Tremendous beauty and raw fury
But too often Sonoma Creek is an after thought (From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA)
Richard Dale, at home in the waters of Sonoma Creek.
As I walked on, a riffle caught my eye. There, swimming upstream, was one of the largest freshwater fish I'd ever seen, perhaps 20 pounds and 3 feet long, impossibly large in the shallow streambed. It was a Chinook salmon, a fish I hadn't known was still found in Sonoma Valley. It moved in small bursts, resting most of the time. When it reached the beaver dam and found its way blocked, it tried a few times to get over the mass of sticks, branches and rocks, and then swam back to a small pool nearby. As I watched, at some point I realized the salmon was looking right at me. It was a strange feeling, meeting the gaze of a huge fish. It bolted downstream soon after, but in those few well-lived seconds, I came to think of salmon, and Sonoma Creek, differently.
Sonoma Creek runs over 25 miles from Bald Mountain, at the northeast end of the Valley, to San Pablo Bay, the northern arm of San Francisco Bay. In that traverse, the stream bisects a community known for fine wines, colorful history and beautiful scenery, and less known for its astonishing biological diversity. Like many western streams, it is capable of both tremendous beauty and raw fury. Its raging floods have taken lives, damaged property, and every few years even made national news. Much of the time, though, the creek is just an afterthought, something we drive over on our way to the many other things that make up our world, unaware of its presence in our lives.
Our creek came into existence about two million years ago, when three segments of the Earth's crust crushed together and lumbered past, setting our valley into its present shape. That slow-motion drama left behind a complex geology that makes for a stunning and complex geography: steep hills on the east and west, a nearly flat valley bottom, and diverse soils all over. These soils meet a similarly complex climate, with heavy rains that arrive almost exclusively in the late and early months of the year, and drought that lasts for the rest of it. Rain falls unevenly across the valley, from 50 inches in the northern hills to 20 inches nearer the bay. In some places, dense soils hold water in permanent and seasonal wetlands. In other places, rain seeps into the ground and can flow out months or years later in streams and at freshwater and thermal springs. All these factors create a variety of microclimates and habitats; it is little wonder that so many different plants and animals are found here.
Humans have been enjoying Sonoma's abundance for at least 9000 years. American Indians lived throughout the valley, especially near water, and several tribal boundaries came together here. They managed the land, tending the plants that provided food, clothing, and shelter, and they used fire extensively to maintain open areas for better access to food resources. These practices favored native oaks and grasslands. The water was plentiful, the land was bountiful, and people thrived.
When the first Europeans arrived they saw Sonoma Valley as a park, with usable resources everywhere: streams and springs with abundant and pure water, lush stands of timber and grasses, dense populations of birds and game animals, and salmon and trout in numbers that scared their horses as the streams rippled with silver light. And they saw few people, because European diseases had already begun to cut their decimating swath.
As Europeans settled, dramatic changes began almost at once, beginning with the mission in 1823. Thousands of sheep and cattle were brought in, along with shallow-rooted and short-lived weedy grasses that quickly replaced the native long-lived grasses. Forests were harvested for charcoal and timber. Gravel was mined from streams and cobblestones from hillsides. And water, once so ubiquitous that the founder of Sonoma's mission described the valley as "a fountain of fountains," was drained off everywhere. A huge freshwater marsh was drained to create the town of Kenwood in the north. Even the vast wetlands at the margins of the bay in the south valley were eventually drained, as levees were established to create more hayfields to feed the burgeoning, horse-dependent economy of the new state.
The impact was significant. Where streams once flowed off the mountains and disappeared into wetlands and braided channels, they now were connected directly to Sonoma Creek. Rain did not filter into the ground as easily as it did with native grasses and intact forests. Extra runoff cut into the soil and formed new channels. Stormwater and water from wetlands and springs was put into ditches and pipes and hurried to the creeks for disposal. Levees established to farm the baylands slowed tidal flows and mud filled their channels. When the rains came, water raced to the bay. Upstream, Sonoma Creek's main channel cut into its bed, eventually pulling soil, trees, and human development off its banks; downstream, volumes of water met tides and a constricted outlet, and there were floods. By the 1930's, seasonal flooding was a common occurrence.
Despite these changes, Sonoma Creek managed to live on, less affected than most other streams in the area. Fishing on the creek was impressive, especially for steelhead. Small, seasonal dams were installed to enhance fishing and create pools for swimming and boating. With good fishing, warm springs, benign weather, and beautiful scenery so close to San Francisco, vacationers soon poured into the valley to visit the Boyes, Fetters, and Glen Ellen resort areas. Sonoma Creek and its water were central to what became trendy turn-of-the-century ambiance. The boom period began to fade when the giant 1906 earthquake changed flows from local warm springs, and prohibition further dampened the area's wine mystique. By the 1930's, the Sonoma Creek was mostly forgotten to visitors, except for those who loved fishing.
Fish are a good indicator of the health of a natural area. Everything good and bad that happens in a drainage basin, or watershed, ultimately winds up in the stream, and fish are, at least for many people, its most visible tenants. Steelhead numbers started to decline in earnest in the 1960's, though I've had conversations with people who still remember steelhead as part of their diet, and how there were enough at times to fish with a pitchfork.
When people talk about Sonoma Creek these days, they often talk about it as part of the water supply picture, as an indicator of the health of groundwater and the supply of water for the future. Groundwater here, like in so much of the west, has been declining in parts of the valley from less recharge, as rain is hurried off the land, and from pumping for agriculture and for rural homes and landscapes. We're using up more than can be replaced by rainfall. The creek's summer flow is less than it has been in the past, and this is a wake-up call: if the creek continues to dry out, not only will we lose its beauty and the fish and wildlife it supports, we'll soon find water less available for our other needs. Because our community cares about its creek and its water, we set out a few years ago to do something that is unusual in the west: create a voluntary plan to preserve our groundwater. People from water districts, agriculture, neighborhoods, agencies, and environmental groups came together to talk about the issue, and after months of discussion, advice, and hard work, we came up with a plan that is a model for the region. The plan calls for a valley-wide education effort, with all of us learning to conserve more, re-use more, slow down stormwater and get it into the ground more, and monitor our progress. It remains to be seen how we'll do, but our community seems optimistic. There's a lot at stake.
When people visit today and in the future, they'll see a land that feels like a chosen place on earth. It is a beautiful, gentle, fertile landscape that supports us, one that offers a high quality of life to those who live and visit here. Our creek is a symbol and a link that binds together many things in this special place, a reminder of our connection to life and to each other as it rides through time and space, starting from and moving beyond what we can understand.
From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA