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Restoring wetlands


WETLANDS MAP  |  SIDEBAR: Beds & relationships

IT'S A HOT AND MUGGY DAY, BUT THERE'S NO DENYING THAT THE lupins dotting the levees are beautiful. Hydrology consultant Phillip Williams (in above photo) and his staff are touring a 240-acre area around McDaniel Slough, just northwest of downtown Arcata, which has recently been designated for wetlands restoration.

As he steps over brush, through mud and around the occasional old tire, Williams alternately wears expressions of deep concentration and boyish excitement. He frequently calls his staffers to his side to examine a feature of the landscape, and when he does he looks like a kid showing off his presents on Christmas morning.

He has reason to be both serious and excited: He's been commissioned to design the wetlands restoration plan that will transform the large parcel back into a functional tidal marsh, which is what a lot of the land here originally was, he's quick to point out.

"Unfortunately, people call it Humboldt Bay instead of Humboldt Estuary," Williams says. If people thought about it as an estuary, they might think about the importance of wetlands to its ecological survival.

"Wetlands are an integral part of the estuary ecosystem," he says. They provide nurseries for salmon, resting places for migratory birds and feeding grounds for all manner of creatures. They're reservoirs of proteins, vitamins, larvae, minerals and animals which subsist on all of the above. They help prevent flooding by absorbing excess water, and marsh organisms can break down some man-made toxins.

Wetlands are, in the words of Coastal Conservancy member Margaret Azevedo, "among nature's most productive works."

Looking north across the former tideland that now makes up the pastures of the Arcata Bottom, Williams says: "And they've pretty much been eliminated in Humboldt Bay."

A forgotten landscape
If a modern citizen of the lands surrounding the bay were to take a trip back to 1849, there's a good chance she wouldn't recognize what she saw. What we now know as the bottoms, the lands west of Broadway in Eureka, King Salmon -- all were tidal wetlands, a mucky landscape and home to herons, egrets and crabs.

But there is a chance our time traveler might also meet a newcomer to the bay: white settlers. The Wiyot Indians, who had lived here for centuries, perhaps millenia, were relocated -- or in some cases, like that of the native inhabitants of Indian Island, killed.

Once they were gone, white settlers began to transform the landscape. By 1870, the settlers had begun the backbreaking work of diking in wetlands and turning them into farmland.

"The tidal marshes were flat land, easily reclaimable and easily convertible to pasture or arable land," said Williams. And by the turn of the century, settlers had accomplished the amazing feat of turning what had been a 27,000-acre estuary into a 17,000-acre "bay."

Humboldt Bay's history is not unique. As a nation, we have destroyed at least 50 percent of our wetlands. California alone has lost 99 percent of its wetlands.

It was to be three-quarters of a century before anyone on the Humboldt Bay even considered trying to reverse the trend.

But starting in the 1970s, people did. There was a fundamental change in how wetlands were viewed. No longer were they an unutilized resource; there was the beginning of a perception that wetlands might be valuable in their natural state. Projects like the Humboldt Bay Wildlife Refuge, established in 1971, and the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary constructed in 1981, reflected that change.

By that time, tidal wetlands had become what Williams called a "forgotten landscape." And that made it more difficult to understand their importance.

"Because they've been eliminated, we've largely ignored their importance in estuarial ecosystem processes," he said.

To this day many long-time residents still prefer that the dikes remain untouched. Karen Kovacs, senior biologist supervisor with the California Department of Fish and Game, said that these people operate under different values, those learned from their parents and grandparents.

The ranchers and farmers in the Arcata Bottom have "some great history and some great perspective -- and obviously they're slanted towards agriculture," Kovacs said.

Many are concerned about Arcata's latest plans for wetlands restoration.

"They'd like to see it maintained as it is. There's the perception that they're losing [agriculture] around Humboldt County, which is probably true."

Kovacs said to understand opposition to wetlands restoration, you have to understand the farmers' point of view.

