San Rafael–Marin County Supervisors are being told by California’s leading scientists with affiliations from almost every leading university in the State and the California Academy of Sciences, that current and proposed policies regarding Marin’s coho salmon do not adequately protect this critically endangered species and are likely to lead to their extirpation.
An open letter to Marin’s Supervisors signed by over 100 of the State’s salmon and aquatic biologists, including one of the world’s most prominent salmon experts, Dr. Peter Moyle of UC Davis, and California Academy of Sciences Senior Scientist and Chair of Aquatic Biology, Dr. John McCosker, calls for reform of current and proposed rules and will be presented to Marin Supervisors on Tuesday, September 11, 2007. A separate letter from the Executive Committee of the American Fisheries Society California-Nevada chapter representing 550 fisheries and aquatic biologists was also sent to Supervisor’s earlier this month. (Copies of the letter can be downloaded at www.SpawnUSA.org ).
“We are asking that the County undertake strong, enforceable protections for coho and that the supervisors fulfill their obligation to ensure that future development decisions in the San Geronimo Valley, are based on the best available science, A decision to protect
or not protect coho in the San Geronimo watershed will affect the status of coho not only in the Lagunitas watershed but along the entire central California coast.” said Dr. Peter Moyle.
Among the key recommendations supported by leading aquatic scientists is the thorough and full enforcement of all existing habitat protection laws and regulations; the enactment of an emergency moratorium on any new development on undeveloped parcels in the County’s 100-foot Stream Conservation Area (SCA) until such time as a Cumulative Impact Analysis is performed as required by California’s Environmental Quality Act; a new riparian tree ordinance to protect critical habitat for coho salmon; a requirement that any new development meet a zero net increase in storm-water run-off to protect streams from damaging floods and erosion; and cooperation between all watershed partners in identifying and acquiring undeveloped creek parcels for the public trust before they are compromised by impervious surfaces, lost or degraded riparian habitats, declines in water quality, and other development impacts.
Not coincidentally, the concerns and solutions are similar to those SPAWN has been asking the County to address for years. SPAWN has organized a letter-writing campaign that has delivered thousands of correspondence to Supervisors from Marin County residents asking for stronger protections.
“The people of Marin and scientists are sending a strong and clear message to Supervisors. Do the right thing and prevent further destruction of creek habitat along coho-bearing streams. Business as usual is a death knell for Marin’s coho population,” said Todd Steiner, a biologist and Director of SPAWN.
Steiner claims that up until now, the County have chosen to ignore SPAWN’s concerns for years, and preferred to side with the developer’s hired biological consultants, which regularly conclude that individual developments along creeks has no impact. His observation is borne out by recent approval of developments inside the so-called stream conservation area. He continued, “It’s time for West Marin’s Supervisor, Steve Kinsey and current President of the Board, to either fish or cut bait when it comes to protecting Marin’s streams. Mr. Kinsey should either lead the way by proposing true protections, or step aside and let the other Supervisors propose science-based regulations for west Marin’s streams.
Concerns about development pressure in Marin’s coho habitat focuses on unincorporated west Marin County in the San Geronimo Valley, the last large un-dammed headwaters of the Lagunitas Watershed (Kent Lake and Nicasio Reservoir eliminated the other two major headwaters areas in the last century and approx. 50% of historical salmon habitat). These 9 square-miles of habitat represents less than 9% of the total 102 square-miles of the entire Lagunitas Watershed, but provides coho spawning habitat for approximately 50% of the population that spawns in Lagunitas Creek and upwards of one-third of the coho juvenile rearing habitat.
The semi-rural San Geronimo Valley has approximately 3,500 residents living on 1,500 parcels. Another approximately 900 parcels remain undeveloped, yet face increasing pressure as previous obstacles to development such as the inability to use traditional septic systems have been erased by new technology such as “mound” septic systems. Furthermore, the increased value of land has resulted in new landowners who are building new, larger houses (many with multiple car garages and 2nd units) or replacing the current older modest homes, many of which were originally built as part-time summer cabins. This “gentrification” of the character of the Valley threatens to significantly increase destruction of riparian habitat, increase impervious surfaces and runoff that causes bank failures and sediment erosion, and increase human-associated pollution of the stream systems that will threaten the survival and recovery of coho salmon.
The State lists Lagunitas Creek as “impaired” for sediment, pathogens and nutrients. The San Geronimo Valley is a major source of sediment, both as a result of human development in the headwaters and naturally unstable soils. Residential development is also contributing to increasing pollution of local creeks by pathogens and nutrients from leaking septic systems.
The coho salmon in Marin County are listed as “Endangered” by the State of California and were down-listed from “threatened” to “endangered” under the U.S.Endangered Species Act in 2005. Estimates of the annual coho and steelhead population in the Lagunitas Watershed were 6,000 about sixty years ago. Today the annual population of coho is less than 500 spawning females, down to 5-10% of their total historic numbers. Through greatly reduced, the Lagunitas Watershed population represents 10- 20% of all wild California coho surviving today in Central California.
Paola Bouley, SPAWN watershed biologist said, “It’s not the impact from one single, isolated new house along the creek that we need to focus on if we are serious about preserving coho streams. We have to look at the big picture and evaluate the cumulative impact of all the potential future new developments coming down the pipeline added to the existing thousands of houses, roads, and parking lots that have already damaged and paved over the streamside corridor and watershed. Like the proverbial camel whose back is broken by the last straw, Lagunitas salmon will not survive if we continue to ignore cumulative impacts. Why else have we seen the extirpation of Corte Madera Creek coho in East Marin.”
She continued, “Wild populations of coho are hanging on by a thread across California and the County is still approving developments that compromise their future in the most important watershed we have left. What little if any progress the County is making on policy improvements is at best occurring at a glacial pace and is a recipe for extinction, not recovery,” said Paola Bouley, SPAWN watershed biologist. She continued, “Coho are an indicator species. If we enact regulations to protect these species, we will in essence be protecting the lifeblood of west Marin’s ecosystems and native species.”