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Heroes in Our Creeks - Sonoma County Riparian Volunteers


Heroes in Our Creeks
Sonoma County Riparian Volunteers

By Vesta Copestakes

Two recent events stand out in my mind as connected. One is a community meeting about flooding of Green Valley Creek that strands people on one side or the other of a main road that gets blocked by flood waters. The other is a series of creek clean-ups performed by volunteers determined to get waterways clean of trash before the rainy season. 

Whether El Niño  brings rain - lots of it - or just a little rain with high wind, we still need to do something about getting creeks and drainage ditches ready for winter. Water will come down the ditch/creek and will seek its path to rivers and the ocean. How much is the only question.

Laguna de Santa Rosa trash piled after clean-up

Riparian corridor rules have changed over the years to protect fish and wildlife habitat. Gone are the days when people could dredge a creek that runs though their property to insure fast flow. As one elder at the community meeting mentioned - there was a time when people took their farm equipment into the creek that passed through their land to remove everything in the path of water. Blackberries, trees, rocks, and dirt. 

One landowner removed tons of soil to sell because he could. That winter rushing water took the path of least resistance and ran across fields instead of down the creek. Soil, silt, rocks, gravel all made its way downstream. In the last few decades what was once a 9 foot deep creek is now less than 2 feet deep, increasing the risk of floods.  

This is how creeks lose habitat for fish to spawn, shade to keep the water cool, and creek side habitat for critters. It’s why the rules have changed. 

Environmental consciousness and concern for all life has altered how we do things. But it doesn’t mean we wait for  “the government” to do everything. There are areas where we can take action - without permits - that do no harm. In fact, they do good.

Creek Clean-Ups

Every community in Sonoma County has creeks that run slow or dry up in summer but rush with water in winter.  Trees and shrubs not only provide habitat for critters, but they also provide shelter for homeless people who camp near water during our warm, dry summers. 

These camps do not have toilets, and they do not have trash service so people find a way to function in ways that harm creek and river habitat. If they are neat and tidy, they take their trash out and find a way to dispose of it. If not, they leave it right where they live and it piles up over summer. When winter rains force people to leave these camps, they leave their trash behind. But it’s not just trash. It’s also human waste, buried in holes, that cause problems during the rainy season. 

In the Gazette September edition we had a full calendar for waterway clean-ups that get organized prior to our rainy season. But that is just one month of weekends. The rest of the year avid creek and beach lovers are out there every weekend and even weekdays, trying to get waterways clear of debris before the rains hit. Our calendar lists these year-round clean-ups, but they also happen spontaneously when someone finds a huge mess that needs more help. This is where social media - Facebook - comes in handy for instant access to volunteers....people who care.

Watershed Awareness

One of the largest rivers in Sonoma County starts up in Mendocino County, wends its way through our central valley, then takes a turn west toward the ocean...the Russian River. Along its path people consider it a resource for water, wildlife and humans.

Chris Brokate and Keary SorensonDon McEnhill, our official Russian Riverkeeper heads an entire organization of people dedicated to the health of this river. Chris Brokate of Clean River Alliance  is a janitorial service (Brokate Janitorial Services) by trade but an avid clean-up man when he is not working. Keary and Sally Sorenson are also in the clean-up business (Everclean North) are part of Beach Watch  of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary that patrols and cleans beaches while documenting the impact of human behavior on wildlife. 

These individuals - and more - lead teams of hundreds who carry gloves, tools and bags to pick up trash along creeks, rivers and beaches they patrol. If they can’t haul the trash off in their pickup trucks, they hire dumpsters or work with local officials to provide dumpstes at the worse sites. Hazardous materials becomes an issue, especially when encountering large camps.

Last Chance

Rains could start any time now so the more people helping the better we will survive potential floods. If you can, please connect via social media and our Volunteer and Outdoor Stewardship calendars to work with an organized group. If you can only work during brief breaks in your schedule, consider the value of taking care of right where you live. Clean out a ditch, open culverts, cut back blackberries and haul off green waste to open waters passage. 

Hand tools, clippers, rakes and brooms do not require permits. Only when you create sawdust in a creek bed, move large amounts of soil, or remove trees along a riparian corridor are you required to obtain permits. 

Please consider BEING a Creek Hero as we get ready for - hopefully - a wet winter. Bring a trash bag when you walk - every bit you pick up counts.