Shortly after Jenny Blaker and her husband moved to Cotati in 1996 they were approached by the city with a request to acquire a creek- bordered strip of land behind their house so that an existing bike trail might be extended. The couple agreed.
Upon completion, Blaker was pleased with the trail, but not with how the project left the creek. “Bulldozed, bare of vegetation,” she described it.
Gathering together a few friends and neighbors, they approached the city and the Sonoma County Water Agency for permission to plant native species along the creek’s edges.
At the same time, Blaker began to be curious about the creek itself, which she describes as looking more like a ditch than a wandering waterway. Where did the seasonal water running through it originate, and where was it going?
Research and maps revealed that the creek’s flow began southeast of town, made its way through a 3-mile stretch of the city and continued northwest through a series of confluences to end up in the magnificent wetlands mosaic that embraces the eastern edge of Sebastopol — the Laguna de Santa Rosa. And then the heady news. Much to Blaker’s surprise, because of its location in the southeastern extremity of the Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed, Cotati’s watershed is in fact the acknowledged headwaters of the Laguna.
Meanwhile, with permission granted, Blaker’s small gathering of friends and neighbors set about improving the stretch behind her house with the goal of turning it into a more natural looking creek area.
So began the Cotati Creek Critters, a loose-knit assembly of friends and neighbors guided by Blaker, Maria Alvarez and others, in association with Cotati’s Community and Environment Commission. In the years to come the Critters grew from a half-dozen or so people showing up for twice-a–month “stewardship” days to as many as 60 pruning, mulching, planting, weeding, removing invasive species and collecting trash along the path-bordered creek.
In 2005, a $169,000 grant from the California Department of Water Resources provided a major boost to the organization. And subsequent grants from the Sonoma County Water Agency, among others, extended the Critters’ coffers to ultimately finish the project in 2012.
Blaker’s interest in the creek led her to a “Historical Geography” class at Sonoma State University where students were asked to prepare a paper on the history of a place as far back as they could go in time, and linking to the present day. Blaker chose the Cotati section of the Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed.
She learned about the Coast Miwoks who lived along the watershed’s habitat-rich, meandering channels for thousands of years. She read of times more recent, in the 1950s and ’60s, when there was sufficient water in the creek for kids to jump off ropes and splash about; a time when crawdads were abundant, turtles were seen all the time and fish made their way upstream.
Creating a corridor
There was never a thought that the creek could be returned to what used to be. As towns and neighborhoods had grown through the years, large portions were engineered, straightened, run underground. What the Critters could do, however, was make the most of what remained: Create a verdant corridor of habitat for birds, pond turtles, frogs, beneficial insects and other creatures; improve the creek’s water retention and quality; create a verdant greenway for bicyclists and walkers; and hopefully raise community awareness about the importance of caring for Cotati’s creeks and riparian areas.
At the end of 2012, funding from Sonoma County Water Agency came to an end. Responsibility for maintenance of portions of the project were transferred to the Agency and the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation. The Critters hung up their trowels and shovels and disbanded.
A 3-mile “headwaters” loop strolls a long section undertaken by the Cotati Creek Critters’ stewardship efforts. Along the way, the route introduces walkers to nooks and crannies of charmingly quirky, energetically forward-thinking Cotati, Sonoma County’s smallest incorporated city
Begin at the corner of downtown Cotati’s La Plaza Park with a visit to the bronze likeness of accordionist Joe Boggio, self-proclaimed “King of the Stomach Steinway” and a founder of the city’s annual mid- August Accordion Festival.
Cross the street toward the sculpture of the mythical Indian chief Kota’ti, centerpiece of a demonstration native-plant garden and a reminder that the Miwok Indian Kota’ti tribe once called this area home.
Now cross Redwood Highway toward the flagpole and the massive sculpted head of the goddess Athena — step inside and take a peek at the world through her eyes. A nearby plaque identifies the plaza as Historical Landmark 879, so listed because of the city’s 1890-designed hexagonal layout with La Plaza as its hub. Two such planned cities exist in the United States; the other is Detroit.
Walk south on Redwood Highway past sidewalk cafes and the venerable 8 Ball Bar to cross a bridge. A sign on its southern side identifies the waterway below as Cotati Creek. Look down to see the creek’s paved sides and bottom for an illustration of the 1950s–era approach to dealing with storm water — “pave it, pipe it, get it out of town fast.”
Turn left to follow a shady, paved path that edges Frogsong Cohousing Community. A neighborhood of 30 individually owned houses, Frogsong is one of approximately 165 such communities in the country designed to share resources and services. Feel free to peer through the gates and over fences into Frogsong’s verdant landscape based on sustainable water usage.
Continue on the path, now bordered by a rail fence, to pass a protected wetlands area of vernal pools based on today’s “slow it, spread it, let it sink in” approach to dealing with rainwater.
Follow the rail fence to a pedestrian/bicycle bridge crossing the creek. Over the bridge, you’ll find the first of three interpretive signs encountered on the walk.
Continue along the path, crossing Benson Lane. A path to the left leads to a small park. Once an irrigated lawn, it is now a City of Cotati and Daily Acts collaboration demonstrating the replacement of thirsty grass with edible landscapes.
Return to the creek path and continue to Lady Bug Park. Here, the bike/walking path stops. But you can continue on.
Entering the park, cross the deep, grassy swale ahead, noting that it can be slushy after a rain. If not prepared for a slosh, swing left on higher ground toward the school and then head back right on higher ground toward the tennis courts. Walk straight past a pond-like area of willows and stands of trees to regain the creek and an unpaved path.
Turn left, following the creek until it disappears into an underground culvert at Liman Way. Before reaching the street, cross over and turn to follow a narrow path heading back on the opposite side of the creek. After a short distance, turn left on a paved walkway between houses and emerge on Myrtle Avenue.
Cross over and follow a mulched path edging an open field that comes to an end at Lydia Commons Mini-Park. Here you’ll find a picnic table, drinkable water and a community garden.
Take time to enjoy the pastoral view. A swale running through the field marks the course of the waterway before it was maneuvered into culverts and sent underground.
For most walkers, this suffices as finding the true Cotati headwaters of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. For others, continue south through the park to Willow Avenue and take it to its intersection with Railroad Avenue. This point marks the southeastern extremity of the watershed. From here, water flows northwest to the main Laguna floodplain and south toward the Petaluma River.
Follow the path at the edge of the Lydia Commons field back to Myrtle Avenue and turn left, passing Helen Putnam Park. Turn right on Park Avenue. From here, take a shady path north through Veteran’s Park and continue north on Old Redwood Highway to your La Plaza starting point.
Hike the laguna
A guided walk of the area sponsored by the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation is scheduled for spring 2018.
When: April 8
Details: Participants can explore the upper reach of the Laguna de Santa Rosa from downtown Cotati to the historic headwaters on a gentle, level, (but not wheelchair accessible) 3-mile loop walk. A number of local experts, including Jenny Blaker, will share their knowledge and insights of the natural and cultural history of the area.
Information: LagunaFoundation.org and click on “Outings and Events.”
Yvonne Horn is a freelance writer, who writes about travel and gardening. You can reach her at her website, TheTravelingGardener.com.