Feathering the Nest

In today’s stingy political  climate, winning arguments  for restoring damaged ecosystems can depend on convincing bottom-liners that working with nature instead of fighting it saves money and boosts economies.
In Santa Rosa, restoring Santa Rosa Creek revitalized a downtown that had lost its identity. The restoration created a flood terrace/greenway connecting the offices and shops of downtown with the historic Railroad District: the two business areas were separated in the early ’60s, when Highway 101 was put in. Merging the two, with the creek serving as a central motif, has stimulated businesses to invest in the older part of town.
Restoring the creek meant removing its concrete floor, which the Army Corps of Engineers had installed in the 1960s and was causing problems for steelhead trout trying to come up the creek to spawn.
“They’d make their way up in the winter but couldn’t get back in the summer,” says project manager Mike Sheppard. The shallow water in the wide concrete channel would heat up to over 80 degrees at times, according to Sheppard—intolerable for the fish. In 2000, the bottom was jackhammered up, and a narrower, deeper channel in which the fish could move freely was created within the widened creek. Native plants were planted along the banks to shade the water.
Benefits for fish translated to inspiration for people: local businesses chipped in to hire Mario Uribe of Artstart, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that gives young people the experience of working as artists, to supervise six high school students in the summer of 2001. The teens were asked to create a mural that would make a statement about the environment and history of Santa Rosa. Student Mira Niremberger came up with the idea of a fish breaking through a concrete barrier. “Her idea was that restoring the creek to a natural state was a breakthrough for the city in dealing with the environment,” explains Uribe. “Plus it was a breakthrough for the steelhead, and she also felt the students themselves were having a breakthrough by working on the project.”
Another economic miracle is taking place in Napa. Once plagued by floods and a dying downtown, Napa is using its river as the centerpiece of a now-thriving downtown. Originally inhabited by Wappo Indians who fished and hunted on the river’s banks, then later by the Spanish, who shipped hides and tallow down the river to San Francisco, the city grew up around its waterway. But as the city grew, it began to crowd the river. Warehouses and other structures were built right up on its banks, and the river fought back. Between 1996 and 2000, it flooded again and again, taking three human lives and causing $542 million in property damages. The floods discouraged new businesses, and the downtown began to die. The Army Corps of Engineers offered to put the river into a concrete flood-control channel.
But residents decided to work with the river instead of against it, passing a 20-year, half-cent sales tax increase in 1998 to fund a “living river” project. Although the plan initially cost taxpayers and the federal government more than the Corps’ proposal, environmental activists and city leaders had a hunch that in the long run, working with nature would offer greater rewards. The ambitious project, which involves removing homes from the floodplain, cleaning up toxic areas, eliminating constricting bridges in favor of those with clear spans, building a flood flow bypass, restoring wetlands along the river to absorb floods like a giant sponge, and restoring the downtown oxbow as a wildlife habitat and open space, is only half completed—and the deadly collapse of a concrete bridge form in early December will prolong the effort. But the restoration is already starting to reap the economic payback people had hoped for.
“When you take a piece of property impacted by potential flooding and remove that hazard, it’s going to increase the value of the property,” says Napa County Tax Assessor John Tuteur. “We have seen properties and developments in downtown Napa that wouldn’t have occurred if the project hadn’t been approved in ’98.”
Since the project’s July 2000 groundbreaking, commercial real estate prices have risen by nearly 20 percent, and by early 2001, the city’s flood insurance rates had fallen by the same percentage. The historic Napa Valley Opera House enjoyed extensive remodeling, while a new $70 million nonprofit museum and education center was built on a bend of the river near downtown. Its sponsor, vintner Robert Mondavi, had purchased the land in 1996 in the hope that Measure A, the Napa River Restoration Project, would pass. Recently, says Tuteur, the first office building to be built in Napa in 25 years went up, and older industrial properties farther down the river, just outside of downtown, are being purchased for redevelopment. “In the past, people didn’t see the river as an asset,” says Tuteur. “But downtown Napa has seen a lot more interest since 1998.”
Even more prosaic restoration projects can offer economic benefits. During the ’70s, a small wastewater district in Martinez came up with a creative solution to its wastewater dilemma. Regulators had told Martinez’s Mt. View Sanitary District it would no longer be allowed to discharge its treated wastewater directly into the end of Peyton Slough, which, at its other end, flows into the Carquinez Strait and eventually into the bay. The district was faced with the choice of pumping its wastewater to a large regional plant at a cost of over $6 million, or building a deep-water diffuser into Carquinez Strait. Instead, the district created wetlands to receive the treated wastewater before it flowed into the strait—and a liability became an environmental benefit. Many other wastewater districts throughout the state have since followed suit. Some, like Arcata, use the wetlands to actually treat the wastewater, while Mt. View’s are more of a buffer.
Although the original, 10-acre marsh cost only a few thousand dollars to create, the district has subsequently enlarged the marsh twice, to the tune of some $300,000. The wetlands now total 115,000 acres. Some land was already owned by the district, and the rest were former wetlands that had been diked for cattle grazing. Because the land’s elevation was below high tide, it was fairly easy to restore simply by breaching levees, says Dick Bogaert, the district’s biologist.
The manmade wetlands require some maintenance. Workers must remove debris that collects behind the weirs that regulate water levels; they also inspect levees for erosion and occasionally cut back vegetation that overgrows the smaller marshes. Yet even with annual maintenance costs of between $30,000 and $50,000, which includes money for research, the district estimates that the marsh costs less than one-third of what ratepayers would have had to contribute for a deep-water diffuser. Meanwhile the goal of restoring wildlife habitat has been wildly successful—occasionally too much so, says Bogaert. For a while, a family of beavers moved in from the Delta, building lodges in the banks of the wetlands’ islands and wreaking havoc by damming up some of the weirs.
“They would come in every night and block up the flashboards with sticks and mud,” says Bogaert. “Our operators would go out every morning and pile up their sticks to the side of the weirs. But the beavers would go out and get fresh stuff and start all over again.” Bogaert says the beavers are not living in the marsh now, just foraging in it, as are river otters. Both species swim up into the wetlands via Peyton Slough and the Carquinez Strait. Birds too, are enjoying the restored wetlands. Passing by McNabney Marsh, into which the treated wastewater flows before emptying into the strait, commuters on I-680 can often spot a flock of about a dozen white pelicans drifting cloud-like on the water’s surface.
While this kind of value might be better expressed in a poem than in a spreadsheet, these days spreadsheets rule— so environmentalists are learning to speak greenbacks to  save green.

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