Earl Gordon looked out over his back fence Thursday morning to say hello to the ducks, like he usually does.
What he saw astounded him: Fryer Creek, which runs by the back of his house at Third Street West and Bettencourt, was emptying out. The water level had already dropped two feet, he estimated, and showed no sign of slowing.
“When I got up this morning there were no ducks, and I realized – there’s no water!” he said. Gordon estimates that tens of thousands of gallons had drained away overnight.
Gordon went out to investigate, walking the path along the creek behind Nicoli Lane. As he approached MacArthur Street, he saw it.
A round hole, at least a foot in diameter, had opened up under the creek bed just north of MacArthur, and countless gallons of water were draining into it with a loud gurgling sound. Tadpoles, fish and other animals could be seen falling in – and no one knew where the water drained to.
“We’ve watched all the wildlife – crawdads, big bullfrogs – just get sucked down into that hole,” said Bruce Griggs, who lives with his wife in the house closest to the MacArthur bridge spanning Fryer Creek. Griggs said he worried about the smell and flies due to all the newly exposed mud.
Although no one knows why the hole opened up when it did, Jon Niehaus, stream maintenance coordinator for the Sonoma County Water Agency, at least knows what it is.
“That is actually functioning the way it was designed,” he said Thursday, explaining that Fryer Creek was engineered with a “low-flow bypass culvert that goes from the upstream side to the downstream side” at MacArthur.
“I have the plans right here, an 18-inch culvert,” he said, adding that he believes it had been plugged for at least 15 years.
Niehaus couldn’t explain why the culvert spontaneously opened up sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday morning. But he said the agency had no plans to do anything about it.
“Basically at this point we’re inclined to leave it as is, and discuss it further with the City of Sonoma,” he said.
As far as the agency is concerned, Niehaus said, “It’s more beneficial environmentally to have it open.” That’s because the standing water creates habitat for an invasive species that is flourishing there: ludwigia hexapetala, a.k.a. water primrose. So draining the water is better for the other species.
“The water gets hotter which is detrimental to the native fish, and it’s a perfect habitat for that water primrose, which overtakes basically that whole channel,” Niehaus said.
Still, neighbors living around the creek weren’t happy. “I want my water,” Gordon said.
Adrienne Love, a regular walker along the creek, was dismayed by what she saw Thursday, and said she worried about the steelhead, crawdads, ducks and even otters that swim in those waters.
“This is weird, it’s really low,” she said. When told of the cause, she added, “Bummer.”
At around 10 a.m. Thursday, two City of Sonoma employees in orange shirts drove up to see for themselves. They got out of their truck, leaned over the railing of the MacArthur Street overpass and exclaimed loudly.
One of the city employees, Dean Merrill, said Fryer Creek is the responsibility of the water agency, and the city would defer to them in most cases.
“What the city will do is monitor it, and make sure everybody is safe,” he said.
The Sonoma County Water Agency was established in 1949 for flood control and other purposes, and today it maintains dozens of miles of flood control channels throughout the county, including Fryer Creek.
As for the culvert, “If there’s a strong feeling from the City of Sonoma that they want it plugged up,” the agency will go along with it, Niehaus said.