Fueled by winter storms, the Laguna de Santa Rosa has swelled to its greatest potential as an outdoor getaway in more than a decade, inviting exploration from the water, along trails or by simply pulling over to admire fields blooming in yellow mustard.
Water gushing into the wetlands, which stretch from Cotati to the Russian River in Forestville, has dramatically expanded the Laguna’s boundaries, temporarily opening reaches of the waterway that are rarely accessible by canoe or kayak.
Boaters may never realize they are paddling over a blueberry farm or barbed wire fences separating private property. Tangled mats of Ludwigia, an invasive aquatic plant, aren’t as much of a concern when drowned in several feet of water.
“What’s great about the Laguna for new kayakers is that the water is relatively calm,” said Maggie Hart, outreach coordinator for the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.
Not since the winter of 2005-06 has the Laguna appeared in such a remarkable state, foundation officials say. The 22-mile channel is the largest tributary to the Russian River, draining a 254-square-mile watershed encompassing nearly the entire Santa Rosa Plain.
“It’s so lush,” said Kami Relyea of Sebastopol as she wrapped up a hike with her two children recently along the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail, which is maintained by Sonoma County Regional Parks.
The 2.4-mile trail runs north-south between Highway 12 and Occidental Road along the east side of the Laguna channel. Parking is available at either end. Be forewarned, however, that point-to-point trail access can be cut off this time of year due to high water.
More than 30 creeks and streams feed into the Laguna, according to Laguna Foundation officials, who say all that water is a boon from a biological perspective. This season’s storms in particular are doing wonders for nutrient and plant growth, and for improving water quality. Waterfowl luxuriate in the conditions, including some species not seen for years.
The Laguna Foundation offers a number of classes and guided outings for people to learn more about the area’s biological significance. That includes a March 9 presentation on birds of prey and a March 24 workshop on tiger salamanders and rare pond species. More information is available at lagunafoundation.org.
The Laguna also is crucial for flood-control along the Russian River, as the wetlands are a natural holding basin for the river during floods. This winter, rains have swelled the river to such heights that water has back-flowed into the Laguna, effectively turning it into a lake.
“Better to flood farmlands than downtown Guerneville,” said Kevin Munroe, the Laguna Foundation’s executive director.
However, experiencing the Laguna by kayak or canoe requires timing and common sense, officials say, as conditions change rapidly as a result of the weather. The good news, at least for boaters, is that storms forecast for this week and next should push water levels high enough to get in some quality paddle-time — once the worst of the weather blows past.
Boating conditions are best when water levels in the Laguna reach 60 feet or above as measured by the Sebastopol gauge monitored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to Wendy Trowbridge, director of Restoration and Conservation Science Programs for the Laguna Foundation.
“The higher the better,” she said. “Below 60 feet is not as fun.”