Instead of wildlife, Winters will have a banal canal
“I’ve enjoyed your columns about Putah Creek,” wrote one kind Davis Enterprise reader. “You haven’t written about it lately, so I assume everything turned out okay.”
Sadly, I replied to her, no, everything did not turn out okay. The city of Winters and the Solano County Water Agency are not only going full steam ahead, but have put the Phase III Putah Creek “restoration” project on the fast track. The project had been scheduled all along to begin in August. Once community members learned that Phase III included the destruction of a beloved pocket of wildlife habitat and started objecting, the start date mysteriously rocketed forward to June.
I’ve been unable to get a straight answer from city staff about why the start date was fast-forwarded, so I am left to draw conclusions from the evidence: The sooner the area can be bulldozed under, the better. Once the ground is flattened and the animals gone at best or dead at worst, citizen input becomes moot. There’s nothing left to object to, right?
Wrong! I got plenty.
Beyond my disgust at the flippant destruction of habitat, I’ve observed this entire debacle from the beginning, and in 23 years as the Express editor, I’ve never felt this sour on our city process and our city council. They pat the public’s head here and there, but in the end, they’ve decided what they’re going to do, and they’re not going to let some minor annoyance like the public stand in their way. You know — the same public that elected them.
My observation is that public comment and concern was merely tolerated and then ignored. The moment objections to the habitat destruction began, our city manager launched into “circle the wagons” mode, and we all know from watching good old westerns that the wagons are circled to defend the camp against the “enemy,” which, of course, was/is the public.
In all fairness, two council members — Pierre Neu and Woody Fridae — listened respectfully to the public’s concerns. But at the end of the day, it’s three against two. The majority message was clear: There’s a plan in place, and it’s full speed ahead, no matter what.
Apparently the Phase III plan was issued on stone tablets directly from God, or The Streamkeeper, as he’s called. Any consideration of change is out of the question. I did sit down with The Streamkeeper to hear his angle on the project, and it was quite amusing as he proceeded to fill me in on the history of Putah Creek Nature Park project, given that I either wrote or edited all the stories about it for the Express.
I asked The Streamkeeper “How much would it cost to change the plan and leave that one part intact? How much money would the community have to raise?” His response was a non-sequitur: This is the plan and this is what we’re doing. Period.
Commandment XI: Thou Shalt Not Change Thy Plan.
At a recent city council meeting, I attended as a citizen so I could offer my own concerns, one of which is the labeling of one individual, Rich Marovich (who doesn’t even live in Winters), as “The Streamkeeper.” As I was making the point that the creek in this section belongs to the Winters community, and the city council, as our (alleged) representatives, are the rightful streamkeepers, a staff member walked up to the dais and started chatting with the council members while I was talking. I was astounded by their rudeness. They may not have heard a word I said, but it spoke volumes.
Besides talking, I’ve also done some listening, in particular to UC Davis wildlife professor Dirk Van Vuren, who recently visited the wild patch with some locals. I asked him his impression of the area. This is what he said:
“This is a very delightful high-quality urban resource. It’s not often you have a high density of humans living next to a riparian stretch of creek. There’s quite a diverse population of wildlife there that we saw just in the span of an hour. It would be nice if Winters could retain it. I was surprised how scenic that area of the creek next to an urban area was. These opportunities are rare in California.”
Rather than ripping it out, Van Vuren recommended enhancing the area and forming an oxbow lake: “Build a weir to allow water to back up and hydrate the channel. The beavers, ducks and turtles will be happy.”
And, he added, “It would be a shame to lose a valuable urban resource for that reason and no other.” What reason was he referring to? The Plan, and the city’s religious adherence to it.
Although The Streamkeeper, city staff and certain council members glibly state that the animals will simply go away and then they’ll come back, Van Vuren (who has actual expertise on the matter) had a different opinion. Noting that beavers, particularly when they have young kits (as they do at this time of year) are more likely to retreat into their burrows for safety than flee downstream, they will probably be crushed. He noted that beavers are strictly nocturnal. During the day, they stay inside their burrows — which is exactly when the bulldozers will come.
Van Vuren said certain animals — birds, ducks and heron — will fly away when disturbed. The otters too, will likely escape safely. But, “any animal that retreats into a burrow for safety will be killed.” As for whether or not they successfully moved on, “In most cases, no one will know,” he said.
So, in other words, don’t expect to see beaver and otter any time soon after the “restoration” is finished. What you can expect to see is more of what’s there now: A low, flat, boring, man-made creekbed with a gloried gutter running through it. In other words, a canal. Which is what SCWA specializes in, not so ironically.
Yes, our nature park will have its very own banal canal. What it won’t have is actual nature.