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Preserving the Atascadero Wetlands


Preserving the Atascadero Wetlands

By Carol Benfell with Friends of Atascadero Wetlands, a neighborhood-based environmental group with a focus on wetlands and their protection and preservation.

An historic county study now underway could help preserve wetlands along Atascadero Creek, with the potential to restore a once-flourishing run of coho salmon and improve groundwater supplies for homes and ranches.

The study, rescued from the dust bin with the help of Supervisor Efren Carrillo, focuses on the wetlands – marshy areas surrounding Atascadero Creek – in the area between Mill Station and Green Valley roads near Graton. 

Wetlands are important because of their many benefits: They capture and hold creek overflow during winter rains, providing flood control. The resulting ponds drain slowly into the earth, recharging groundwater used by wells. They filter out sediment and pollutants, improving water quality in the creek, and support dozens of species of birds and wildlife.

The goal of the study is to identify the wetlands areas and support their protection by designating them in the General Plan, the county’s blueprint for land use.

A wetlands designation will also open the door to funding from private and government sources for enhancing the wetlands and improving the creek, so it is once again welcoming to salmon.

“The Atascadero-Green Valley wetland is a sensitive natural community and a significant part of our fisheries ecosystem, providing critical habitat for threatened salmon,” Carrillo said. “The expanded wetland designation initiated by the County will ensure protections for this irreplaceable and incredibly valuable natural resource.”

Atascadero Creek is nine miles long, from its headwaters in the hills near Burnside Road to where it empties into Green Valley Creek, about two miles northeast of Graton.  

Friends of Atascadero Wetlands (FAW), a grassroots environmental group based in Graton, has been working for the past dozen years to get the county to provide better protection for the nearby wetlands. 

During those years, there have been numerous activities that damaged Atascadero Creek wetlands, including unpermitted trenching, draining, land disturbance and vegetation removal. Salmon are no longer able to swim to the headwaters where they used to spawn.

In 2015, a FAW member discovered a county minute order showing that in 1992 the Board of Supervisors had approved a wetlands study along Atascadero Creek, which, for some reason, had never been funded or performed.

Anna Ransome of FAW presented the 1992 order to Carrillo, who championed it before the Board of Supervisors. The study was reauthorized in November 2015, with funding of $20,000, and a report of the findings is expected in May.

“The importance of this riparian wetland system is that it contributes greatly to the health and natural balance of Atascadero Creek,” Ransome said. “With less than one percent of pre-settlement wetlands remaining in California, we have the opportunity to save an important resource right in our backyard.”

Coho salmon are an endangered species, and other organizations are also interested in restoring the Atascadero Creek salmon run.

UC Cooperative Extension is hoping to conduct snorkeling surveys for endangered coho and steelhead in Atascadero Creek and its tributaries. The Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, based in Sebastopol, has recently completed a draft watershed management plan for Green Valley Creek that includes coho restoration.