Triumphs, tragedies of Laguna, Page 1
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|Title||Triumphs, tragedies of Laguna|
|Type of object||Article|
|Subject||Laguna de Santa Rosa|
|Region||Sonoma County (California)|
|Original source||Sonoma Historian: The Journal of the Sonoma County Historical Society, (2007): 1|
|Place of publication/Origin||Santa Rosa, California|
|Source collection||Environmental History Collection|
|Digital collection||Environmental History Digital Collection|
Sonoma State University Library
Rohnert Park, California
Restrictions may apply. For more information see
|Corporate copyright||© Sonoma County Historical Society|
Triumphs, Tragedies of Laguna—Its County’s Biological Goldmine By John Cummings
Travel by land in the spring in the early days of Sonoma County was often severely limited by the horrible conditions of the roads after the winter rains. In the spring of 1860, passengers on Bill Tibbett’s bone-jarring stage from Petaluma to the “potato mines” at Bodega could get off at Sebastopol and board the little steamer Georgina to continue their journey down the Laguna to the redwood logging region of the lower Russian River. It was announced in early 1887 that when the water in the Laguna became high enough, a beautiful steam yacht called the Pride of the Laguna would begin tri-weekly service between Sebastopol and Guerneville.
The Laguna lake by Sebastopol was initially named Lake Sebring. Thomas Sebring was an early settler who lived next to the Laguna until he sold his property in the fall of 1875. One of the recommendations made in the summer of 1898 to protect Sebastopol from being captured during the Spanish-American War was to station gunboats and “torpedo destroyers” at strategic points along the Laguna. Promotional articles about the newly incorporated town of Sebastopol in 1902 describe the recreational possibilities of Lake Jonive: a beautiful body of water within a mile of town; a mile long and 20 to 30 feet deep in places; bounded by oaks, willows and ash; a favorite place for bathing, boating and fishing; with vast hop fields extending along both sides of the lake. Numerous pictures and postcards of bathing and boating on Lake Jonive have survived. Most of the boats were undoubtedly rented at Joe Moran’s place at the north end of the lake adjacent to Molino Road (now Occidental Road), next to the ranch of Santa Rosa banker Frank Doyle.
Depending on the season, boaters and swimmers on Lake Jonive would have found the scene less than idyllic. They might have found themselves splashing among peach skins from Sebastopol’s cannery and its other industrial wastewater discharges into the Laguna. In the fall of 1906, Sebastopol added to the discharge soup entering the upper end of Lake Jonive with the year-round septic tank effluent from its new sewer system and sewer farm next to the Laguna. (Santa Rosa also used its nearby waterway to dispose of its domestic sewage and industrial wastewaters, and had a sewer farm next to Santa Rosa Creek by the spring of 1890. At least six sewage lawsuits were filed against the city in the 19th century. One of the plaintiffs was Mrs. M. A. Peterson, a Laguna resident next to Santa Rosa Creek, who won an essentially permanent injunction in state court in the late 1890s that prohibited Santa Rosa from polluting the creek with sewage. The injunction, however, was never enforced.)
A remnant of Lake Jonive remains today south of the Don Head Bridge on Occidental Road. The large expansion of the Laguna shown on 19th century property maps south of Santa Rosa Creek to just above present-day Occidental Road represents a large area of swamp and marsh and was not a lake during the early settlement period of the county. (Only a very small remnant of the large marsh remains today.) The artist’s sketch accompanying an article in the Sonoma Democrat in the winter of 1897 startlingly shows a small sailboat marking the spot where the body of 19-year-old Ed Stump from Fulton was recovered from the swollen Laguna near present-day Guerneville Road. The boat was sailed by John Bailiff Jr. and likely came upstream from his father’s ranch in the lower Laguna rather than downstream from Sebastopol.
A lower Laguna lake once existed between present-day Guerneville and River roads. In the spring of 1885, Petaluma’s Argus staff and a large party of Petalumans repeated a successful fishing trip of a few years earlier to Gray’s Lake, named after E. Gray, who owned the land adjacent to the lake in 1867. Gray’s Lake, “a fine body of water, about one-half mile long and 100 yards wide” and 25 feet deep in places, was a “paradise for catfish hunters.” While some of the group fished in the deep pools of lower Santa Rosa Creek, most of the party fished on the lake on John Bailiff’s part of the Laguna, and were most successful, catching a large number of fish. For many years, local newspapers routinely reported on the cool weather and the fishing successes on Gray’s Lake, where there were many boats for hire and good accommodations for campers.
