A stretch of downtown river frontage that was abandoned to illegal dumping and invasive plant life for five decades soon will be unveiled to the public, transformed in a manner scarcely imagined even by those involved in its metamorphosis.
Where tons of trash once littered the ground and treetops — left there from repeated floods — new pathways, birdhouses, interpretive signs and installations beckon the curious.
Earthen ditches that once drained contaminated runoff straight into the river are gone now, replaced with carefully planned and planted bioswales and a rain garden designed to collect rainfall, filter it naturally and slow it down so it can sink underground, recharging groundwater.
Ground once covered with mounds of non-native ivy and blackberry now is covered in freshly mulched native plants, about 4,000 of them.
From the graceful redwoods that now frame the main entrance to the concrete benches that form an outdoor “classroom,” what’s now being called Riverkeeper Stewardship Park stands as a testament to hard work and volunteerism, as well as providing wildlife education and serving as a model of ecological management in a drought-prone landscape.
For Russian Riverkeeper Don McEnhill, who leads the nonprofit group behind the 10-year restoration project, it’s also evidence of his heartfelt belief “that there’s no such thing as riparian areas that are irredeemable.”
“Back in 2005, 2006, it would have been almost impossible to envision what we ended up creating,” McEnhill said on a recent tour of the new downtown landmark.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Park Manager Victoria Wikle, a Villa Grande resident, said.
The project, still guarded by a chain-link fence, is set to open by May 11, with a grand opening scheduled on June 27, McEnhill said.
Its completion is part of what some say is a bit of evolution underway in Guerneville, with several businesses, such as neighboring Johnson’s Beach, changing hands, and a renewed effort to enable the town to appeal to a broader range of clientele that it has in the past.
Town booster and public relations specialist Michael Volpatt, who also owns a Main Street restaurant and specialty food market called Big Bottom Market, said what he calls a local “renaissance” simply reflects a collective spirit toward improving and beautifying Guerneville, and that extends to its parks and watersheds.
Developing the park, said local real estate broker Herman Hernandez, “adds a very, very strong environmental feature” to some of the changes downtown.
The elongated, 5-acre property located on the north shore of the Russian River between the downtown footbridge and the crossing of Highway 116 served as a tent-cabin resort for summer tourists in the first half of the 20th century, McEnhill said.
But it’s prone to flooding during periods of high rainfall and “was wiped out” in 1955, prompting is owners to just walk away, he said, leaving little but the concrete footings for the tent cabins behind.
Over the years, the area became a collection point for unwanted appliances, mattresses and trash, and a gathering place for those with nowhere else to go, some of whom camped there for months on end, using the land at the river’s edge as both trash bin and toilet.
“Basically, 50 years of neglect” is how McEnhill sums it up, enough that the locals dubbed it Liquor Store Beach.