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Salmon Come Back to Marin County as Lawsuit Proceeds

Spawning coho | Photo: Soggydan/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Bay Area wildlife fans have long known that Marin County's Lagunitas Creek is a great place to watch wild coho salmon. The creek, which runs from Tomales Bay to the slopes of Mount Tamalpais through undeveloped West Marin, has been home to one of California's healthiest coho runs despite a century and a half of regional development in the Bay Area. The little Lagunitas Creek watershed held between 10 and 20 percent of all remaining coastal California coho.

That was until a few years back, when the Lagunitas Creek watershed's coho numbers cratered. The fish have been steadily regaining ground since, but their protectors fear that sprawling residential development may undo the rebound. Three weeks ago, two environmental groups filed suit against Marin County to block a development plan they say threatens the county's salmon habitat.

And this month, as if to offer a vote of confidence in habitat protection, chinook salmon -- the coho's larger cousins -- are moving into Lagunitas Creek to spawn for the first time in several years.

Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) aren't generally considered naive to coastal streams like Lagunitas Creek. A foot longer and much stockier than their cousins the coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch), chinook tend to prefer larger, main-stem rivers like the Sacramento and Klamath. Between 2002 and 2008, though, locals noted a handful of chinook salmon venturing into the steep, short creek near Point Reyes National Seashore to spawn.

The consensus among fisheries biologists was that these were salmon native to Central Valley rivers that had gotten lost. Salmon's homing instincts are impressive, but they're not foolproof. Getting lost and heading up the wrong stream allows salmon populations to expand their ranges from time to time, so you can file that ability under "feature, not bug."

But the chinook disappeared in 2008. The next year was the worst ever for Lagunitas coho. By mid-January, when the spawn should have been in full swing, only 20 "redds" -- the gravel bed "nests" in which female coho lay their eggs -- were counted along the creek's 33-mile length. That was a 90 percent drop from three years before, when the very few coho returning to spawn in 2009 had been born.

That crash didn't come out of nowhere: the coho had been declining for a few years. Listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in January 1997 -- a move virulently opposed by Governor Pete Wilson -- the Central California coho's status was downgraded to Endangered in 2005.

The coho's numbers have recovered somewhat, enough so that during last year's run videographer Richard James caught some footage of Lagunitas Creek coho spawning action, with really great visuals. (Note the crafty steelhead sneaking in at about 9:15 to see if it can sneak a few tasty salmon eggs.)

Still, those gains can be undone at any moment. The coho is facing what the Fisheries office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) refers to as an "extinction vortex," in which varied causes augment one another to push the coho over the edge.

Though west Marin County's landscape has escaped much of the development to be found elsewhere in the Bay Area, salmon in the Lagunitas Creek watershed face a number of problems. The biggest one stands about 33 miles from the mouth of the creek: the Peters Dam, which celebrates its 60th birthday next year, permanently blocked off much of the spawning habitat in the watershed. It also allowed the Marin Municipal Water District to take water out of the creek for lawn sprinklers -- in the drought winter of 1976-77, no water flowed below the dam at all. Heightened ecological sensibilties among the Water District management have helped make sure water is left for the salmon since then, as have the protections of the Endangered Species Act. But the dam is still there, and Lagunitas salmon must make do with less than half the habitat they once had.

Local livestock is another issue. West Marin's dairy industry is legendary. Where many small towns mark the passage of noon with a fire whistle, the local town center of Point Reyes Station marks the time with an ear-splitting moo recorded and digitized by the Skywalker Ranch studios on the other side of the hill. The green hills above Lagunitas creek for some miles upstream from Point Reyes Station bear the obvious marks of cattle, with so many paths along steep slopes that the hillsides look terraced, like mountain rice farms in the Philippines. Where cattle step on soil and disturb it, some of that soil will run off with the rains and land in the creek, where silt can smother the gravelly redds.

And unlike beef cattle, which can be put out to pasture and left to their own devices, dairy cows are milked twice a day. That means they head back to the barns at least once each day, increasing the trampling.

But the biggest current problem is the Bay Area real estate market. Though home prices crashed along with the coho in 2008 and 2009, prices at the affluent end of the scale are fully recovered, and West Marin has long been a destination of choice for people too affluent to quite fit into San Francisco.

Local habitat preservation activists, the Salmon Protection And Watershed Network (SPAWN) foremost among them, have been fighting for some time to ensure the county's new housing starts, especially centered in the stylish San Geronimo Valley, don't infringe on salmon habitat. A countywide plan written in 2007 failed to enact creek setback requirements sufficient to protect the salmon, and that failure set off a complex legal contest between the county and salmon advocates that resulted in a 2012 ban on San Geronimo Valley streamside development issued by the Marin Superior Court, to last until the county enacted a streamside conservation ordinance.

Its hand forced by the judge, Marin County drafted an ordinance, which was set to take effect December 28. But the ordinance would have allowed smaller properties to develop within 20 feet of protected creeks. Marin salmon advocates maintain that a setback of between 50 and 100 feet is more appropriate to protect salmon habitat, and they have significant scientific backing for that position.

They also say that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the 2007 countywide plan failed to account for the cumulative impact of all those little 20-foot setback properties being developed. That failure to assess cumulative impact, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), is what prompted SPAWN and the Center for Biological Diversity to file suit November 18 to try to force a proper environmental assessment of the ordinance that takes those cumulative impacts into account. The suit automatically puts off implementation of the ordinance, as well as a series of building permit applications the ordinance would have allowed.

That gives this year's crop of coho salmon a bit more time to make use of streams without construction debris. "Politicians and homeowners come and go but extinction is forever," points out Teri Shore, program director for Turtle Island Restoration Network, the parent organization of SPAWN.

As if to underscore the importance of the suit, the season's first spawning coho were spotted in Lagunitas Creek by a SPAWN biologist on November 19, the day the suit was filed in Marin Superior Court. And now, for the first time since the crash of 2009, chinook are showing up in the creek as well.

If you're the kind of person who looks for omens, that seems like a pretty good one.

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