By the end of the 1890s, Gray’s Lake was called Ballard Lake. About 60 children from the Sunday school and other members of Santa Rosa’s Congregational church, filled three large wagons to go to a picnic at the Ballard place in the spring of 1898. Boating on the lake was a favorite activity at the church picnic. Henry Ballard’s resort, Laguna Farm, is described in a 1903 railroad vacation guide of resorts with instructions to get off the train at the Mt. Olivet station. Laguna Farm offered bass fishing, swimming and boating, and other diversions.
Ballard Lake and an estimated several hundred acres of wetlands no longer exist. The demise of the Laguna lake and the periodic diversions of the lower reach of Mark West Creek has been documented by the current owner and Laguna “old-timer” Stan Denner, and by numerous other sources. The Denners, with the concurrence of Exchange Bank’s Frank Doyle, used dynamite and a backhoe to breach the plug in the Laguna. The plug formed a lake heavy with sediment coming down Mark West Creek. Operations on the Denner ranch continued over the years to move Mark West Creek further south in stages, and use the creek’s sediment to fill in most of the lake and the marsh areas of the ranch (the “low spots”), effectively improving the ranch and abating its mosquito problems. The confluence of Mark West Creek with the Laguna today is nearly two stream-miles south of its historic location above present-day River Road. The Laguna lake which Stan Denner fished and swam in is no more. (The movement of Mark West Creek southward may create an historical confusion since the site of Cooper’s mill was on Mark West Creek, but this section of the waterway is usually now known as the Laguna.)
In early 1878 at a meeting in Santa Rosa’s Ridgeway Hall, a Laguna de Santa Rosa Reclamation Company was formed to render arable several thousand acres“of the richest land in the county.” Apart from making a gross exaggeration of the productivity of soils in the Laguna, the company appears to have accomplished nothing.
In early November 1879, the county supervisors responded to a petition and formed a Laguna Drainage District for 561.5 acres of overflowed land unfit for cultivation. The drainage district area was downstream of Sebastopol to approximately where River Road is today. While details of the proposed drainage project are not available, preliminary surveys showed that it was feasible to drain surplus waters into Lake Sebring. A decade later in1889, the county supervisors responded to another petition and formed a second Laguna Drainage District, but, like the first district, it appears to have accomplished nothing. In the spring of 1915, noting that drainage projects in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys had led to numerous prosperous towns and districts, A.B. Swain, Hugh C. Ingle, Frank P. Doyle, William Evans and L.C. Cnopius formed a preliminary organization of the major property owners in the Laguna. The organization proposed taking advantage of new state laws to form a drainage district, convert about 1,600 acres of pasture land worth $10 per acre to cultivated land worth between $150 and $300 per acre – “the best investment ever made in the county.” The process would involve ditching the entire length of the Laguna from Cotati to the Russian River, based on the surveys and plans of Santa Rosa engineer J.E. Williams. Despite the prospect of major financial gains, nothing came of this drainage proposal. (Early state laws had permitted one man to hold out and stop implementation of the drainage district proposals.)
Another proposal to reclaim the “practically valueless” land along the Laguna downstream of Sebastopol was made in 1924 by UC Berkeley’s extension services. The organization’s preliminary plans included two new features: first, to make possible more intensive development of the entire Santa Rosa Plain and second, to build an artificial lake in the Laguna north of Sebastopol where a previous natural lake once existed (the swamp and marsh area downstream of present-day Occidental Road.) The funding process continued for many years.
By November 1929, L.C. Cnopius and E.L. Finley, two Laguna land owners and members of Sebastopol’s chamber committee, successfully demonstrated that a ditch dug between their properties had lowered Lake Jonive 18 inches and had made available hundreds of acres of land for agriculture. The success of their relatively small private drainage project renewed interest in draining the entire Laguna. In the spring of 1929, landscape architect Howard Gilkey of Oakland presented the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce with an alternative to agricultural drainage of the Laguna. The visiting architect declared that the Laguna adjacent to Sebastopol was a valuable potential park site which could ease pressure on the overcrowded resorts of the lower Russian River. All that was required for several miles of boating and other recreation was some dredging and beautifying of the stream banks and surrounding properties.
Most of the chamber audience would have recognized that Sebastopol itself was a main contributor to the blight of the Laguna adjacent to the city. Since the summer of 1926, the city’s sewer farm had been used as its municipal garbage dump and old car bodies had been placed along the Laguna to act as a dike for the dump. Cleaning up and beautifying the banks of the Laguna was not going to be a simple or inexpensive project. Despite the Great Depression, Sebastopol responded to the state Board of Health’s report of “deplorable sewage” conditions of the city in September, 1930, by replacing its antiquated septic tank with a modern sewage treatment plant.
To the east, Santa Rosa used its sewer farm as a garbage dump between 1909 and 1926. While having an incinerator at its municipal dump, there continued to be numerous reports in the city council minutes of unsightly fire hazards and illegal dumps, including rejected hides from the city’s tanneries, on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek. With luck, high winter waters helped clean up the illegal dumps.
The extension service’s Laguna drainage plans became part of the county’s application for depression-era funding from the State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA) for drainage improvements of the entire Santa Rosa Plain. The Laguna portion of the county’s application for state funding was not successful.
A polio epidemic that broke out in California in the summer of 1943 was considered to be more severe in Sonoma County than elsewhere in the state. County health authorities closed the Laguna at Sebastopol to swimming and contracted with a consultant to report on the sanitary conditions in the county. The consultant found numerous appallingly poor conditions. The recommendations relevant to the Laguna were: to form a Central Sonoma Mosquito Abatement District; to improve Sebastopol’s handling of its sewage; to move Sebastopol’s municipal garbage dump away from the Laguna; to expand the Gold Ridge Soil Conservation District’s boundaries to include properties on the east side of the Laguna; and to channelize the Laguna in order to more rapidly drain sewage-polluted storm waters from the farms along the Laguna. The consultant also found that Santa Rosa’s sewage handling was very poor and contributed to the pollution of flood waters in the Laguna.
The eastern boundary of the soil conservation district was soon expanded to include properties on the east side of the Laguna but it was not until soon after the end of World War II that the conservation district completed its new preliminary plans to drain the Laguna. The district’s plans were detailed and specific: to drain in three days by May 1, before the growing-season, about 1,300 acres of Laguna land downstream of Sebastopol. It included a new benefit to wildlife by having fewer fish in the Laguna going “bottoms up” every late summer. After adopting a drainage plan for the entire Laguna downstream of Cotati, the county supervisors held a public hearing, established boundaries, and formed a controversial Laguna Storm Water District. A few months after the election of the new district’s board of directors in the fall of 1946 (Alvin Frati, Carson Whitlach and Russell Denner), the board received a petition from the majority of land owners in the area to dissolve the district. When a special election was called, the county district attorney ruled that only registered voters in the district could vote. The proponents won by a narrow margin. However, state law at the time did not provide the procedures for disincorporating an existing storm water district. State Senator F.P. Abshire introduced a senate bill requiring that a two-thirds majority vote of landowners was necessary to dissolve an existing storm water district. The bill was referred to an assembly committee which held hearings in Santa Rosa in 1950 at which time pros and cons were presented.
The opponents of the district plan appear to have realized that they could not get a favorable vote of landowners in the district, withdrew their opposition and ended the controversy. In the fall of 1951 the Laguna district began digging a channel in the lower Laguna. In late 1957, Santa Rosa’s council authorized sponsorship of the storm water district’s application for funds under the federal Watershed Protection and Prevention Act, but the success of the district’s application for federal funding is unknown.
The district made slow progress in channelizing the Laguna. After about six years, the channel was only about one mile south of present-day River Road. Apparently, most of the funds were spent on clearing the debris from their previously excavated channel rather than being used to dig more new channel.
More than 6.5 inches of rain fell in one day in late December 1955, causing much damage throughout Northern California and a major flood in the Laguna. Extensive flood damage also occurred in Santa Rosa and in the urbanized areas of the Santa Rosa Plain, which led to the large local, state and federally funded Central Sonoma Watershed Project of the Sonoma County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, the forerunner of the today’s Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA). Adequate flood control of the Santa Rosa Plain eventually resulted in channelizing the Laguna upstream of Llano Road and almost every tributary of the Laguna. To provide for proper drainage of the watershed, it was considered necessary to improve the drainage of the Laguna, and the county water district took over and completed the channel project. While usually functioning as a drain, the water district’s Pilot Channel was designed to contain growing-season flood waters in the Laguna from the Russian River within its channel (a 6- to 8-foot deep groove within a 100-foot right-of-way). The economic analysis supporting the project indicated that the expected increase in crop and improved pasture grass value exceeded the expected project costs. The Pilot Channel was completed downstream of Occidental Road by late summer of 1966, but the channel was connected to the storm water district’s channel in the lower Laguna rather than going all the way to the Russian River as planned. The section between Occidental Road and Sebastopol Road, the former Lake Jonive section, was not done; it was only cleared of brush in the summer of 1968. The connection of the southern section with the Pilot Channel appears to have lowered the remnant of Lake Jonive by as much as five feet. (If its money had held out, the county flood control district planned to continue the channel project upstream of Sebastopol to about opposite Todd Road).
The Laguna downstream of Sebastopol was finally channelized 90 years after the Laguna Reclamation Company was formed, just before new and complex state and federal environmental protection acts and laws of the late 1960s and early 1970s came into play. In May, 1977, a group of Sonoma State students documented that the Laguna was a “unique living museum” of biological diversity and noted that SCWA’s routine maintenance of its Pilot Channel was destructive to wildlife habitat. A select citizen committee appointed by the supervisors essentially agreed with the students, and, after pointing out that SCWA’s annual maintenance of its Pilot Channel benefited only a few landowners, called for review of the agency’s channel maintenance. SCWA soon quit maintaining its channel in the Laguna and declared that the channel served no flood control benefit to the Santa Rosa Plain. In the mid-1990s, SCWA transferred ownership of the channel and its right-of-way to the state as part of the Department of Fish and Game’s Laguna Wildlife Area. The Laguna Foundation, created in 1989, coordinated the completion of a project a few years ago on state property west of the Sanford Road elbow. The project included alteration of the eastern bank of the Laguna channel to restore the historic swale and hummock conditions of the site.
When the 1955 rainstorm flooded Sebastopol’s municipal dump, cans and garbage drifted into the Laguna. Only parts of Sebastopol’s sewage treatment plant towered above the flood waters, and the plant was not functional for days. The county district health officer inspected Sebastopol’s municipal dump in early 1966 following the retreat of the Laguna flood waters and strongly urged its closing. Sebastopol subsequently agreed and began a more than 30-year process of building the park and ball field complex we know today off Morris Street.
In the summer of 1963, Sebastopol used its own drag line to dredge the Laguna to fill and then sell the Industrial Park lands between Morris Street and the Laguna. A boundary line dispute erupted between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa in 1965 when Santa Rosa announced its intention to annex several thousand acres of land westward to the center of the Laguna. The dispute also included a proposal to build 1,000 homes south of Piezzi Lane and annex the development to Sebastopol – doubling Sebastopol’s population of about 3,500.
While previous agricultural pumping for irrigation water from Santa Rosa Creek and the Laguna had kept treated sewage effluent discharges to the Russian River negligible in the summer, in 1968, water quality consultants for the state determined that nutrients in the effluents were causing algal production in the Laguna, and turning the Russian River green below the river’s confluence with the Laguna. They determined the situation would only get worse with growing urban areas discharging more sewage into these areas. About 60,000 people in urban areas were discharging their treated sewage effluent in the Laguna at the time, and the waterway was estimated to be more than 50 percent effluent in the summer. The consultants to the state and regional water quality boards recommended that the least expensive and most obvious solution to the problem was to build a dam across the lower Laguna with control gates that permitted flood flows from the Russian River to enter in the winter and that prevented outflows from the Laguna to enter the river in the summer. Had such a dam been built, the Laguna north of Sebastopol would have become, in time, a large shallow lake of mostly wastewater in the late summer. While the created lake was said to have great value for boating and other recreation, the proposal was the very opposite of the just completed Pilot Channel.
Santa Rosa’s solution
Santa Rosa did not pursue the Laguna lake proposal when it selected a pond-storage, agricultural reclamation system by irrigation along Santa Rosa Creek and in the Laguna in 1973, with no discharge to the Russian River in the summer. Santa Rosa obtained a series of federal Clean Water Grants to expand its Laguna plant on Llano Road to accommodate its own needs and the sewage treatment needs of other wastewater discharges to the Laguna. The sewage treatment plants of Cotati-Rohnert Park and Sebastopol were abandoned by the late summer of 1978, forming the subregional wastewater system managed by the City of Santa Rosa that we have today. Recent newspaper articles suggest a possibility that Santa Rosa’s wastewater discharges to the Laguna could be eliminated in the future.
Awareness of the Laguna as a local “biological goldmine” grew rapidly in the early 1970s. Numerous community meetings and reports documented the tremendous natural resources of the area. Preservation and restoration of the ecosystem became a popular idea.
Use of the Laguna for urban recreation is of particular historical interest. The Laguna section of the county’s multiple use trail was completed in the early fall of 1990 on the old Petaluma and Santa Rosa electric railroad bed which had become operational in 1905. (The county’s trail between Sebastopol and Llano Road is on the south side and adjacent to the old SF&NP railroad dating to the spring of 1890. The abandoned right-of-way of the SF&NP railroad is now the brush and regenerating oak woodland that can be seen south of Highway 12.)
With a current county population of over 450,000, nearly half of which is served by Santa Rosa’s subregional wastewater reclamation system, nearly 3,500 people, mostly school children, tour Santa Rosa’s Laguna treatment plant each year, participate in the outreach program run by the city’s Natural Resource crew, visit the heron and egret rookery by Delta Pond in the spring, or learn about the Laguna through the Laguna Foundation’s docent program. Two foundation activities in particular have received considerable local media attention in recent years: the saga of the tiger salamander and the control of the non-native water primrose, Ludwigia. The latter plant was choking parts of the Laguna to such an extent that adequate flood control of the Santa Rosa Plain and adequate vector control of mosquito born diseases such as the West Nile virus was jeopardized. Demands for trails, parks and public access remains a complex balancing act among private agricultural interests, restoration projects, undisturbed natural areas, homeless encampments, feral cats, illegal shooting and fishing, trespassing, and other factors.
Future historians may ask: Did 21st century policymakers continue to protect the flood-carrying capacity of the Laguna? Did water quality in the Laguna ever reach minimum standards? Did productive agriculture in the Laguna adapt to the changing agricultural economics and the urban demands for recreation? Did the community’s Laguna Foundation reach its goal of preserving 10,000 acres of land in the Laguna? Did Luther Burbank’s escapee, Himalayan blackberry, significantly interfere with native vegetation?
Materials researched by John Cummings include: “Historical Glimpses of the Laguna de Santa Rosa,” Dec. 2003, 20 pages; “Laguna de Santa Rosa, Index of the Microfilm files of the Sebastopol Times 1895-1965,” Dec. 2003, 10 pages; “Draining and Filling the Laguna de Santa Rosa,” Jan. 2004, 25 pages. These papers are available in the county library and on the net in Sonoma State University Library’s North Bay Collection. The Laguna Foundation website is lagunadesantarosa.org.
Maggie Hart, Administrative Director of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, for assembling and producing Laguna photographs; Evelyn McClure of the Western Sonoma County Historical Society for old pictures of Lake Jonive; and my brother George Cummings for review and comments on this article.
Two-Part Book Now Available
The current effort to restore the Laguna de Santa Rosa is reflected in two volumes being released by the Laguna Foundation.
The first volume of 343 pages is titled Enhancing and Caring for the Laguna: Restoring and Managing the Laguna. Resource Set Maps and other data, pp.344-557, is the second volume. Authors are Joseph Honton and Anna Warwick Sears.
A State of the Laguna Conference is scheduled for Thursday, Mar. 29 through Sunday, Apr 1 at the Sonoma State University Cooperage. Activities include a two-day science symposium, presentations on planning for the future of the Laguna and tours of the area. Interested parties may attend part of the conference or all four days.
Prices on the book and information on the conference and other Laguna Foundation activities are available by phone, 527-9277, ext. 107 or at www.lagunafoundation.org.
|Digital reproduction||Original document scanned at 300 dpi-Displayed in jpeg format at 75 dpi|
|Date digitized||August 21, 2008|