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Sonoma Creek recovery begins at Morton’s

Sonoma Creek recovery begins at Morton’s
Sean Wadsworth and Laurie Hobbs, owners of Morton’s Warm Springs, are embarking on a creek restoration project with the Sonoma Ecology Center.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Christian Kallen

Time was, Morton’s Warm Springs Resort was a summer destination for locals, a watering hole of finished pools fed by natural spring waters set amidst a mixed oak forest along Warm Springs Road. Many remember good times there, the family gatherings and after-school hijinks — and we’re not just talking about swimming.

Downstream from the pool area, Sonoma Creek percolates through a small valley, where the water all but returns to its normal temperature, good for wading and frogging. At some point picnic sites and barbecue pits were added to the streamside, along with basketball and volleyball courts, and a retaining wall to hold back the filled areas that accommodated the improvements.

It seems like another era, and it was. During the past two years of extreme drought, Sonoma Creek has completely dried up for stretches along its course through Sonoma Valley. As the stream dries the groundwater is depleted, especially where reinforcements along the bank have forced the creek into a channel. In these areas the water scours the creek bed when it’s flowing, and exposes groundwater to evaporation when it’s dry.

That’s the situation along almost 10 miles of Sonoma Creek, from Kenwood to Madrone Road, as 2019 Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC) study revealed. Using a postcard survey, public meetings, and face-to-face discussions with landowners, the SEC found 20 sites in six sections of the creek (or “reaches”) that were identified as restoration opportunity sites, including near the Sonoma Developmental Center, in Sonoma Valley Regional Park, and in the so-called Lawndale Ditch through Kenwood.

At Morton’s Warm Springs, the SEC found partners in the current owners, Sean Wadsworth and his wife, Laurie Hobbs, who were willing to prioritize watershed health over short-term financial gain.

“It’s interesting to see that there is some sort of default division between the aims of furthering the health of our creek ecology and watershed, and furthering the aims of the Springs as a historic, visitorserving gathering place for the community,” Hobbs told the Kenwood Press. “How we see it and hold it, these two aims are not only compatible, they are intrinsically woven together with their fates into the future.”

So it is that the first restoration project will be at Morton’s Warm Springs, Site 9 in the SEC’s Upper Sonoma Creek Restoration Vision. On Sept. 1, the SEC filed a permit application with Permit Sonoma on behalf of Wadsworth and Hobbs to “remove 3,480 cubic yards of artificial fill from the channel of Sonoma Creek to improve aquatic habitat and reduce erosion.”

If the application is approved, up to 17 workers will be on the site for about two months next summer, working on about 2.4 acres of property, digging up the courts and picnic sites, removing a retaining wall, and extirpating a number of trees that have grown into the area and compromise the creek’s health. The restoration includes grading the streambed floodplain area to allow the creek to spread and slow during heavy rainfall events, replanting vegetation, and anchoring large logs into the streambed to “create habitat complexity.”

That’s getting close to the overall goal of the SEC’s Upper Sonoma Creek Restoration Vision, as stated in its 2020 report: “The primary goal of the project is to improve spawning conditions for adult steelhead, along with winter and summer rearing habitat for juvenile steelhead.” The report holds that steelhead can be thought of as an “umbrella” species, so “restoring spawning and rearing habitat for juvenile steelhead would entail restoring a wide range of inter-related species and habitats, from the gravel-dwelling invertebrates on which steelhead and other aquatic animals feed to the trees that shade them.”

“It’s about the creek, but it’s also about people living by the creek,” said Steve Lee, senior scientist and research program manager for the Sonoma Ecology Center. “But no project by itself is going solve all the problems that have been accumulating, all the little small changes that we’ve done over the years. It’s all just trying to reverse it — that’s what we’re going for right now.”

“In the long term, and as we have seen corroborated in recent years, the health of so many of our local ecological systems is under extreme stress, to the point of even beginning to unravel,” said Hobbs. “In Sonoma Valley history, there has never before been a time known when Sonoma Creek dried up in vast stretches like we’ve been seeing last year and again this year. Do we really understand what that means?”

She added, “So we’re wanting to do our small part in this greater community conversation going on around shifting all this; shifting the fate of our valley and of Sonoma County’s future, in the hopes of moving toward greater climate resiliency and greater ecological and community health.”