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HMB Review Nov 17, 2010

State sued over Pescadero Marsh

South Coast group files suit over species decline

By Mark Noack [ ]
Nov 17, 2010

A South Coast nonprofit has filed a lawsuit last week seeking to force various state agencies to take action to protect endangered species and fish populations at the Pescadero Marsh Nature Preserve.

Filed by the new nonprofit Coastal Alliance for Species Enhancement, the civil suit blames the California Department of State Parks and other government agencies and officials for creating and then ignoring lethal conditions for endangered species in the 400 acres of wetlands.

The plaintiffs, a coalition of fishermen and scientists, say decades of minor alterations made by State Parks had the unintended consequence of warping the ecology of the Pescadero marshes. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say State Parks officials have been well aware of toxic conditions at the marsh for years, but the agency has neglected to take action to save the endangered species.

“If you or I owned this property, we’d definitely be in jail. There are endangered species here that are in peril,” said Ronda Azevado Lucas, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “We were ignored, and that’s why we’re in court. We had no other options.”

The plaintiffs point to droves of steelhead trout that are killed each year around late November when the ocean tides breach the wetlands. The annual “fish kill” has occurred each year at the marsh since 1995, reducing the trout population from as many as 25,000 in 1986 to about 750 in 2008, according to studies conducted by San Jose State University Prof. Jerry Smith.

Dead fish spotted washing up onto the lagoon shores are a bellwether for larger habitat problems, according to the plaintiffs. The new lawsuit argues that degradation of the marshes has hurt several endangered species including the red-legged frog, San Francisco garter snake and tidewater goby.

In the fall months, decomposing vegetation and the water column’s salty, sulfuric underlayers use up all the oxygen in the water, which essentially suffocates the aquatic ecosystem. The salty, sulfurous layers typically remain on the bottom of the marsh ponds, and aquatic species are able to veer away from low-oxygen areas. But in late fall, when the ocean waves burst through the sandbars, the currents stir up toxic layers in the lagoons and quickly make the water lethal.

“When the sandbar is popped with the first storm that comes, you stir up the bottom material,” said Smith, who has studied the Pescadero Marsh since 1984. “It’s like Camus’ ‘Myth of Sisyphus.’ This has been going on for years.”

The source of the problem, Smith said, is a culverts and levy system installed by State Parks in the mid-1990s. The levies were supposed to allow park stewards to limit the water levels to control the saltwater entering the habitat, but the system has fallen into neglect. Years of saltwater rust have corroded holes throughout the culverts, leaving them open for saltwater to rush in.

The infrastructure also causes a sandbar at Pescadero Beach to remain for months longer than previous years, throwing off the regular cycle of marsh lagoons.

Prodded by the public, State Parks officials began investigating the problem, but never finished the study, ending it prematurely last year when bond funding was frozen. State officials indicated they would not take action to prevent the species decline until they fully analyzed the marsh environment.

Plaintiffs in the new suit say that the time for that study is long overdue and irrelevant at this point.

“To say we need more studies would have been legitimate in 1994 or 1995,” Lucas said. “We need to take the best available scientific data and take action.”

Lawyers for the plaintiff filed an unsuccessful court injunction on Friday, requesting a San Mateo County Superior Court judge to compel State Parks officials to immediately begin taking steps to prevent a fish kill this year. That injunction was denied, due to a lack of specifics as to what steps State Parks should take.

Copyright © 2010 Half Moon Bay Review


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Heron and other predatory birds were seen feeding on the shorelines.

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