"They've lived out there their entire lives, probably doing the same thing their parents did. When you talk about converting this land back to tidal wetlands, realize that their forefathers' mission in life was to convert it from tidal land."

Speaking about a Fish and Game wetlands parcel that adjoins Arcata's new land, she said the department had been heavily criticized over the last 10 years by agriculture proponents.

"We aquired the land and we just let it sit," she said. "Their concept is that we should have cows on it."

Cows aren't the only creatures that humans have introduced to the wetlands. There are also invasive species inhabiting what wetlands are left on the bay. Chief among these is Spartina densa, a Chilean cordgrass that was probably imported by ships coming into the harbor to pick up lumber and now carpets wetlands around the bay. It competes with the native pickleweed (Salicornia), so named because its stalks bear a similarity to the food. Williams said the original wetlands' primary vegetation was pickleweed, and that the introduction of Spartina densa caused a significant change in the ecosystem.

You can't turn back the clock
One thing that Williams makes clear about his line of work is that he cannot recreate historical conditions.

"(What we are) trying to create here are marsh plains similar to those that existed historically. But the important thing to understand is that the processes which created those historic conditions have changed.

"For example, one of the things we are looking at now is: What are the sedimentation rates? They may be different than they were 50 or 100 years ago," he said.

Wetlands are "built" upon sediment continually washing in from the rivers that feed Humboldt Bay. That sediment allows wetlands to keep pace with the gradual rise in sea levels the earth has experienced since the end of the last ice age.

But extensive logging in the watersheds draining into Humboldt Bay has caused tremendous sediment release. And sea levels are rising at a more rapid rate due to global warming.

The effects of these changes are unclear. What is clear is that the balance of processes that maintained the wetlands has been altered over the past 100 years.

"The underlying understanding is that this is a dynamic landscape, and you cannot create snapshots of the past."

Williams said while one could temporarily replicate the marsh landscape on the maps from 1850, that wetland wouldn't last. You could take the bulldozers in and sculpt the land to exact historic specifications but would probably then have to sit back and watch as your hard work was swamped by the higher tides or buried by sediment.

The historic landscape was created and maintained by the interaction of two forces that are not what they used to be.











Turning the tide
That said, there is a real effort to restore a significant portion of the wetlands to a functional -- if not historical -- state. There are at least 11 different governmental entities involved in wetlands restoration on Humboldt Bay right now, spanning municipal, county, state and national levels. The cities of Arcata and Eureka both own wetlands, as does the state Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Manila Community Services District. Funds are supplied for restoration by the Coastal Conservancy and regulations governing their use and conservation are issued by a host of different agencies.

There is a great deal of diversity among these projects. Varying levels of funding and differing visions of what a wetland should be have resulted in a wide spectrum of wetlands on the bay.

The Arcata marsh, for example, doubles as a sewage treatment facility and salmon ranch. Williams called the facility "world class. Pilgrims come from all over to see it in action," Williams said.

The community support of the idea of sustainable management has been the foundation on which the project's success has been built, he added.

There have been problems, of course. Conflicts over unruly dogs in the marsh have led to a call for a ban on the canines, and transients often use the land as a campground.

But the project is definitely well-known, well-used, and widely recognized as a success. It won an award for Innovations in Government from the Ford Foundation and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 1987.

Eureka's "Palco" marsh, on the other hand, is almost unknown. Located at the foot of Del Norte Street, this 80-acre plot was acquired from Pacific Lumber by the city as part of the Bayshore Mall development transaction. Lacking adequate funding -- or even a sign -- the marsh has languished for years, unrecognized and unappreciated by most of Eureka's citizens. The one group utilizing it regularly were the homeless, who often camped there.

"It created a habitat for certain individuals that maybe didn't have the best interests of others at hand," said Joel Canzoneri, administrative analyst for Eureka's Community Services department. The city has recently cleaned up brush that had provided these individuals privacy, and the marsh now presents a beautiful view of the Bay -- one which you're likely to have all to yourself, since few even know it is there.

