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Sebastopol’s Atascadero Creek has a rich history

Atascadero Creek flows from its headwaters southwest of Sebastopol under Bodega Highway through Ragle Ranch Park and continues north to meet Green Valley Creek near Graton. One explanation for its name is that it’s a native word meaning “dirty water” or “lots of water.”

In Spanish, atascadero means “bog” or “marsh,” a place with “lots of water.” An atascadero also can be a bottleneck or stumbling block, something that impedes progress. Atascar, the verb, means “to be stuck,” and an atasco is a “traffic jam.” We use the same metaphor in English when we get “bogged down with the details,” when moving forward feels as painfully slow as slogging through mud.

It’s probably no coincidence that Atascadero Creek once watered an extensive wetland above its confluence with Green Valley Creek. That marsh captured water in the winter and released it slowly through the dry summer (which may account for how Green Valley got its name as well). Before pavement and bridges, that atascadero would have been a place to avoid on foot or horseback.

Like most wetlands in California, those along Atascadero Creek have suffered. Early maps of Sonoma County show that significant changes to our watersheds were already underway by 1875 - wetlands drained, creeks rerouted, channels dug - all done with only the power of men, shovels and sometimes horses. This trajectory has continued up to today, though the machinery has become more powerful.

Several endangered species make the Atascadero Creek watershed their home, including steelhead, freshwater shrimp and the Pitkin marsh lily (which grows in a marsh on a tributary of the main stem). Coho salmon were present in the past but have not been seen recently. In 1998, the state designated 44 acres as the Atascadero Creek Marsh Ecological Reserve. Its mix of riparian forest and seasonal and permanent wetlands draws large numbers of water birds, raptors and passerine species (also called songbirds).

Local groups like the Atascadero/Green Valley Watershed Council and the Friends of the Atascadero Wetlands are focused on protecting and restoring more of the wetlands. A study is underway that will help protect them under the County General Plan. The atascadero for which the creek is named seems to be undergoing a transformation from obstacle to opportunity. Pausing by a marsh, even along the road, is a chance to slow down and tune into what’s right in front of you. You may even forget where you were going.

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