By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
MARTINEZ, Calif. – Martinez Public Works employees have been working up Alhambra Creek in hopes that anticipated El Niño rains won’t cause flooding in the downtown business district. Meanwhile, employees are keeping an eye open for any sign that the Martinez beavers still live in the downtown area.
Public Works Superintendent Bob Cellini said he has been working hand in glove with California Department of Fish and Wildlife Warden Nicole Kozicki on the project, making sure that the wildlife inhabitants of Alhambra remain undisturbed by removal of accumulated silt, particularly that which has gathered in the crooks of the creek’s turns.
However, those who advocate for the golden beavers that have inhabited the creek since late 2006, have expressed concern that the work being performed might lead to creek bank destabilization.
Normally, such work should cease by Oct. 15 each year. But Cellini said concern for the beavers delayed the project’s start, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife agreed to issue the city a variance so the cleanup could extend beyond the normal deadline.
Employees tackled the southern downtown portion of the creek Oct. 14 and 15, working along the Ward Street bridge and Escobar Street. They started cleaning nearer Main Street and parts north Oct. 16. That included removing a silt island that had formed opposite Starbucks, Cellini said.
Those walking alongside the creek may have noticed long stakes and black netting lying on the creek banks. That is protective silt fencing that is required by Fish and Wildlife to reduce the chances of contamination.
Cellini said it’s been some time since city crews undertook such work, although in 2000, they made improvements that increased the creek’s water flow so that during rains, the creek wouldn’t flood adjacent property owners.
Fish and Wildlife employees gave Martinez permission to remove low-hanging tree branches and the remains of the “beaver deceiver,” designed by Skip Lisle and installed between Escobar Street and Marina Vista, site of the primary beaver dam, to make sure water levels behind the dam never rose too high.
Lisle developed the trapezoid-shaped assembly in the 1990s while working with the Penobscot Nation in Maine. His design called for fencing that extends too long for beavers to try to dam and plug a culvert. His design redirects the beavers’ activities, and is supposed to reduce the sound of water that motivates the animals to build dams. Piping redirects the water and maintains its flow.
But much of the old pipe and the metal caging rotted away, Cellini said. He blamed saltier water that has seeped into the creek.
“As the flow goes, it deposits silt on the inside of the turns,” Cellini said. “It’s normal.” But it also clogs the stream.
Crews are pulling out arundo, the invasive, cane-like plant that has been growing in the creek. It’s prevalent in the channel near the Amtrak station, but crews won’t attack those growths until next year, Cellini said.
Along the Escobar Street bank slopes, the city will seed and put in special mats that are designed to control erosion, Cellini said. That method of controlling erosion is required by Fish and Wildlife, he said. Kozicki is well aware of what the city is doing and was instrumental in outlining the tasks employees would undertake, he said.
While at work, these employees have been looking for signs of the beavers. Cellini said it’s unusual for work crews to see the animals themselves. “The only way we’d know is to see trees gnawed on,” he said. “You could tell they’d been there.” But the indicators aren’t positive.
Martinez lost this year’s beaver litter and at least one of the kits born last year, Heidi Perryman, president of Worth a Dam, a beaver advocacy organization, and Conrad Jones, senior environmental scientist and supervisor with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in September.
One sickly kit died while being treated and the bodies of others were found in Alhambra Creek starting in July. Unfortunately, necropsies have not pointed to any definite cause of the kits’ deaths.
Tests on the creek’s water bore no clues, either – they were negative for such toxins as rat poisons, antifreeze or other chemicals. However, necropsies did uncover that people have been feeding the beavers illegally, although Jones said that hasn’t appeared to be a contributing factor in the beavers’ deaths.
Information from the necropsies and water tests have been shared with the University of California, Davis, but no new conclusions have been drawn, only adding to the mystery and concern.
During walks along the creek Cellini and Kozicki made prior to the project’s undertaking, as well as during this latest work, no one has reported seeing any secondary evidence of beaver activity.
“The last sighting was in mid-September. I’m not sure there are any left,” Cellini said.
Not everyone agrees with the city’s activities in the creek.
Perryman, Worth a Dam and its website, www.martinezbeavers.org/wordpress, have challenged whether the work is warranted, calling it “bank destabilization.” One posting said: “Martinez is being deeply stupid at the moment.”
The site has complimented Utah State University researcher Elijah Portugal and USU Department of Watershed Sciences adjunct faculty member Nick Bouwes, their students and community volunteers who collaborated this month on two pond levelers on Logan, Utah, property owned by Walmart.