"We haven't tooted our horn as much as Arcata," said Canzoneri.

Then there is the Coastal Conservancy's ill-fated Bracut marsh. The six-acre plot on Highway 101 adjacent to the Bracut industrial park is an experiment in environmental mitigation that has floundered since its inception.

[photo of PALCO marsh] Eureka's PALCO marsh is located at the
foot of Del Norte Street.

California has a "no net loss" policy on wetlands, meaning that if you fill in wetlands for any purpose, you have to create or restore wetlands elsewhere to compensate. Starting in the early 1980s, a series of small, isolated wetlands in Eureka with limited habitat value were filled to allow for development. The parties filling them paid the Coastal Conservancy to restore the Bracut Marsh. The theory was that one could replace all of the wetlands they had filled with wetlands of higher quality elsewhere. The idea of a mitigation bank like Bracut was to provide additional flexibility to developers while increasing the total environmental value of the wetlands.

What sounded great in theory ended up being a nightmare in execution: Woody debris left in the site had changed its soil chemistry, and the water allowed into the marsh did not bring in enough sediment. The result, according to a 1992 Army Corps of Engineers report, was "poor marsh habitat."

To compound the problem, there was no money for effective monitoring of the site. And to top it off, a bacteria decomposing the woody debris left in the site emitted a gas that made it smell like rotten eggs.

Efforts have since been made to try to make the project work, and the site does now support certain rare plants and shorebirds. But the tidal flushing that should have cleared out the woody debris has been insufficient -- and the aroma of rotten eggs still wafts in the air.


Integrated approach needed
One of the most important efforts in wetlands restoration currently underway will take place mostly on paper. In order to guide wetlands restoration, scientists need to know just what has already been accomplished by existing projects and what potentially could be done -- and that information has never been collected into a single whole.

The diverse mix of agencies, restoration philosophies and levels of community involvement make getting a comprehensive view of what's happening around the bay as a whole difficult, said Mark Wheetley, North Coast projects manager for the Coastal Conservancy.

"If you're looking at the 48 miles of Humboldt Bay shoreline, about 75 percent of it is in public ownership. And every one of those government entities has undertaken some level of restoration on some projects."

Mark Andre, Arcata's deputy environmental services director, said he thinks there was a need for a big-picture integrated approach for the rejuvenation of the Humboldt wetlands.

"If you get one, let us know," he said with a laugh.

One may indeed be on the way. Wheetley said that he is leading an effort to get funding for a comprehensive wetlands management plan. Such a plan will be important to future restoration efforts because it will identify the benefits and the costs of any particular project in relation to other prospective restorations, and "tell us what the opportunities are."

It would also help to answer some critical questions facing wetlands restoration on Humboldt Bay, such as: What is the proper balance of wetlands and agricultural lands on the bay? Which projects should receive highest priority? What is the status of threatened species on the bay?

"That," said Wheetley, "is what we are going to be finding out in this study."


Arcata's next step
The City of Arcata has already established itself as a friend of wetlands. Its marsh and sewage treatment project is a standard by which sustainable development projects are measured. But rather than rest on its laurels, the city is gathering steam for its next step in wetlands restoration.

The property in question, a 240-acre plot on the McDaniel Slough jointly owned with the California Department of Fish and Game, is adjacent to the 166-acre Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. The land is already in a wetland state, but insufficient tidal flushing limits its habitat value and the native pickleweed is being forced out by Chilean cordgrass.

A restored pickleweed marsh with proper flushing through tidal channels could have many advantages, including recreation opportunities, habitat for rare plants and animals, and even possibly a reduced mosquito population. One of the most exciting opportunities that it offers is the potential to open up a new front in the fight to save the salmon fisheries.

