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Water Agency: ‘We hear you’

THE SONOMA COUNTY WATER AGENCY has posted four signs along the bike path that follows Fryer Creek, explaining what happened on July 23 when a clogged culvert opened and drained the creek. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

THE SONOMA COUNTY WATER AGENCY has posted four signs along the bike path that follows Fryer Creek, explaining what happened on July 23 when a clogged culvert opened and drained the creek. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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Sonoma County Water Agency officials say they have heard the complaints of residents regarding Fryer Creek, which drained suddenly three weeks ago to the shock of many who regularly enjoy the waterway.

In fact, that’s the message on four large signs posted along Fryer Creek earlier this week: “We hear you.”

The signs are part of the water agency’s response to public outcry, which has largely focused on the animals – ranging from fish to frogs to ducks and, reportedly, otters – that all lived in the sluggish waters north of MacArthur Street.

That was until the night of July 23, when a large hole opened up in the creek bed just north of the MacArthur Street overcrossing. Some residents stood watching as smaller animals such as frogs and crawdads were sucked into the hole.

Water agency officials call the overcrossing a “box culvert,” because it is box-shaped and allows the water to pass beneath the roadway; and they said the hole that opened is a “low-flow bypass culvert” that plugged long ago and recently unplugged on its own. Water draining into it comes out immediately to the south of MacArthur.

As for the signs, “We really want to let residents know that we do hear them and we intend to act as quickly as we can,” said Pam Kuhn, public outreach specialist for the water agency.

Kuhn said water agency officials have both short-term and long-term plans for Fryer Creek, with an immediate plan – possibly as early as next week – to clear out the low-flow bypass, make sure is it structurally sound and put a grate over it to prevent it from plugging again.

Then on the week beginning Monday, Aug. 25, they plan to clear some of the ludwigia – an invasive weed also known as water primrose – that is choking the channel, and plant “in-channel riparian grasses” as well as native nutsedge.

Then, water agency officials intend to plant riparian trees along the channel later in the fall or winter, after the rains have come.

In the longer term, they have been considering plans to modify or replace the box culvert at MacArthur in order to ease water flow.

For now, Kuhn said, it’s important that the low-flow culvert stay open, as it “should help the long-term health of the creek.” Without it, she said, the water was ponding, which “provided an artificially warm habitat,” hurting water quality and helping the ludwigia to flourish.

Lynne Joiner, who lives in the neighborhood near Fryer Creek, applauded efforts to curb the ludwigia, although she doubted they went far enough.

“I’m not sure that we’re on the same page about what has to be done about the ludwigia, which has been so invasive just this year,” she said.

Last week, Joiner met directly with water agency representatives to discuss the creek, and some of the agency’s short-term plans stemmed from that discussion. Joiner even gave them the idea of putting up the signs.

Mark Newhouser, restoration program manager for the Sonoma Ecology Center, agreed generally that cooler water should be healthier for native plants and wildlife in Fryer Creek. But he also sought to put the waterway’s overall health in perspective.

Newhouser noted that Sonoma Ecology Center has a limited responsibility for what happens on Fryer Creek. The group is hired only for specific jobs there – most recently, to plant native vegetation on the east fork of the creek.

“We planted close to 6,000 plants along that 800-foot stretch there,” he said. The planted area did not include the north-south channel where the ludwigia has taken hold.

“We’re hired to do a specific task. But we don’t carry responsibility for the overall maintenance or even maintaining water quality standards in any of these channels,” he said.

The native plants are intended to grow larger and produce canopy shade, filter the water, prevent invasive weeds from growing and provide other benefits – “but that could take 20 years,” Newhouser noted.

Urban creeks like Fryer have been compromised over decades, he said, and the presence of ducks won’t change that. In fact, he said, “their duck feces is contributing to the nitrification of the water,” which can further hurt water quality.

“All of these urban creeks are hammered. They’re just in horrible shape,” Newhouser said, adding that no immediate change to Fryer will “fix all the insults from upstream and downstream.”

More information on the Sonoma County Water Agency’s plans for Fryer Creek is available at scwa.ca.gov/fryer/.