Close to Home: Keeping streams safe and clean

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A white egret delicately dips its beak into a small puddle. A mother otter and pups dive and roll in a clear, still pool. Tiny minnows dart in the shady shallows. And all of this takes place a stone’s throw from backyards and byways. Our local creeks and streams are literal rivers of life flowing through Sonoma County communities.

Over the past two decades, most urban creeks have been reverted from straight, lifeless channels back to more naturalized streams that still provide flood protection but are now abundant with trees, grasses and wildlife. Local governments have opened the gates of formerly locked creek access roads, creating miles of linear parks enjoyed by hikers, runners and cyclists.

Despite these tremendous advances, the 150 creeks in the Russian River watershed and the critters that live in them are vulnerable. Most people don’t understand that just about anything left on a city street or sidewalk or a country road or ditch will end up in our creeks. And we mean anything — including plastic water bottles, all types of balls, Lego pieces, doll heads, lumber, cans, tires, shoes and mattresses. Just one good storm will wash tons of human debris from streets and stream banks to creeks, the Russian River and eventually the ocean. Not only is the trash ugly, but it can harm animals and create small dams that prevent fish from migrating.

Many years ago, the Russian River Watershed Association joined forces with local organizations to help prevent the trash that builds up over the spring and summer from flushing into waterways during the first big rain. This year, Creek Week takes place from Sept. 21-28, and people throughout the Russian River watershed — in both Mendocino and Sonoma counties — will be cleaning up our creeks, the river and ocean beaches. This is a great opportunity to take part in activities that connect you with your community and that make a big difference in the health of our creeks.

At last count, 10 clean-ups have been planned, from Ukiah to Jenner, plus several informational tours and nature walks are scheduled. It’s easy to participate. Just go to for a list of activities and to sign up. If you prefer to get your information through Facebook or Instagram, look for RRWA on both platforms. You will find photos of cool creek critters plus pictures of some of the more astonishing trash hauled from local waterways.

If you can’t join us in an organized activity, please take five minutes every day during Creek Week to pick up trash in your neighborhood. An abandoned plastic produce bag or a cigarette butt is simply a nuisance to a human, but if swallowed, can tragically end the life of any of the magnificent animals that live in our backyard creeks. By keeping what’s in our streets from entering our creeks, together we can improve the health of our watershed and all of creatures who live in it.

Melanie Bagby is board chair for the Russian River Watershed Association and mayor of Cloverdale.

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