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New Laguna de Santa Rosa trail unveiled outside Rohnert Park

A group of two dozen people on Saturday got the first official look at a multimillion-dollar restoration effort along a 1.7-mile stretch of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the broad freshwater wetland that flows into the Russian River.

A guided morning hike of the new Southern Laguna Discovery Trail outside Rohnert Park revealed a renewed ecosystem that is showing signs of recovery after decades of abuse and neglect. Steelhead trout and river otter populations are recovering, native plants and saplings are taking root and natural predators are returning.

“Check this out, it's bobcat scat,” said Kevin Monroe, executive director of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, as a group of hikers gathered around him and cheered the discovery. “Seeing a top predator in this habitat is just wonderful. We still have much further to go, but this is a sign that some health and functionality is being returned to this ecosystem.”

Spearheaded by the foundation, and the Sonoma County Water Agency, restoration efforts along the middle reach of the Laguna de Santa Rosa have been underway since 2012. Just four years ago, the waterway that flows from Cotati and past Sebastopol before spilling into the Russian River was surrounded largely by grassland. Most of the native trees and shrubs were ripped out during the early 1970s, and the meandering waterway was straightened to help prevent flooding in Rohnert Park.

Runoff from urban areas and dairy farms led to other problems, spurring an explosion of invasive plants that choked off oxygen in the waters, leading to significant declines in wildlife populations.

Some of those issues have been stemmed by conservation efforts.

“It's a big experiment, but all of the plants and animals are starting to come back,” said Wendy Trowbridge, director of restoration and conservation science programs for the foundation. “And 20 years from now, this will be like walking in a lovely forest.”

Total cost of restoration along the 1.7-mile Southern Laguna Discovery Trail is estimated at $2 million, paid for by the Water Agency, state grants and private fundraising.

“This is an incredible effort,” said Molly Lemon of Sebastopol, who hiked the newly unveiled trail for the first time Saturday. “I can't wait to come back here with my doggies.”

Santa Rosa resident Jim Tompkins, who volunteers cleaning up the Laguna, reveled in the scene as he trekked along the dirt path that winds along the waterway.

“Look at everything that's being done to revive this,” Tompkins said. “I care so much for the Laguna, so hopefully this keeps coming back.”

Signs of the Laguna's vitality were on full display Saturday during the three-hour walk. A male hummingbird flew high in the air and clicked its tail feathers as it swooped past a female perched atop a tree limb.

“He's dropping in an arc, trying to impress the lady,” Monroe said to the group.

River otters and coyotes had left their mark, while egrets, hawks and a turkey vulture were spotted. Hikers also found frog eggs in nearby vernal pools.

Trees and shrubs like coffeeberry, native blackberry and California wildrose are beginning to crowd out invasive grasses and other unwanted weeds such as Ludwigia, or water primrose, which has clogged the waterway for years.

“The whole idea of this is to help create shade and improve the water quality,” said Keenan Foster, an environmental scientist for the Water Agency in charge of restoration efforts along the Laguna. “Not only does it help the fish and wildlife, but it helps filter out pollutants and provide clean drinking water. Whatever happens here is important because it affects the whole water supply.”

A grand opening for the trail is set for April 23, including four guided hikes. The path stretches from Llano Road in Sebastopol to the intersection of Rohnert Park Expressway and Stony Point Road, where there is some trailhead parking.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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