Santa Rosa settles salamander dispute

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Santa Rosa reached a settlement with a litigious local environmental group that threatened to sue over the city’s management of land that may be habitat for endangered tiger salamanders.

The city recently agreed to pay $25,000 to Sebastopol-based California River Watch, which has been pressuring government agencies for decades to comply with environmental regulations such as the federal Clean Water Act.

In this case, the group alleged the city may have violated the federal Endangered Species Act, improperly managing its agricultural properties in the Santa Rosa Plain near the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

The city denied any wrongdoing. But it agreed to settle after concluding it would likely pay more to challenge the group in court, said Mike Prinz, a deputy director of Santa Rosa Water.

He said the city has taken significant steps to avoid disrupting salamander habitat over the years.

“In a number of ways, (California tiger salamander) sensitivities are ingrained in a lot of aspects of how Santa Rosa does projects and operates,” Prinz said.

The new solar array at the Laguna Treatment Plant, for example, was constructed in the parking lot instead of an adjacent property to avoid habitat disruption, he said. Santa Rosa also has an in-house expert on the issue who’s consulted on city projects that might affect any habitat, he said.

As part of the settlement, the city agreed to limit land management practices that River Watch claimed might be harming the elusive amphibians. The city said it would limit how deeply farmers on its properties till the soil, which the city said it already was doing.

Another issue involved the use of poison to kill rodents. The city uses it in and around buildings to keep rodents from chewing on equipment wires, Prinz said. The settlement requires the city to try using nonchemical control methods outside buildings first, which he said the city already does in some cases. For example, the city installs nesting boxes for birds of prey to keep gophers in check naturally, preventing them from undermining ponds that can store millions of gallons of treated water, Prinz said.

It’s the second time in as many years that the city has settled with the group. In 2016, the city paid $70,000 to settle claims it violated the Clean Water Act on several occasions when treated wastewater and sewage leaked into local waterways.

Jack Silver, the attorney for River Watch, said it wasn’t so much that the city was demonstrably harming the salamander, but that it didn’t have clear guidelines in place to protect them.

“They have nothing in their protocols regarding protecting tiger salamanders in their critical habitat,” Silver said.

Ensuring those protections are in place is crucial because the city owns a great deal of land near known salamander habitat, much of it agricultural properties leased to farmers and that historically has been used to dispose of treated water.

Salamander populations easily can become isolated, and the recovery plan calls for restoring pathways between the seasonal pools and ponds that are their breeding grounds, Silver said.

“Santa Rosa just happens to control a lot of land that forms those corridors,” Silver said.

Under the settlement, the city also agreed to diversify the vegetation in a small area of Gravenstein Creek to improve possible amphibian habitat and give $35,000 to Sonoma Youth Ecology Corps for creek cleanup work.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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