By Rebekah Staub
Sweet blades of green grass stab towards the sky as geese call out in their muddy home. Healthy fish swim easily through salty passageways that offer nutrients. Critters of all types explore and develop in a spacious wetland full of opportunistic life. This vision of a marshy paradise is the goal of Humboldt Fish Action Council’s ongoing project to restore tidal influence to the Arcata Marsh.
The project will reestablish the salt marsh ecosystem by building up levees and getting the land flooded again. Restoring the wetlands is crucial to the survival of a huge bird population, fish, salt grass and many other animals.
Former California Conservation Corps worker Larry Hand focuses his attention to working on restoration projects such as this one.
“There’s a lot of habitat loss throughout the area; especially on the coast,” Hand says. “People are building on and draining wetlands. To restore some of the wetlands is paramount to the survival of the huge population of birds that used to come in here.”
Ducks and geese aren’t the only creatures desperate for a new home. The upcoming salt marsh is a critical component to salmon because they undergo a huge psychological change as they come out of saltwater and into freshwater. Current dams make the transition abrupt and stressful.
“What we’re trying to do around Humboldt Bay is create a habitat that provides a very shallow gradient from saltwater to freshwater,” says HFAC nursery manager Susanne Isaacs.
HFAC operative Doug Kelly has been working to get channels of fish running through Arcata for a long time. In 2005 he took out a dam that was put in for city water in 1945. In 2007, he removed another culvert and replaced it with a bridge. Culverts are covered channels that cross under roads and take out water from the marsh. Last year Kelly took out a culvert once again.
“I’ve opened up 5,000 feet of habitat for fish to spawn in,” Kelly says. “They haven’t been in there since 1945.”
Another issue that salmon encounter is an invasive plant called reed canary grass. The grass grows on the bank and into the waterways where fish can’t navigate through it.
“This grass grows out and kind of chokes the channel off,” Kelly says. “We haven’t taught the fish to be able to pull it out themselves.”
Volunteer efforts have been made to eradicate the invasive species and implant native plant species. The native plants will influence the ecosystem when it comes time for expansion, and the loss of reed canary grass minimizes the effort fish have to do to live.
Contractor Paula Golitely has been on the paperwork side of the project. One of the reasons the project is taking 10 years, she says, is because they have to make sure they don’t flood any private land or the highway nearby.
“There’s a lot of work that’s been going on upstream all through these years,” Golitely says. “Hopefully when these tide gates go and this levee is breached we’re going to have a lot of habitat for fish and other critters to hang out in.”
Next year the plan is that the levee will be breached and there will be an amazing outreach of habitat for wildlife of all sorts to claim.
“We’ve just expanded their living quarters,” Hand says. “It’s a very significant project for the expansion of the Arcata sloo here.”
What was once a decimated mud land will soon become a grassy utopia for webbed feet and scaly fins alike.
“It’s a great habitat here,” Hand says. “It’s like a new condominium for the fish and also the wildlife.”