"We're starting to find out how important these tidal marsh channels are for salmonids," Williams said. "When you eliminate tidal marshes, you eliminate all these tidal channels and that means that migrating salmon have nowhere to hang out, feed, acclimatize before they head out into the ocean. They may not yet be sufficient size to survive.

"When there are tidal marshes available, they do utilize those marshes, gain body weight, become larger fish and when they head out they survive better.

"Everybody has been looking upstream and saying we have to restore spawning grounds. Because this tidal marsh landscape has not been there, people have not understood the importance of it. Now we're starting to recognize that."

[photo of McDaniel Slough] McDaniel Slough northwest of Arcata.

And the McDaniel Slough project isn't all that's happening in Arcata. Negotiations are underway to acquire a 300-acre plot called the Bayview Ranch for restoration. The plot, currently owned by George Schmidbauer, owner of Schmidbauer Lumber, would be the largest single acquisition and restoration yet undertaken by the city. Andre said that he could not comment on the negotiations because they were confidential, but said that the success of the purchase and restoration will be contingent on the community showing the same involvement it has for the city's other marshes.

"Anytime you have that large of an acquisition it is certainly imperative to get the community involved," he said. He pointed out that "in Arcata we rely a lot on volunteers for maintenance and providing docent services."

But even if Arcata were to hire replacements for its volunteers, the community would still be an essential ingredient in healthy wetlands. Andre pointed out that high levels of recreational use helps to discourage illegal activities like camping or dumping.

The future of the marsh depends on people being dedicated to it, Andre said.

"Over the years, people have to build an ownership so they can defend it from future impacts and compromises."

Williams agrees.

"It's the combination of political will and technical expertise that allowed Arcata to be so successful in wetlands restoration thus far," he said.

Looking forward to the McDaniel's Slough project, Williams says he hopes that "the same dynamic will be applied to this project."



"I'm with you on the beds." -- ( Alex Horne to EPA's Jim Kreissl, agreeing that nitrogen is removed in gravel bed wetlands)

Gravel bed wetlands and the relationship between rate constants and temperature were two "hot" topics at the Conference on the Role of Wetlands in Watershed Management, held at Humboldt State University last month, and sponsored by HSU's department of environmental resources engineering. Robert Gearheart, HSU professor and design engineer of Arcata's much publicized sewage treatment wetland, and Arcata Mayor Connie Stewart, welcomed over 250 engineers, planners, resource agency administrators, biologists and botanists to the conference. Featured wetlands included those in Saipan and Palau, as well as those closer to home, such as the United Indian Health Village in Arcata.

Wetlands remove pollutants, on that all conference attendees agreed. But two schools of thought argued over computer modeling of wetlands removing pollutants. The Old School (wiser, more experienced engineers) cautioned the New School (code-writing programmers) to take care when modeling with rate constants.

A rate constant is a number that relates how fast (that is, the rate) a pollutant turns into something "safe." Say you've got a pile of rotten, stinky gym clothes, and you want to turn them into freshly scented shorts and T-shirts. How quickly this happens depends on the wash temperature (hot or cold cycle) and the right person for the job (Mom). In a laundry computer model, the rate constant depends on wash temperature and what kind of mother you have.

The Old School engineers warned the "youngsters" to select their rate constants more carefully, if they want their computer model wetlands to resemble real ones. Laundry by Martha Stewart is likely to be fresher and faster than laundry by Billy's three-martini-lunch mom.

The message was "when modeling laundry, don't use the Martha rate constant on Billy's clothes." Similarly, when modeling wetlands, don't use rate constants from wetlands in Southern California to describe wetlands in Manitoba.

Seems obvious, but New School engineers lamented the scarcity of rate constant data. Deriving rate constants can take weeks in the laboratory, and even then, laboratory data do not always translate to what happens in a real wetland.

Wetland water treatment systems are now very popular with municipalities and water districts. But city governments are loathe to pay for studies that would refine "details" like computer model rate constants. In these times of budget deficits and dual career families, sometimes the Billy's mom rate constant is the only one around.


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