Debris or Not Debris

Hi Jane,

Instead of a beautiful bird, my letter this week features a wood chipper and a dump truck!

Chipper and dump truck, flood control, 2017

What, you might well ask, is this about?  Well,  the truck symbolizes the minor drama that unfolded on the levee banks this last week as the City carried out its annual assault on the native willows, alders, cottonwoods, box elders and sycamores. This time, oddly, it was the City staff and the contractors that seemed most agitated, not me.

It seems that someone up the bureaucratic chain (probably at the federal level) decided that it was time to enforce a section of the federal Clean Water Act that requires the City to truck away all vegetative debris from the river where it could possibly ‘have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife or recreational areas. “ It was explained to me that part of that adverse effect has to do with adding nutrients (including nitrates) to the water that could encourage algae bloom.  Adapting to this new twist apparently delayed the start of the mowing season to August 23 this year. The City actually hired Donna Meyers, a longtime local river analyst, to measure the volume of the debris so as to calculate the actual quantity of pollutants that would be added. It will be interesting to hear her results.

Most people don’t get too excited about orange ribbons, either. But I do!

Orange ribbon marking the edge of the 15-foot protected buffer zone.

These particular ribbons marked a 15-foot buffer along the river edge, beyond which the cutting crew was not allowed to apply their chain saws.   This is new!  For me, the ribbons celebrate an official 10-foot addition to what has previously been protected, bringing the City back into compliance with the guidelines set out in the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan (SLURP)).  As you well know, we  have been pestering the city about complying with SLURP guidelines for four years now.  This year the City actually invited the biologist, Gary Kittleson, as well as analyst Donna Meyers, to do the training of the seven or eight crew members.   I not only had the joy of hearing Kittleson instruct the crew on the legal buffer width, but heard him provide information to them about the WESTERN POND TURTLE and TIDEWATER GOBEY, two endangered species that live in the river. “If you see a turtle, call me on my cell”, said Kittleson as he gave the crew his phone number. “I’ll be right down to rescue it!”

But in spite of our laudable human efforts to apply some braking action to our habitat destruction, this annual buzz cut of the river bank is a sober reminder of what we are doing to our planet. Native trees are being cut down, animals are dying,
the birds that remain are stressed.

dead snake on levee after mowing
Dead gopher snake, seen beside Riverwalk august 27, 2017, 4 days after start of flood control work. 


Downed Cottonwood
August 25, 2017.  Two downed native cottonwoods.  All willow trees whose trunk is over 3 inches diameter at breast height must be removed.  All other native riparian trees (cottonwoods, box elders, alders, sycamores) whose trunk is over 6 inches in diameter must be removed.

I realized this year more than I have in previous years exactly what you were talking about, i.e. that the numbers of water foragers like MALLARDS AND COMMON MERGANSERS, as well as the shore fishers like the GREAT BLUE HERON, GREEN HERON, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON and SNOWY EGRET, don’t have much choice when the mowers descend.

black-crowned Night-heron – Version 2
Black-crowned Night-heron seen on Sunday, August 27th in regular fishing spot near mowing area.

They move up and down river to get away from the noise and activity, but if good fishing and foraging exist close to the mowers, they pretty much have to stick around. Where would they go? Other territories have already been claimed by other birds. It would stress the birds even more to fight for new territory.  How do we measure the diminished amount of fish and crustaceans they’re able to catch while under siege, not to speak of how the stress affects their reproductive success in the future. I hope no one dares say to either of us “Oh, they can just go somewhere else.” They might get an earful.

Here are before-and-after-shots of the west levee bank taken from the Water St. Bridge,  on August 23rd and August 25th.

All this because we built our city on a flood plain!

Quote of the week:

“Everyday is a Sabbath to me. All pure water is holy water and this earth is a celestial abode.” John Burroughs.

Well–let’s just keep on bearing witness. I loved your report on the magical feet of the SNOWY EGRET, a subject that delights us both!


P.S. Filipina Warren is the new person in Public Works in charge of overseeing the flood control work each year. I asked her if she had updated information on when mowing in the transitional and estuarine reach would begin. She said it hadn’t yet been decided. I even heard elsewhere that they may not mow at all in those stretches this year. I wonder why? That would certainly be good news.






















2 thoughts on “Debris or Not Debris

  1. Great post, Barbara, thank you! Hey I want to play you my new song. It has lyrics about holy water and holy dirt and willows and tules and a verse based on when we met the homeless couple in the Jessie St. Marsh.

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