Examine any watershed in urban, suburban or even much of rural America, look at the topographical arrangement of streambeds, the channels carved by flowing water and the hand of gravity, and what you don’t see, hiding in plain sight, is plumbing.
But the plumbing is everywhere.
There is hardly a river or stream in Sonoma County that hasn’t been channeled, dredged, straightened, redirected, buried, diverted or just dried up, even though much of it isn’t obvious to the casual observer.
The waterscape of Sonoma Valley bears little resemblance to its historical past; marshes and wetlands are largely gone, the channel of Sonoma Creek – the Valley’s principal artery – is constricted and down-cut; pipes and culverts carry water underground and out of sight.
The same is true of Fryer Creek, now on many people’s minds because of the sudden disappearance of impounded water that drained through a streambed culvert that mysteriously came unclogged two weeks ago.
Even defining what and where Fryer Creek is can be a challenge.
The creek actually has two very separate and distinct forks that converge just above West MacArthur Street, where the mystery culvert swallowed the water. The East Fork wanders through a delightful riparian corridor between Third and Second Street West, angles up to First Street West before disappearing into a storm drain that follows First Street up to Mountain Cemetery. The course of the creek then winds up the side of Schocken Hill alongside Norrbom Road.
The West Fork appears to be topographically connected to the Montini Preserve, but there is no direct visible relationship. From West MacArthur Street, it backs up to Arroyo Way, where it appears to be channeled over to Fourth Street West. From there, it borders Eraldi Park, the playing fields behind Sassarini Elementary School, and continues up into the empty field beside Safeway before disappearing into a cement culvert.
In the throes of this severe drought, there wouldn’t be any water in most of Fryer Creek were it not for runoff from irrigated fields.
But in the winter, the channels through which it flows carry storm runoff and may have the capacity to help recharge underground aquifers.
That’s the hope behind a project with the clumsy name of “City Watersheds of Sonoma Valley: Fryer Creek.” Its purpose is to address the twin issues of water supply and flooding by exploring opportunities to channel more runoff underground while enhancing the stream-flow capacity of the creek. To do that, the Sonoma Ecology Center and the Sonoma County Water Agency have collaborated in one section of stream to remove the invasive Ludwigia infestation and plant stream banks with native species.
Meanwhile, during the past winter, the Water Agency sunk wells and tested water percolation in the Montini pasture beside Fifth Street West to explore potential use of the property as a catch basin for water recharge.
The soil tests weren’t promising and that plan may be abandoned, although a final judgment hasn’t been made. But in a June website posting, the Water Agency stated, somewhat euphemistically, “the subsurface materials beneath the site pose challenges to achieving recharge benefits at the scale anticipated for the original project concept.”