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State officials herald fish kill solution

Event opens window for lagoon lifeline

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Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2012 2:25 pm

An ensemble of government heavyweights gathered last week at the Pescadero Marsh to celebrate a cooperative plan to dig a lifeline in hopes of preventing a massive die-off of endangered fish.

Assemblymen Jerry Hill and Rich Gordon joined top brass from California State Parks and California Fish and Game to share congratulations for bringing action to what many describe as a Gordian knot of ecological problems.

The planned solution is remarkably modest: a 3-foot-wide channel that will be dug with hand shovels through a sandbar about the length of a tennis court. All stakeholders involved described the breach as a temporary “Band-Aid” that would ameliorate the larger ecological problems at the marsh, and no one can say for sure whether it will actually work.

But visiting dignitaries and Pescadero residents agreed it was a success to be finally working in tandem to solve the marsh’s woes after years of delay.

“The problem has been going on for 18 years; the invitation for you to come out has been here for a long time,” chided Greg Bonaparte, chairman of the Pescadero Municipal Advisory Council. “We hope we fix it in this decade, and not the next one.”

Described as one of the largest and most unique habitats on the Central California coast, the Pescadero Marsh is home to 10 threatened species, including two listed as federally endangered: the tidewater goby and the San Francisco garter snake. But for years, Pescadero citizens and independent scientists have warned that the marsh and its lagoon were becoming a lethal environment for some fish species, particularly steelhead trout.

In some years, the problems at the marsh come to a head during the late fall months when ocean waves burst through the sandbar blocking the marsh from the ocean. Researchers believe the water currents stir up toxic substrata at the bottom of the marsh and quickly deplete the oxygen for the fish. The toll on the fish population varies each year, but past reports indicate hundreds of fish have suffocated and washed ashore.

Breaching the sandbar early could prevent the fish kill by keeping oxygen levels steady, agency officials believe, but getting clearance has been difficult because a number of state and federal agencies share responsibility at the marsh. That has left some sore feelings among townsfolk on the South Coast, said Janelle Beland, acting State Parks director.

“The fact of the matter is we’re here now … and taking action is better than doing nothing.”

Finding the right solution has also stalled action at the marsh. State officials say they had to be extra cautious to make sure any effort to save steelhead trout didn’t ultimately tip the scales and cause harm to a different native species. Even a modest project like the sandbar breach could have unintended consequences, said Patrick Rutten, regional supervisor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We have no guarantees this will work, but we have to try something,” he summarized. “No one can predict what the outcome will be.”

Rutten and other officials plan to wait until the water level of the marsh increases from rainfall before they begin digging the channel. A team from the Native Sons of the Golden West has volunteered to do the digging once government scientists give the go-ahead.

For many Pescadero residents, the bigger problem at the marsh is the annual flooding that sometimes blocks the town’s main access for days on end. Most experts say the breach will do little to solve the annual flooding threat, but state lawmakers pledge they will goad public experts to find a solution.

Hill underscored his efforts to gather a panel of scientists to study the flooding problem. The science panel members have not been selected yet, but Fish and Game officials said they would keep the South Coast community abreast as it takes shape.

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