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Planning Commission Votes to Protect Atascadero Creek Wetlands

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Board of Supervisors to Decide Fate of Atascadero Creek Wetlands

By Carol Benfell and Friends of Atascadero Wetlands

An historic opportunity to preserve one of the last remnants of Sonoma County’s once-vast wetlands will take place August 9, when the county Board of Supervisors will decide whether or not to protect 255 acres of marshes along West County’s Atascadero Creek. You are invited to come to the hearing to support one of our most endangered ecosystems.

Wetlands – marshy areas that often border creeks, rivers and bays – provide significant benefits for people and wildlife, including flood control, improved water supplies and habitat for endangered species.

But Atascadero Creek wetlands are under attack from development and agriculture, and a once-flourishing run of Coho salmon has markedly declined.  The chances of a Coho recovery would be greatly enhanced if the wetlands are protected, but they may be lost forever unless the Supervisors act.

“Eco-talk is easy. Now it’s time for eco-action,” said Jeffrey Holtzman, a supporter of Friends of Atascadero Wetlands (FAW), a local grassroots environmental group. FAW became active 12 years ago, after several destructive actions and violations of county regulations in wetland areas – the construction of a water ski lake, a trenching incident, the clearing of riparian areas on Mill Station Road and others.

Plans to protect the Atascadero wetlands have been on the books since 1992, when the Board of Supervisors authorized a study and wetland mapping. Supervisors again pledged to protect them in the 2009 update of the county General Plan, the county’s blueprint for land use and development. 

But nothing happened until Friends of Atascadero Wetlands became involved. At their urging, and with the strong support of Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the Board in 2015 approved a study of potential wetland areas in the stretch of Atascadero Creek between Mill Station Road and Green Valley Road.

The Planning Commission approved the study in May and called for a General Plan Amendment that would place a protective Biotic Habitat zoning overlay on parcels along the creek that contain wetlands. That’s the issue before the Supervisors on August 9. 

Wetlands are one of the richest habitats on the planet. They:

Improve water quality by filtering out pollutants – sediment, organic matter and pathogens. Petaluma, Fremont and Martinez are among the California cities that have constructed wetlands as a low-cost way of removing impurities from wastewater.

Slow the flow of water during storms and store it in ponds, decreasing erosion and preventing flooding. Louisiana is spending $50 billion to restore wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi to protect New Orleans.

Gradually release the stored storm water into the underground water table, which supplies water to wells for farms and homes. This water supply is important in times of drought, and long range forecasts see more drought years in Northern California’s future. 

Provide valuable wildlife habitat – resting places for migratory birds, breeding and nesting sites for native birds and animals, and a refuge from predators for many species. More than one-third of the United States’ threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands.

Help fight global warming by trapping carbon dioxide so it does not escape into the atmosphere. The state is restoring more than 1,000 acres of wetlands in the San Francisco Bay Delta to be used for carbon sequestration.

If Supervisors approve the Biotic Habitat zoning, landowners applying for projects in that zone must conduct a study to determine the exact size and location of the wetlands. Certain activities will be restricted within 100 feet of the edge of the wetlands to make sure characteristic soils and plants are not disturbed. For example, deep disking or draining wetlands would be prohibited.

Vineyards currently existing in wetland areas would not be affected, but replants would require the wetland study and setback. That’s important because agricultural crops come and go, and an opportunity could arise to restore these areas to their previous wetland state.

Your support of wetlands protection is needed. Come to the hearing Tuesday, August 9 at 2:10 pm at the Supervisors’ Meeting Room, 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa. The meeting agenda will be posted by Friday, August 5 at:   sonomacounty.ca.gov/Board-of-Supervisors/Board-of-Supervisors-Meeting-August-9-2016/

Please consider sending an email urging protection of the wetlands to all supervisors:

1st District Supervisor Susan Gorinsusan.gorin@sonoma-county.org

2nd District Supervisor David Rabbittdavid.rabbitt@sonoma-county.org

3rd District Supervisor Shirlee Zaneshirlee.zane@sonoma-county.org

4th District Supervisor James Gorejames.gore@sonoma-county.org

5th District Supervisor Efren Carrilloefren.carrillo@sonoma-county.org

The mission of Friends of Atascadero Wetlands is to preserve, enhance and restore wetlands along Atascadero Creek. FAW was organized in 2004. For more information, email friends.of.atascadero.wetlands@gmail.com.