Lagoon council shifts gears

David Briggs
Bolinas Lagoon’s natural silting cycle has been hastened by logging and development, raising alarm over how to preserve the health of its ecosystems. At the county level, a restructured advisory body hopes to tackle that concern.

Last week, the Marin County Board of Supervisors voted to replace the Bolinas Lagoon Technical Advisory Committee (BLTAC) with the new Bolinas Lagoon Advisory Council (BLAC). The move is intended to streamline efforts to restore the wetlands, including the removal of invasive plants from Kent Island.

“There was a lot of role confusion about the BLTAC,” Deputy County Parks Director Ron Miska said. “We are trying to eliminate that and focus on the BLAC as a community liaison function—in terms of helping get the word out about the Bolinas Lagoon and its restoration, and how people can get involved.”

The change was made after members of the BLTAC expressed concern over clarifying their purpose, Parks Director Linda Dahl said, and the county moved to create the proposal for the new entity. As was the case with the former committee, the new body will advise county officials on the restoration and management of the lagoon.

“What will happen now is that if there are truly technical issues, a separate group will meet from the relevant agencies,” Mr. Miska said. “The advisory capacity of the committee has not changed, but its focus and composition has shifted to more of a community function. Some have said we are diluting it, but that is not the purpose.”

Not all were happy with the change, however. Scott Tye, who served as BLTAC’s Stinson Beach representative, opposed the new council, delivering a three-minute statement before the board. Mr. Tye has been involved with the lagoon’s restoration for 28 years, serving as chair and vice chair of the committee.

Unlike its former incarnation, the BLAC does not count the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Fish and Game, or United States Geological Survey among its members.

It will still include representatives from Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, PRBO Conservation Science, Audubon Canyon Ranch, College of Marin, the Bolinas Rod and Boat Club and the Seadrift Homeowners 

It will also retain representatives from Bolinas and Stinson Beach, as well as an at-large community representative. The new council will add a representative from the county parks department.

With this move away from a technical advisory role, officials plan to bring technical experts on board as necessary to handle specific issues. Fish and Game, the Army Corps and the Geological Survey will still be involved in the restoration process, but they will no longer be a part of the commission.

Ms. Dahl said the various agencies were not always able to send their representatives to the meetings due to funding shortages, and the committee often struggled to have a quorum present. The new body will meet twice annually, instead of quarterly.

Most locals agree that much needs to be accomplished in the lagoon.

Although logging and other development added sediment to the already shallow waters in the 1800s, the great 1906 earthquake made the lagoon deeper again. But a new sedimentation cycle had also begun with the collapse of the Bolinas Bluffs, and by 1996, the county announced that the lagoon had lost 25 percent of its tidal basin in the preceding 30 years.

A 1997 joint study by state and federal agencies found that the majority of the sediment was brought to the lagoon by ocean currents, although other man-made factors contributed.

Bolinas fisherman Josh Churchman recalled how the lagoon looked 50 years ago, when the already waning oyster beds were guarded by wooden stakes to keep bat rays from eating the harvest. People once fished for perch, he said, before those fish left for deeper waters.
“I kept blowing the horn that if [the lagoon] closed off from the sea, many creatures were going to die off within a 24-hour period,” Mr. Churchman, a former BLTAC member, said. “The seals will go away, and the birds will fly away, because there will be nothing for them anymore. You can see the difference: the lagoon is filling in more and more every year.”

Documentary filmmaker Bill Chayes, who spent three years following Bolinas and Stinson residents working to save the lagoon, said silt deposited from Pine Gulch Creek contributed to the sedimentation.

As the creek was artificially straightened over the years to accommodate construction near its banks, the twists and turns that would normally have collected silt were lost, and that material has instead been spilling into the lagoon, contributing to its decline.

Mr. Chayes’s film, Searching for Truth on Bolinas Lagoon, was screened four years ago at the Mill Valley Film Festival and can still be seen from time to time on KQED.

But despite concern over how development and erosion have hastened the lagoon’s sedimentation, the process is mostly natural.

Still, in 1997 the Army Corps declared that dredging the lagoon was a matter of national interest, and in 1998 UNESCO declared Bolinas Lagoon one of only 17 Wetlands of National Importance in the United States. An Army Corps plan to dredge 1.4 million cubic yards of the lagoon was estimated at $60 million.

Phillip Williams Associates, hired by the county to predict the lagoon’s natural evolution over the next 50 years, also concluded that most of the sediment came from bluff sands and ocean currents, and would likely deepen out again with the next big earthquake. The lagoon was also deemed unlikely to become closed off to the ocean within the next 50 years.

The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, which has jurisdiction over the lagoon and has long been involved in its restoration, was brought on board to help develop a management plan in 2008. They too recommended limited dredging, in conjunction with other long-term wetland management.

But a different restoration proposal, developed with the cooperation of local residents and experts and known as “the locally preferred plan,” or LPP, eschewed dredging for a number of restoration projects, including the elimination of invasive vegetation from Kent Island.
When the county decided not to act as sponsor to the Army Corps’s dredging project, the initiative stalled and is now unlikely to be carried out. Instead, the focus is on restoring threatened habitat, with the LPP as a guiding document.

The only project in the lagoon currently underway is the restoration of Kent Island, a flood-shoal between the town of Bolinas and the Seadrift spit. William Carmen, the manager of the Bolinas Lagoon Restoration Project, was hired by the open space district and oversees plans for Kent Island. He said the 29-acre island has been colonized by Monterey cypress and Monterey pine, as well as ice plant, bush lupine, and European beach grass.

According to Dr. Carmen, prior to the invasion of the beach grass, the sands were able to shift and the shoal was less fixed in size. But the stabilization of the sand by the beach grass made it possible for larger trees to grow, and non-native plants have crowded out more fragile and rare dune habitats.

The Kent Island restoration project will focus on restoring what was present on the shoal historically, Dr. Carmen said. However, certain large trees will be kept, as they have become a nesting habitat for herons and other birds. The plan is to flood parts of the island with salt water using pumps and perforated culverts, which is expected to kill many of the non-native plants while allowing those that belong there to survive. What remains will then be pulled out by hand.

“Right now we are just finishing the studies for the National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act,” Dr. Carmen said. “We’ll get a draft out for public review in a few weeks, which will describe the project and its impacts. It deals with maintaining the trees used for nesting by herons, and with seal haul-outs on the sand bars next to the island.” He said the BLAC would continue to work with the marine sanctuary to avoid impacts to seals, as well as to coho and steelhead salmon.

“We’re trying to do this in a very low-impact way because of the sensitivity of the habitat in the lagoon,” he said. “And,” he added, “we’ll be looking for volunteers at some point.” The hope is that the new advisory body will make these projects easier to accomplish, and to get the word out.

Another change is that the now former community representatives—Ralph Camiccia from Bolinas, who served on the committee since 1980, Scott Tye from Stinson Beach, who took up the position 10 years ago, and Ed Ueber, the member at-large—will now have to reapply for their posts.

Mr. Camiccia expressed a passion for the subject he has advised on for more than 30 years.

“People see the lagoon, and they see drastic changes,” he said. “There has been really drastic siltation. And there are marine species that are disappearing. It’s important to address those issues. We can’t totally be afraid of doing anything out of fear of making a mistake. The more projects we do, even small ones, will just add to our knowledge and ability. I’m all for the science of doing these small projects, and even some larger ones, if they could be deemed safe.”