Op-Ed: Water Agency explains real fix for Fryer Creek

The July 24 Index-Tribune article, “Mysterious hole drains Fryer Creek,” followed by the Aug. 2 article, “Neighbors irked over Fryer Creek draining,” makes clear that Sonoma residents want to protect streams and creeks as well as the habitat that they provide. I hear you, and I agree.

As General Manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, which provides flood control services in the city of Sonoma, I am dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds.

Ideally, the Water Agency would like to see a free-flowing creek filled with an abundance of native fish, birds, wildlife and vegetation.

In the estimation of the Water Agency, and the resource agencies and other organizations that we work with, keeping the low flow bypass in Fryer Creek open is the best way, in the near term, that we can support Fryer Creek and the habitat it provides for native fish and vegetation.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the City of Sonoma Public Works Department and the Sonoma Ecology Center agree.

The previously ponded water behind the MacArthur Street box culvert created artificially warm, low-quality water, providing habitat for primarily non-native fish and vegetation.

Of particular concern is the invasive aquatic weed Ludwigia hexapetala (water primrose), which can clog the channel, result in sedimentation, outcompete native vegetation, increase mosquito breeding habitat and be detrimental for flood control.

Unfortunately, you can’t just pull out ludwigia to stop its growth – any fragment that remains will continue to grow. A much more effective solution is to change the habitat to favor native plants.

The Water Agency and its partner, the Sonoma Ecology Center, have already adopted this technique in this section of Fryer Creek through a large restoration project that has included planting native grasses and trees.

Eventually, these trees will create a riparian canopy that will shade the creek and provide better habitat for fish and other animals. We feel that keeping the low flow bypass open is the best way, in the short term, to help restore this section of Fryer Creek.

Ducks and other wildlife will continue to have available habitat in the immediate vicinity.

The Sonoma County Water Agency has been maintaining Fryer Creek as part of its Stream Maintenance Program. This bypass culvert was not operating as intended because it was plugged by rocks and debris causing water to pond. The sedimentation likely occurred after the steelhead trout was federally listed as an endangered species in the Sonoma Creek watershed in 1999.

Once steelhead were listed, the Water Agency needed to apply for new permits from regulatory agencies in order to update the way stream maintenance work was conducted. This takes time. The permit application process and an accompanying Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Water Agency’s programmatic stream maintenance program, was completed in 2010.

A better solution to the low flow culvert would be to look at replacing or modifying the whole MacArthur Street box culvert so that we wouldn’t need the low flow bypass culvert in the first place.

We feel that we have developed just such a project in the City Watersheds of Sonoma Valley Fryer Creek Project (Fryer Creek Project). The downstream component of the Fryer Creek Project would reduce flood risks by modifying or replacing the box culvert at West MacArthur Street.

Fryer Creek would then flow in a more natural, free-flowing condition without backing up. Building on the restoration work that has already occurred, the MacArthur culvert area would then be planted with native riparian vegetation appropriate to the local wildlife and the site.

This would reduce flood risks, accommodate low flows, and provide more beneficial habitat for native birds, wildlife and vegetation.

While we at the Water Agency feel that the City of Sonoma would be better served by the benefits resulting from the Fryer Creek Project, the project has been met with some public skepticism about its potential for effectiveness and whether we had public buy-in before moving forward.

I want to acknowledge those concerns. We want you to know that we hear you and we don’t take your concerns lightly. I encourage you to reach out to the Water Agency, as many of you have previously done.

We are already meeting with many of you to hear your concerns. We care deeply about the work that we do and getting it right.

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Grant Davis is general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency.