We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

If you've ever littered in or around the Santa Rosa plain, there is a reasonable chance that the object you threw away is now lodged in one of several garbage-strewn accidental dams clogging up the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

And it's causing serious headaches for nearby landowners, environmentalists, and county water officials.

"Eventually all that garbage that comes out of Santa Rosa, out of Rohnert Park, out of Cotati, that comes down Mark West Creek, winds up here," said Mike Thompson, assistant general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, on Monday as he surveyed a series of cleanup sites along the Laguna near Guerneville Road.

The debris has accumulated over at least three decades in a series of dams along a narrow stretch of the 22-mile Laguna, which eventually drains into the Russian River. There are about 10 separate sites, Thompson said, though their exact sizes and locations are not yet clear.

The blockages appear to have slowed the flow in the channel through the Laguna, leaving stagnant pools where none existed before, perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and allowing for the spread of the invasive weed Ludwigia, which has clogged the waterway in recent years, muscling aside native plants and animals.

The dams also may have changed the drainage patterns on the properties along the Laguna, causing flooding and making the ground a muddy mess far into what should be the summer planting season.

Carlos Soria, manager of Rancho Laguna, said the farm has lost all or part of its 150-acre corn crop to flooding in several recent years, costing the operation up to $300,000 each time.

Moreover, the slow drainage means it is taking progressively longer for the low-lying corn fields to dry out after the rainy season. Where the farm once was able to plant corn in May, it is often now well into June before the crop is in the ground.

Nearby Aggio Dairy lost much of its 70-acre, feed-corn crop to a flood after the rainstorms in June. It's not clear how much the family-run dairy lost, Joe Aggio said, but it will cost a considerable sum to buy feed for the cows elsewhere.

"It's a lot of money," he said. "How are we going to get reimbursed for it?"

Help may be on the way, however. The water agency is trying to coordinate a long-term cleanup project involving its own crews, private landowners and the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, a non-profit conservation and education organization.

The hardest work will have to wait until next year, Thompson said, since removing the six or more feet of silt from the creek bottom and scooping out the garbage-filled piles of tree trunks and lumber that make up the dams will require state and federal permits.

In the meantime, the agency has recruited cleanup crews from the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps and other agencies to clean up trash and woody debris that litter the banks and the top of the dams.

By Monday, the crews working along the banks next to Rancho Laguna had hauled out tons of old tree trunks and branches, broken shipping pallets, discarded lumber and fence posts. Most of the tree debris showed signs of having been cut, meaning people had chopped up the wood and carelessly discarded it in or near a creek.

Evacuation Centers

Here is Sonoma County's list of evacuation centers.

"This is natural material, but it didn't get here naturally," Thompson said.

The workers also had piles of garbage that had become entangled in the wood: tires, plastic water bottles, beer bottles and soda cans, soccer balls and toys, and an array of odds and ends, from empty suitcases to old shopping carts, and even a motorcycle helmet.

"It's definitely changed the way I feel about trash on the street," said Kaitlin Collard, 18, one of the Youth Ecology Corps employees hauling the trash and wood debris out of the stream.

"I don't really know how to put it," she said, surveying the piles of garbage, sorted by what type. "It's really sad to see how bad it was."

There was a time, Thompson said, when the water agency regularly scoured the waterway to remove sediment and woody blockages. That ended in the 1960s or '70s as environmental regulations became tighter. But that created a new problem: the accumulation of silt and garbage that has partially blocked the streams.

He acknowledged that this year's cleanup is a modest start to removing decades of accumulated garbage.

"This is a five-, 10-, 20-year project,"he said. "But if we start doing a little bit, it will make a big difference."