The first thing I notice about the Laguna de Santa Rosa is the thick tangle of vegetation known as ludwigia that clusters along the banks and wraps around my leg as I plop into the kayak.
“Like Ludwig van Beethoven,” says Wendy Trowbridge, sounding out the German composer who was luckily not its namesake.
The director of restoration and conservation science programs at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation fights the water weed to launch her kayak, not long after her colleaguee, Anita Smith, escapes its leafy clutches to glide across the calm, dark water.
Before the annual Wings, Wine and Wetlands fundraiser, we decided to get out on the water and size up the challenges facing the Laguna today.
As we settle into the main Laguna channel, just north of the Occidental Road bridge and east of Sebastopol, it doesn’t take long to spot a black-crowned night heron lighting from a branch as we approach. Further along, we’ll spot a great egret stalking minnows on pencil-thin legs, followed by an osprey hovering above, several red-tailed hawks, cormorants clustered in a dead tree and several great blue herons — just a few of the more than 2,000 species of birds in the watershed.
“It’s good to get a little momentum to get through the ludwigia,” Smith says, digging in with her paddle.
The water quality is not as contaminated as it once was.
“The California Department of Fish and Game back in the ’70s, declared the Laguna completely devoid of life,” Trowbridge says.
More than 100 years of raw sewage pollution and decades of phosphorous settling into the sediments took its toll. In the ’60s, farmers and politicians convinced the Water Agency to dredge from Sebastopol to the confluence of the Russian River so they could grow crops. By the ’70s, inspired by the nationwide environmental awakening, activists tried to reverse the damage, but it’s been a long haul ever since.
“When you work in this profession, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in how bad thing are now,” Trowbridge says. “But you have to remind yourself it used to be a whole lot worse. There are fish and otters and herons and all kinds of wildlife now.”
The Laguna’s massive 254-square-mile watershed stretches from Taylor Mountain and Hood Mountain in the east, as far north as Windsor, with Cotati to the south and the Russian River to the west. Main tributaries include Mark West, Santa Rosa and Copeland creeks.
The wetlands were once a thriving resource for the Pomos. In the summer, seasonal camps and villages would surround the Laguna. At the Laguna Foundation learning center, a quote from Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria tribal chairman Greg Sarris sums up how vital it was to their way of life: “All people were associated with and ultimately dependent upon one another because of the water, the center of which was the Laguna itself.”
Now, from an aerial view, you can see how drastically the main waterway has been altered over the years through channelization and farming irrigation, its path making sharp unnatural right-angle turns. In the past, it was prime fish habitat for cold-water species such as steelhead and salmon, but now it’s home to many invasive warm-water fish like carp and sunfish. Widely trapped in the 1800s, beavers have been spotted again. Once there were elk and pronghorn, but no more.