Sat 18 Jan 2014
Before Kent Reservoir was created in 1953-54, Lagunitas Creek was broad “like the Russian River” as it flowed past his present home, Tocaloma resident Pat Martin, 67, told me this week.
“It was all natural flow,” he said. During the 1940s and early 1950s, runs of coho salmon passing through Tocaloma were “incredible,” Martin remarked. No one disputes this. “Thousands” of coho salmon used to migrate up the creek annually, naturalists have likewise reported. In the years since then, however, the number of local coho dropped so precipitously the species is now listed as endangered.
A coho salmon swims upstream through shallow water on its way to spawn. (Bay Nature photo)
The fry of coho salmon are born in freshwater creeks. After a year or two, the salmon in their smolt stage swim downstream to the ocean where as adults they live for one to three years. Then guided by the smell of water from the creeks where they were born, the adult salmon head back upstream to their birthplaces to spawn and die.
Pat Martin lives on Platform Bridge Road at a ranch that once belonged to his late stepfather, Louis Zanardi. Although some people blame the development of homes and dairy ranches in West Marin for at one time putting coho salmon on the verge of extinction, Martin says baloney. From what he has seen, the damage was almost entirely the result of building Peters Dam and then Seeger Dam.
In 1953-54, Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) created Kent Reservoir by erecting Peters Dam on Lagunitas Creek. The district didn’t release water from the reservoir in the summer, Martin said, and once that began, “I could step across the creek.”
Unable to get up Lagunitas Creek to spawn until heavy rains each year, fish would get stuck in pools around Point Reyes Station’s Coast Guard housing complex. There many of them would fall prey to seals, as well as river otters and lamprey eels, Martin added, and “kids in town would snag them.”
Years ago the late game warden Al Giddings of Woodacre likewise told me about the snagging, which involves dragging a fishing line with no bait on the hook against fish in shallow water. It’s illegal in California.
In addition, without enough water in Lagunitas Creek to migrate up it for months at a time, the salmon — which by then had been living in saltwater for a year or more — sometimes developed “fin rot” from remaining too long in freshwater pools, Martin remembered.
Platform Bridge is just downstream from Nicasio Reservoir’s Seeger Dam, and earlier this month, an artist painted pictures of migrating salmon on the bridge railing. Seeger Dam, which MMWD built 53 years ago, has eliminated salmon runs in Nicasio Creek, a tributary of Lagunitas Creek.
As part of building Peters Dam, logs were left in creek channels. In addition, the Park Service planted willows along the banks of Lagunitas Creek downstream from Jewell. All this has provided shade for fry but can also create pools that lock in fish, making them easy prey for raccoons, Martin said.
For months each year following the construction of Peters Dam 60 years ago, there wasn’t enough water in the creek to sustain much wildlife other than crawfish and bullhead catfish, he said. Brine shrimp, which had been a major part of the frys’ diet, largely disappeared, and mayfly larvae became a primary source of food.
Lagunitas Creek. Its main tributaries include Larsen Creek, Devils Gulch Creek, San Geronimo Creek, and — downstream from Tocaloma — Nicasio Creek. (Marin Municipal Water District photo)
But all is not lost. For the past five years, coho salmon had been making a comeback in Lagunitas Creek. Even some chinook salmon have been showing up. River otters have followed the fish as far upstream as Tocaloma. “There never was an otter in this [stretch of] creek when I was growing up,” Martin noted.
What’s making the difference? To get a permit for raising the height of Peters Dam in 1982, MMWD was temporarily ordered to release enough water from it year round to meet the needs of fish in Lagunitas Creek. That order became permanent in 1995.
Before 1982, there were fears that Lagunitas Creek was on the verge of losing all its coho. However, as MMWD’s fishery program manager Greg Andrew reported in June, last winter the coho spawning run “approached our long-term average of about 500 adults.”
A century ago, tourists from San Francisco often took the narrow-gauge train from Sausalito to Tocaloma to fish where salmon were abundant. Here a fisherman casts his line into Lagunitas Creek just downhill from the majestic Bertrand House hotel. (Copied from historic photo in the Olema Farmhouse restaurant.)
By 1889, Tocaloma “had one of the finest hotels in Marin County, the Bertrand House,” the late historian Jack Mason wrote in Point Reyes the Solemn Land. “When fire razed this establishment in 1917, it was replaced by Caesar Ronchi’s tavern.”
Mason added that “Caesar was a portly Italian tenor whose connection with the world of grand opera was as nebulous as his reputed alliance with San Francisco’s prohibition gangland.”
The late Don McIsaac, who lived across the creek from the tavern, once told me Caesar, who had somehow gotten in trouble with other bootleggers, had to leave San Francisco for his own safety. McIsaac recalled hearing Caesar’s operatic voice periodically reverberating through the canyon.
With salmon numbers improving now that MMWD is releasing enough water into Lagunitas Creek, everything had been looking good, Martin remarked. And along with the increased flows from Peters Dam, some small dams at the Inkwells and upstream have been removed.
And then came this year’s drought. At the moment, Marin County is on its way to experiencing its driest year on record, and this is taking a toll on coho in Lagunitas Creek.
Adult salmon swimming up Lagunitas Creek often use the little “side creeks” along the way for spawning grounds, and at the moment, many of these side creeks are dry. Female salmon create hollows in the gravel creekbed called redds, which is where spawning occurs and eggs are buried. Counts of redds in Lagunitas Creek and its tributaries this year have found far fewer than had been found for several years.
Some naturalists are again worrying the salmon may still be in an “extinction vortex,” to use their obscure jargon.
Martin is more straightforward. The coho salmon population, he said with a frown, is “still not stable.”