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Local History Lesson: 04/15/2008

The Kenwood Marsh, past, present and future




When conditions are right, ghosts form at night over Kenwood, linger until dawn, then melt away in the morning sun. You’ll only recognize them if you know what you’re looking for. Let me explain.

Many of us have heard that there used to be a marsh in Kenwood, and may have noticed small pockets of willows and tules here and there. Yet what was the marsh like before Kenwood was founded, before this area was settled? To find out you have to search for clues in early maps and descriptions, in the patterns of soils and heritage oaks, in the memories of elders who grew up here.

The picture that emerges from this detective work is complicated. Conditions in the marsh must have changed dramatically from season to season, as well as from year to year. But, if you cobble the clues together, you can get a general idea of what it was like.

An early observer remarked that “Sonoma Creek spreads out and loses itself... forming a kind of willow thicket and marsh or lagoon.” Even towards the end of the summer, there were wet places on the valley floor. Winter rains on the hills ran down the creeks and into the marsh, which acted like a giant sponge. That sponge slowed the flow of water downstream, keeping winter floods lower and summer flows higher in Sonoma Creek. The earliest maps show the area not as one big marsh, but as a string of wetlands covering hundreds of acres, mixed with drier areas supporting grasslands and oaks. Within the marsh were tules, willows, and ponds of open water. A local elder told me about the great number of “bird points” (arrowheads) he’d found in the area, and said, “It must have been a great place for waterfowl.”

As Kenwood was settled, ditches were dug to drain residential areas, agricultural land, and roads. Water was run off more quickly and the marsh began to shrink. Yet even though the marsh is mostly gone, it is echoed by the streets of Kenwood. The outline of the town is irregular because it fits like a puzzle piece along the edge of the former marsh. People built on the drier ground first. For the most part, it’s only recently that houses have been constructed within the marsh’s old border.

We usually refer to the marsh in the past tense, but during the flood of December ’05, parts of the marsh briefly reappeared. A resident of Lawndale Road told me her whole neighborhood “turned into a lake.” This is exactly where a lake is shown on mid-19th century maps. Even in late summer, the ditch which drains this area has abundant running water.

Now about those ghosts. One cold winter morning I was driving on Highway 12. Passing Dunbar Road, I noticed how clear the sky was, except for several puffy clouds hanging low over the land. Why these few clouds in a blue sky? Continuing to Kenwood, I realized that each one was floating precisely over a piece of old marsh. These places still hold more water than anywhere else. Some of that water must have evaporated and condensed in the cold night, making the pattern of the marsh briefly visible again. Ghosts appearing out of thin air.

The accompanying map, above, was created as part of the Critical Coastal Areas pilot project for the Sonoma Creek watershed. A partnership of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, Sonoma Ecology Center, Southern Sonoma County Resource Conservation District, and state agencies (who fund the work), is developing tools to help residents and stakeholders identify opportunities for improving watershed function and health. With growing concerns about flooding and water supply, historical patterns can point to viable alternatives. While much of the Kenwood marsh has been developed, there may be places where it could be restored. Such a project could reduce flooding by slowing and spreading stormwater; recharge groundwater by allowing rain to sink in; restore habitat; improve water quality in Sonoma Creek and the bay by giving sediment time to drop out, and create aesthetic value as well.

For more information about this project, please contact me at the Sonoma Ecology Center: 996-0712 ext. 111, or arthur@sonomaecologycenter.org.


Email: baseline@vom.com

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