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ARCATA FWO: Turning the Tide for Wildlife on Humboldt Bay
California-Nevada Offices , March 24, 2015
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Here's McDainel's slough as it appeared prior to the levee breach in September of 2013.  The levee prevented salt water from mixing with freshwater.
Here's McDainel's slough as it appeared prior to the levee breach in September of 2013. The levee prevented salt water from mixing with freshwater. - Photo Credit: USFWS
McDaniel's Slough as it appears today. With the levee now gone, the ebb and flow of tides are creating a more diverse habitat in parts of Humboldt Bay, near City of Arcata.
McDaniel's Slough as it appears today. With the levee now gone, the ebb and flow of tides are creating a more diverse habitat in parts of Humboldt Bay, near City of Arcata. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Paula Golightly, a Fish and wildlife biologist with the Service's Coastal Program at the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office worked on this project for more than 12 years. Coastal Program staff along with local partners are seeing early signs of success with numerous birds, fish and mammals using the restored area.
Paula Golightly, a Fish and wildlife biologist with the Service's Coastal Program at the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office worked on this project for more than 12 years. Coastal Program staff along with local partners are seeing early signs of success with numerous birds, fish and mammals using the restored area. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Julie Neander is an Environmental Program Manager with the City of Arcata who has also spent many years on the McDaniel's Slough restoration project. The project, which occurred on City of Arcata land, is a good example of an urban restoration project that is making an important contribution to conservation and the restoration of fish wildlife while also inviting public use via trails and wildlife viewing.
Julie Neander is an Environmental Program Manager with the City of Arcata who has also spent many years on the McDaniel's Slough restoration project. The project, which occurred on City of Arcata land, is a good example of an urban restoration project that is making an important contribution to conservation and the restoration of fish wildlife while also inviting public use via trails and wildlife viewing. - Photo Credit: USFWS

By Matt Baun

For conservationists in the uppermost parts of coastal northern California there is a great desire to restore tidal influences to diked coastal wetland habitats surrounding Humboldt Bay, which is second only to San Francisco Bay in terms of size, and the numbers and diversity of migratory waterbirds that winter along California's coastal Pacific Flyway.

Estuaries are considered among the most productive habitats in the world and the opportunity to breach a levee to restore such an important estuary system in California doesn’t happen every day.

Nobody understands this more than the dozens of people and agencies that worked on the McDaniel’s Slough Wetland Enhancement Project, an effort that began in 1999 and was finally completed in 2013.

The restoration work occurred on lands owned by the City of Arcata and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). and was undertaken to improve habitat for a multitude of species including salmonids, migratory waterbirds, and also to the public. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office, through its Coastal Program, worked on this restoration effort with City of Arcata, CDFW and many other partners.

The project involved the restoration of tidal influence to 200 acres of former tidelands in north Humboldt Bay at the mouth of Janes Creek in an area known as McDaniel Slough, which is part of an urban watershed that flows through Arcata, and finally through a newly restored transition area of fresh, brackish and salt water marshes.

“The development of the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary in the late 1970s was the spark that ignited the City of Arcata’s on-going habitat restoration efforts,” said Julie Neander, Environmental Program Manager with the City of Arcata. “Since then the City has actively worked to provide restoration and enhancement of wetland and creek habitats in the City. The CDFW’s willingness to partner with the City, the support from the Service’s Coastal Program, and funding from many state and federal agencies made the McDaniel Slough project possible.”

Restoring the Humboldt Bay ecosystem is easier said than done, however. Given that Humboldt Bay is surrounded by urban influences, private property, agricultural land uses, dikes, levees, berms, railroads, farms, and freeways means that restoration work is likely to happen slowly.

But large-scale restoration projects do happen. And when a project reaches completion, there is cause for celebration, which is exactly what occurred on a cold September night in 2013. Locals involved in the project gathered for a dramatic night-time media event, where a heavy-equipment operator tore through the last bits and pieces of levee which, in turn, invited a rush of saltwater and freshwater. McDaniel’s slough was finally re-united with its original salt-water/freshwater hydrology after more than a century-long separation.

Fast-forward to spring 2015. Is the project working? Has it improved habitat? Has it advanced the restoration of fish and wildlife?

Happily, the answer to each of these questions is, “Yes!”

McDaniel’s Slough and its surrounding habitat continue to bask in all of its brackish glory. A City of Arcata foot-path sends visitors around the slough in a park-like setting. All around, sharp-eyed locals will see the fruits of this 16-year labor-of-love project on display.

“Over the last 150 years or so, agricultural lands developed behind the levee along with seasonal freshwater wetlands which were important, but were generally a monotypic habitat type that supported only a limited number of species” said Karen Kovacs, Wildlife Program Manager for Northern Region of CDFW. “This project, however, gave us an opportunity to put paint on the habitat landscape so we could create a mosaic of wetland types benefiting a larger suite of species including fishes.”

Paula Golightly, a Fish and wildlife biologist with the Coastal Program at Humboldt Bay and her staff in the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office have been working on this project for more than 12 years. Coastal Program staff along with local partners are seeing early signs of success.

