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Help the Laguna

What: Wings, Wine and Wetlands annual fundraiser and celebration of migration in the Laguna

When: 2 p.m.. June 24

Where: Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, 900 Sanford Road, Santa Rosa

Tickets: $125

Information: lagunafoundation.org

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.

Help the Laguna

What: Wings, Wine and Wetlands annual fundraiser and celebration of migration in the Laguna

When: 2 p.m.. June 24

Where: Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, 900 Sanford Road, Santa Rosa

Tickets: $125

Information: lagunafoundation.org

Today, the main goals of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation are restoration work, conservation science and education programs, which have reached more than 18,000 kids so far.

“I grew up here and I never knew about the Laguna,” Smith says.

Making up for lost time, her job as public education manager is to teach school kids about the often-overlooked wetlands and to hold talks, walks and workshops for the public. People learn about one of the great benefits of the wetlands: When the Russian River rises, it flows back into the Laguna, which acts as flood-plain storage, protecting down-river communities like Guerneville and Monte Rio from further flooding.

It’s also a welcome it stop for many migrating birds.

One of the latest foundation projects is to collect local acorns and reseed oaks and other native trees and plants destroyed in last year’s Tubbs fire in the Mark West area, which is part of the Laguna watershed. Other projects include the study of vernal pools and a new native-plant nursery at the foundation headquarters.

As we paddle further, we pass several dozen yards of stray drip-irrigation line, snaked in coils along the water’s edge. A thick wall of tule reeds line the bank. Until finally, the channel constricts to less than 10 yards and ludwigia swallows it whole.

“That’s about as far as we can go for now,” Smith says.

It’s easy to see why German botanist Christian Gottlieb Ludwig was less than enthralled when his friend, Carl Linnaeus, named the water primrose after him. An invasive species from South America, it’s most commonly seen in freshwater aquariums.

Every fall, the ludwigia loses its leaves. They fall to the bottom of the riverbed where bacteria breaks them down and depletes the water of oxygen, making it hard for fish to breath. When some go belly up, it adds to a now familiar stench in the Laguna every fall.

We fight to turn our kayaks around in the thick weed soup and return southward. Snowing willow seeds fly through the air, glistening in the midday sun. Swallows flutter like bats high above the Occidental Road bridge as they lunch on insects.

A few hundred yards south of the bridge, the Laguna opens to a wide stretch that was once a popular recreation area in the early 1900s known as Lake Jonive. Search the Sonoma County Library Photo Collection and you’ll see black-and-white photos of men in top hats and women in fancy bonnets, holding parasols in rowboats, sailboats and canoes. Docks along the bank were a part of the Pleasure Resort at Lake Jonive.

From our vantage point, it’s a little hard to imagine. For now, a few dozen cows from neighboring Dei Dairy shuffle along the bank. We hear a kingfisher, but never see it.

On the ride back, I ask Trowbridge how she imagines the Laguna 20 years from now.

“How cool would it be if Lake Jonive were forested on both sides by oak trees and people could come out and swim? And further down, if that were emergent marsh filtering out the water quality and providing a stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway. I feel like we’ve come a long way toward that goal since the ’70s. But it’s easy to feel like we still have so far to go.”

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