There's not much brush left along a section of Brush Creek, scoured clear of vegetation earlier this month as part of a flood control project.

Bulldozers and excavators removed tons of sediment, and chainsaw-wielding workers felled trees and removed bushes and shrubs from a 200-foot stretch of the creek between Highway 12 and Montecito Boulevard.

The results are stark. The creek bed has been stripped of virtually all plant life. The once well-shaded waters of Brush and Austin creeks are now exposed to full sunlight much of the day. And the walls of the channel are virtually barren, with only the mature trees left in place along the upper banks.

But officials say the work was necessary to preserve the flood control capacity of the creek, and predicted that the vegetation will bounce back soon following restoration efforts and winter rains.

"Yes, right now it looks drastic and harsh, but by next spring you won't know anything's been done," said Jon Niehaus, manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency's stream maintenance program.

The work was just one of dozens of projects the agency undertook this summer as part of its stream maintenance program.

Several feet of sediment had built up in the creekbed at the confluence of Brush and Austin creeks, reducing the flood control capacity of the channel that has confined the creeks since the 1960s, Niehaus explained.

It had been years since the water agency performed work at that location, leaving the area completely overgrown with blackberry bushes, cattails and willow trees, some of them several inches in diameter.

Because the creek is confined to a channel, it can't redeposit sediment elsewhere as a natural creek would. The sediment builds up year after year, and at this location trees were growing not only along the banks but in the creek bed itself, Niehaus said.

"In order to get that capacity back, you've got to get out that material, and in order to get that material out you've got to remove the trees," he said.

The agency spread hay along the affected areas for erosion control and will return next month to plant native trees on the upper banks and grasses in the creek bed, Niehaus said.

The agency tries hard to balance the sometimes-competing needs of natural wildlife habitats and flood control, Niehaus said.

In past decades, people didn't care much when the agency scraped out the channels and sprayed the walls with herbicides to keep them barren. But as awareness has increased about the need to preserve habitat for endangered species, residents often look askance at excavators in their creeks.

"Honestly, it's kind of a challenging situation," Niehaus said.

Caroline Zsambok, 68, walks regularly along the popular Brush Creek trail and was fascinated to watch the work take place. At the time it sparked a "huge neighborhood conversation" about what was going on and why, she said.

Work wrapped up in the first week of October, and Zsambok said the section of creek today "looks horrible." There are no signs of the resident mallards, egrets and herons she used to spy there on her outings.

But as she watched the huge excavator scoop the muck into waiting dump trucks, Zsambok said she realized that the creek is no longer a natural system and it needs to be actively maintained. She said she's certain by spring the landscape will recover.

"I was glad to see the work going on," she said.

Santa Rosa has spent millions of dollars over the years on creek restoration projects aimed at preserving the shade canopy vital for the cool water that juvenile fish and other creatures need to survive, especially in urban creek environments, said Rita Miller, an engineer in the city's utilities department.

The city restored Brush Creek just south of Highway 12 and Santa Rosa Creek along the Prince Memorial Greenway downtown with an eye toward improving those habitats for animals and people.

The city supports the water agency's goal of clearing vegetation that limit the channel's flood capacity while encouraging the canopy created by larger trees higher up the banks, she said.

"It's really a balancing act, and flood capacity has to be balanced with the habitat restoration," Miller said. (You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207, kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @citybeater.)