“From a hydrology standpoint, we are seeing significant ebb and flow of tides into the area from the opening of bayfront levee at the mouth of McDaniel Slough and good connectivity between freshwater flows from Janes Creek into the project area,” said Golightly. “Citizens and project partners are seeing large numbers of shorebirds, grebes, bay and ocean waterfowl species, egrets and herons along with river otters and many species of bay and estuarine fishes using the project area.

As part of the post-project monitoring efforts, biologists continue to sample for fish species monthly, and monitor vegetation annually for five years.

Golightly said the project has begun to show signs of benefiting Endangered Species Act (ESA) listed fish such as coho salmon, steelhead and potentially the tidewater goby. The City of Arcata and CDFW have sampled locations within and upstream of the project area and have found coho salmon juveniles in Janes Creek just upstream of the project area in 2014. Sampling for the tidewater goby will occur in the early summer.

Tidal inundation pushing water upstream during winter storms and high tide events has also helped to kill the invasive Reed Canary Grass, which chokes the stream channel, causes poor water quality, impedes water flow causing flooding, and overall negatively impacts conditions for fish. Golightly said the City of Arcata and the Coastal Program have been at the forefront of battling the invasive plant for years and many who worked on the McDaniel’s Slough Restoration project are hopeful that some of the salt water intrusion will benefit the eradication effort.

An important aspect of the project for the Service’s Coastal Program was coordinating the expertise and resources of different programs within the agency for this project. The Endangered Species Program provided technical assistance with understanding the needs of the tidewater goby, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Program (NRDA) provided funding through the Kure/Styvesant oil spill funds and the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge provided expertise in the development of a plan to monitor vegetation change and the management of invasive Chilean cord grass (Spartina densiflora).

Side Bar – A-Biologists-Eye-View

Paula Golightly is a Fish and Wildlife biologist with the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office and oversees the Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Coastal Programs. Julie Neander is an Environmental Program Manager with the City of Arcata. They share their thoughts and views on what it is like to work on a restoration project over the course of 15 years.


Q. A lot of biologists work on restoration projects – some take months, some take years. This one took a decade, what was it like professionally/personally?

A. You get to know your partners both professionally and personally, you help each other and you learn how to work well together through many ups, downs, frustrations and victories along the way. You experience it all together. We have spent many hours problem solving regarding permitting, obtaining funding, designing, planning and working together through the various project phases. Oh yes- and we all got a lot older and grayer!


Q. When most communities are concerned with holding back the ocean or tides how did you convince the community to support a project that involved removing tide gates and flooding land?

A. The McDaniel Slough tidal restoration project’s multiple benefits were discussed openly in the community and City staff worked to gather community input and concerns. Hydraulic modeling was used to show that the project, in addition to restoring tidal exchange to over 200 hundred acres of former tide lands and anadromy to the system, would also help improve flood flows on the creek. The project also included public access along newly constructed levees providing the community with recreation and education opportunities
 

Q. Is it hard to stay motivated when you know the project may take a decade or longer to complete?

A. Staying motivated was difficult at times but small victories such as obtaining a large grant, or getting a much needed permit were real motivators. A few times situations that seemed dire turned out to be good things such as when a flapgate on one of the tidegates fell off during the winter allowing some tidal water into the system. We watched how quickly some areas experienced vegetation changes from pasture grass to salt marsh and mudflat. This helped us all get some indication of how quickly the landscape would change once the breach occurred.


Q. This project took 16 years to complete – can you give us a sense of what all occurred during that time?

A. The actual construction phase took about 5 years. The planning, design and permitting took about 10 years. The project elements most noteworthy were: removing berms along McDaniel slough to provide the creek with access to its floodplain, enhancing existing slough channels and diversifying the topography of the adjacent floodplains to include more depressions and raised areas or hummocks. Project work also included building a levee around the project area to protect State Route 255 from being flooded and to protect adjacent properties and infrastructure from inundation of saltwater. The final construction element after all internal work was complete was removal of a portion of the bayfront levee along with the four tidegates in late September of 2013.
 

Q. Did you and the partners know at the outset that this project would take 16 years to complete?

A. We all believed it would likely be about 10 years. The longer a project goes on the more costs go up and you need more money. The City of Arcata and CDFW worked really hard to try and continue to find additional funds. So many agencies and non-profit organizations contributed time and funding to support this project.

Q. It seems like within the Service, there was a lot of cooperation on this project?

A. The Coastal Program provided engineering support and coordinated with other programs in the office to help inform the design process particularly with respect to addressing listed species needs. Coastal Program staff worked with others to collect baseline hydrologic and vegetation data to help inform the design and restoration process. We were also able to coordinate with NRDA staff in Sacramento on the Trustee Council for the Kure/Steyvesant oil spill. The NRDA funds went to support project construction and monitoring. Coastal Program staff also provided construction layout and oversight of some project elements.
 

Q. Would you do it again?

A. Yes. Even given the timeframe, the frustrations, the design changes, working with diverse publics, and other challenges, it is a significant coastal restoration project and one of those meaningful career milestones. 

- fws -  

Matt Baun is a public affairs officer for the USFWS, covering the Yreka, Arcata and Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office jurisdictional areas.


Contact Info: Matt Baun, 530-841-3119, matt_baun@fws.gov
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