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Planning Commission Votes to Protect Atascadero Creek Wetlands

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Planning Commission Votes to Protect Atascadero Creek Wetlands

By Carol Benfell with Friends of Atascadero Wetlands, a grass roots group with a focus on wetlands and their protection and preservation.

Protection for one of the last fresh water marshes in Sonoma County won support from the Sonoma County Planning Commission on May 5th, when commissioners voted 4 -1 to approve a General Plan amendment that will identify and protect wetlands along West County’s Atascadero Creek.

The General Plan is the county’s blueprint for land use and development. The amendment will designate which areas along the creek are wetlands and require that agriculture and development keep 100 feet away from wetland boundaries, unless a future, more detailed study shows the boundaries designated for wetlands are inaccurate.  

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to protect these important environments,” said Pam Davis, the commissioner representing the Fifth District, which includes West County. 

The hope is that preserving and protecting the wetlands will lead to restoration of a once-flourishing run of endangered coho salmon and protect groundwater supplies for homes and ranches. Wetlands also provide habitat for plant and animal species, including native and migrating birds.

Nineteen people commented in favor of protecting the wetlands during the Planning Commission hearing, including Ernie Carpenter, former county Supervisor; Jeffrey Holtzman, former county Deputy District Attorney Environmental Division; and several members of Friends of Atascadero Wetlands (FAW), a grassroots environmental group based in Graton.

The sole dissenting vote on the Planning Commission came from Fourth District Commissioner Cameron Mauritson, a vineyard manager.

The final decision on the General Plan amendment will be made on August 9 by the county Board of Supervisors, and all are invited to attend. The hearing will be in the county Administration Building hearing room, 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa. Comments on the wetlands can be emailed to  Sandi.Potter@sonoma-county.org.

The county’s General Plan, enacted in 2006, called for protection and restoration of the Laguna de Santa Rosa and other wetlands, including those along Atascadero Creek. But the wetlands couldn’t be protected until a study showed where they were, and those areas were then designated in the General Plan. 

Supervisors authorized the Atascadero Creek wetlands study in November 2015, at the urging of Supervisor Efren Carrillo, and with the support of Friends of Atascadero Wetlands. The Atascadero Marsh, 84 acres of wetland immediately north of the study area, has already been protected. If the study is approved, those protections will be extended to the 161 acres of wetlands along the creek, for a total of 245 acres of protected wetlands.

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. Wetlands also may help reduce global warming because they store carbon dioxide that would otherwise escape into the air.

To contact Friends of Atascadero Wetlands, email friends.of.atascadero.wetlands@gmail.com.