Data recently made available by SCWA shows fish counts declined by 67 percent in the Winters Putah Creek Park zone between 2013 and 2016, with fewer trout being sampled and much lower overall counts compared to locations upstream and downstream.

Thanks to improved access and addition of gravel, salmon spawning can now be observed, but to date there is no evidence that salmon spawned in the narrowed channel have returned.

Some Winters old-timers recall steelhead coming to spawn, but not salmon. The creek ran dry in drought years both before and after construction of the dams, but a lawsuit filed against the Solano County Water Agency (SCWA) by the City of Davis, UC Davis, and the Putah Creek Council (PCC) that settled in 2000 required SCWA to maintain flows, making a salmon run possible.

Salmon favor lower water temperatures. Re-channeling advocates claim channel narrowing and reduction of surface area completed under Phases 1 and 2 resulted in a 0.25°C temperature decrease between 2009 and 2014. However, 75 percent higher water releases in 2014 than 2009 would more than explain this slight temperature decrease. Phase 3 will reduce the surface area by less than half an acre (compared to the 43 acre Lake Solano) while moving the creek away from existing shade trees.

The article in the Dec. 12 issue of the Express mistakenly blamed soil compaction and lack of native plant growth on the removal of vegetation by ACOE in the 1940s. Only the stretches of creek that were narrowed under Phases 1 and 2 suffer from soil compaction as evidenced by the dense vegetation in “un-restored” areas. In fact, soil compaction was a requirement under the earth moving contract for Phases 1 and 2.

The compaction of imported heavy clay soils prevents the lateral transfer of moisture from the creek to the flood plain and severely limits plant growth as well as percolation, and groundwater recharge. That is why the remediation efforts reported in the Express were made necessary. Several established trees can be seen to be suffering from compaction.

Earth moving completed in the past week for the Phase 3 channel has loosened soil that will lead to erosion on a grand scale if the Glory Hole overflows again this winter.

The focus on salmon to obtain grant funds and muster public support is leading to the destruction of habitat for other fish and animal species. The wider, slower section of creek included in Phase 3 hosts several species that are not seen in the narrowed channel, including ducks, herons, egrets, kingfisher, beaver, frogs, and the endangered Western Pond Turtle. This section of the creek includes islands that protect nesting birds and other wildlife from cats, dogs, and people.

As being carried forward, the Phase 3 plan has important public impacts. The approximate $1 million expenditure of state tax dollars for the quarter-mile project moves the creek away from public viewing areas that currently protect birds and other wildlife, and eliminates viewing access for physically handicapped persons. It may result in additional access to spawning grounds but, as pointed out by signage, people and dogs disturb spawning salmon. There is no improvement of flood or erosion control.

One may ask, why is there so much support for the project? Most of the experts who advocate for these projects are affiliated with organizations that benefit from grant funds. The grants support the Lower Putah Creek Coordinating Committee (the applicant), SCWA, the Putah Creek Council, and UC Davis fisheries biology programs, as well as private consultants hired under the grants. Much great work has been done by the PCC, which has been behind efforts to fix the mistakes of Phases 1 and 2.

As volunteer stewards of the creek, members of our organization have participated in plantings, cleanups and trail building over the past two decades. Despite years of efforts to have a say in the restoration process, our members have been shut out, leaving working with permitting agencies and legal action as the only recourse.

Actions taken to date, paid for out of pocket by our members, prevented work from proceeding without required permits, and blocked an improper Notice of Determination related to the Programmatic EIR that supports channel modifications all the way from the diversion dam to the Yolo Bypass.

What is behind our actions is the desire to see restoration that is based on good science and common sense. We would like to see grant funding applied to restoring and protecting habitat for native species of all kinds. We vigorously oppose the use of heavy earth-moving equipment to scrape the land clean, relocate channels, and compact soil.

Please visit www.FriendsofPutahCreek.org for information on how you can support our efforts.

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