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Bill Lynch: Beavers more than cute creatures for Sonoma Creek

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The Sonoma Index-Tribune recently published a couple of articles about beavers and otters in Sonoma Creek (“Otters Join Beavers in Sonoma Creek,” Dec. 27).

It’s a good sign, not just because it’s nice to know that Sonoma Valley’s main waterway is actually clean enough to support wildlife, but also because beavers can actually improve life for other critters, including my favorite, rainbow trout.

Our Sonoma Valley creeks used to be home to a healthy population of steelhead/rainbow trout and spawning areas for king and Coho salmon. In my boyhood here we could fish for trout in most of our streams through the spring and early summer.

Since those days, our creeks have lost more than half of their water and many completely dry up by June and stay that way until the fall rains return.

This kills any chance for salmon fry and steelhead trout fry to survive.

Where has the water gone? Some blame it all on climate change, but there is also good reason to believe that the drawing of ground water from springs near creeks, and the actual pumping of water directly out of creeks, is a major cause as well.

Our valley has grown. There are more people using water. Hillside vineyards are often watered by drip systems that draw more groundwater.

There have been some efforts around our county (not here in Sonoma Valley) to improve the habitat of creeks so that salmon and trout can survive, but they’re not nearly enough.

About a year and a half ago, I visited the Scott River valley were local residents formed the Scott River Watershed Council (SRWC) and are working with Dr. Michael Pollock, eco-system analyst for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In this little community people are doing something about bringing back their creeks.

The river, no bigger than our own Sonoma Creek, was once a prolific salmon and steelhead spawning resource, before it was ruined by past gold mining. Then climate change and other factors caused it and its tributaries to dry up during most summers.

But in 2014 SRWC began constructing “beaver dam analogues,” which are human made structures that mimic natural beaver dams, store water and create habitat for all kinds of local species, including steelhead trout and Coho salmon. Over time, these naturally appearing dams create pools where fish can survive.

Dottie and I met with Betsy Stapleton, chairman of the SRWC, who showed us some of the work her group has done on the creek. The results are impressive. They were able to preserve large areas of fresh, clean water in which Coho and trout fry are surviving. Every season, the fish count goes up.

Real beavers are helpful, but when there are not enough of them, small grassroots projects like those in the Scott River Valley can really help. Perhaps something like that would work here.

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