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County restores coho salmon habitat in West Marin


Nels Johnson
Marin Independent Journal

Marin County officials are launching a $160,000 program aimed at making creekside backyards in the San Geronimo Valley fish-friendly.

Grant money from the state Department of Fish and Game and California Coastal Conservancy will be used to hire Prunuske Chatham Inc. of Sebastopol to examine 40 backyard sites and design up to 10 restoration projects aimed at reducing erosion, curbing silt, planting native species and taking other action to improve habitat for endangered coho salmon.

The "landowner assistance program" will be conducted in collaboration with the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group and the University of California Cooperative Extension.

"We've been doing these projects for 25 years but this one is cool because it's really landowner-based," said Liza Prunuske, a principal of the consulting firm. She said a pool of interested creekside homeowners has been assembled by the Planning Group for use in the project.

"This program will be a model for our salmon restoration efforts," said Supervisor Steve Kinsey. "Foremost, it rewards those who voluntarily step up to improve their creekside habitat. Secondly, it greatly leverages county funds using two other state funding sources. Also, by partnering with UC ag extension and a community organization, we gain greater outreach and local acceptance."

Kinsey also took a shot at the Salmon Protection and Awareness Network, an activist group that filed suit against the county. SPAWN contends taxpayers are not doing enough to help the coho. Kinsey called the habitat cleanup "a far better way to go than spending our precious restoration dollars defending lawsuits from those who want to turn county staff into fish police."

County Counsel Patrick Faulkner has estimated that salmon issue legal fees cost taxpayers $200,000 last year alone.

A tally of spending on Marin's endangered salmon indicates taxpayers are spending more than $1 million a year to protect the fish, with the county devoting at least $5.5 million to fish habitat and improvement initiatives since 2005, including $3.2 million for eight public works fish passage projects in the San Geronimo Valley. About half the money is from state and federal grants.

The Civic Center spending is in addition to about $10 million allocated for fishery projects since 1997 by the Marin Municipal Water District. The efforts are augmented by others, including SPAWN, which got $331,000 in state Fish and Game grants last spring, on top of $525,000 in federal stimulus money for salmon restoration projects. At the same time, Trout Unlimited got $71,700 to work on valley salmon projects.

Todd Steiner, head of SPAWN, said his organization is "happy and delighted the county is spending money on salmon," and added SPAWN has its own restoration projects under way and staffed by scores of volunteers. He said the program also involves a nursery at which 8,000 native plants are grown annually to restore habitat along creek banks.

"We only wish the county would move forward with common-sense regulations to protect the habitat of coho salmon which is on the verge of extinction," Steiner added.

Last September, after county supervisors balked at a tough creekside tree and brush ordinance and asked for revisions to accommodate the shaded habitat needs of fish as well as the rights of creekside homeowners, SPAWN filed suit, saying the county was violating state and federal law by failing to help salmon. The lawsuit seeks a new environmental report on coho and steelhead trout and actions including a new building ban on creekside property until fish protections are in place.

Salmon populations, boosted by a hatchery project launched by the late fisheries conservationist Leo Cronin in the 1980s, have plummeted since the New Year's Eve storm of 2005, which washed away spawning beds and killed fry that could have returned to spawn in several years.

Some experts blame the fishery's recent collapse on habitat, including erosion and silt that smothers spawning beds, as well as poor ocean conditions affecting all Northern California salmon, and on powerful, periodic storm "gully washers" that destroy spawning beds and flush fingerlings away, wiping out generations of fish.

Ironically, recreational fishermen have reported encountering schools of coho off the Northern California coast this year, although they are most likely natives of Oregon stream systems. Coho salmon hooked by fishermen must be released.