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.