Another posting praises Mike Settell, executive director of the Watershed Guardians, who installed another pond leveler at Rapid Creek near Pocatello, Idaho, and on Dempsey Creek in Lava Hot Springs in the same state, to prevent flooding while allowing beavers to construct their dams.
Perryman said she had heard of the city’s concern about El Niño storm flooding, but said, “This concern has existed for a year,” adding that the municipality didn’t address it until near the Fish and Wildlife Oct. 15 deadline.
“Public Works did confer with me to verify that we haven’t seen a beaver in a month and don’t know where they are,” she said. “I have no idea how ripping out the creek and the vegetation is going to help us with El Niño.”
Perryman questioned why the city hadn’t started the work earlier in the year, but Cellini said city employees didn’t want to get into the creek and risk disturbing the surviving beavers.
When the beavers first were spotted in Alhambra Creek, they not only sparked a lot of attention for themselves, they also created some awareness of the creatures that live in the creek, such as the turtles that Cellini said have moved nearer to Green Street. More people began talking about the environment of the creek.
The first two beavers built a 30-foot dam and demolished about half of the landscaping installed in 1999 to prevent the type of flooding that happened in 1997, although the area flooded again in 2005 despite the nearly $10 million planting project.
Concerned the beaver dam would exacerbate the area’s tendency to flood, Martinez officials first sought to exterminate the beavers since California forbids moving beavers elsewhere.
Alarmed residents opposed to killing the animals formed Worth a Dam. With support from such diverse groups as the Sierra Club and local schools, they worked actively to get that decision reversed.
Mayor Rob Schroder appointed a subcommittee to study the matter, and Martinez hired Lisle to install the “beaver deceiver” flow device.
Later, the city approved the installation of a tile mural donated by Worth a Dam and created by school children to illustrate the wildlife of Alhambra Creek, including the beavers. Worth A Dam began celebrating the beavers in 2008 with an annual Beaver Festival.
From the time the presence of the beavers was known, concern came from all sides for wildlife that had taken up homes in what Cellini described as a flood control channel.
“It put us on the map all over the country,” he said. The beavers’ presence also helped educate local children about the animals, and it gave city employees and beaver advocates a chance to work together, he said. He called it “a good experience.” Martinez became the place other cities called when beavers showed up.
“When they were here in full strength, the creek water was clean. It created an ecosystem,” he said. “But with the drought, there is no downstream water.” In addition, it has experienced greater saltwater intrusion.
Cellini acknowledged the criticism city employees receive about their approaches to handling the creek.
“We’re looked on negatively when we try to do the right thing,” he said, explaining that’s to maintain and protect both the creek’s delicate ecosystem and its water flow, he said.
Stormwater drains into the creek. “It’s probably not the best place for a beaver colony,” Cellini said.
But city employees work on municipally-owned land. Other portions of the creek are bounded by private property. What happens on that land impacts the creek too, Cellini said.
So he and his employees want to develop and provide information to those landowners, so they can also prepare for the rains and have their questions answered.
They need to maintain their trees, because falling trees can cause a backup in the creek, he said. “It could flood in minutes.”
Not only should they check their trees, they also should look in their back yards for items that could be blown into the creek in a storm, such as lawn chairs, umbrellas and any other items they’ve stored unsecured.
The public can also help city staff and employees monitor the creek, Cellini said. The state of California has water testing equipment at the Martinez Pier to obtain information it uses for regulating water in the Delta. Cellini said he has observed changes in other indicators for years, especially in populations of fish, from anchovies to big species.
So he values information from residents and visitors who may see things as they walk along the creek.
“Notify us if something doesn’t seem right or is out of character,” he said. “There are so many ways to report, and we will respond. I think the public does a good job. They’re our eyes and ears,” he said.
“And use trash receptacles,” he urged. “During that first storm, you’ll see a lot of stuff get into the creek.”
Cellini said there are plenty of beverage cups and food wrappers that have landed on the banks and in the waters. Others have seen suitcases and sofa cushions tossed onto the banks, turning them into dumping grounds.
He said he hasn’t seen many signs of other contamination, and said his employees have not heard of anyone poisoning the creek. But Cellini acknowledged, “A lot is done in the darkness of night.
“My guys get frustrated,” he said. They tell him how they clean an area of trash and garbage, then come back the next day to the same place, only to find it just as dirty as it was before.
“It’s the same thing with keeping the bathrooms clean,” he said. Two hours after a restroom is cleaned, it’s dirty again, he explained.
The litter comes from people from all walks of life, not just the downtown area’s homeless population, he said. “It’s not because there’s a lack of garbage cans. It’s disheartening,” he said.
Martinez Public Works can be reached at (925) 372-3580, and its website is http://www.cityofmartinez.org/depts/public_works/.