January 20, 2017

Marin Supervisors pass toothless streamside ordinance–will our salmon survive politics?

Spawning salmon. Photo by Todd Steiner.

Spawning salmon. Photo by Todd Steiner.

On Oct. 29 the Marin County Board of Supervisors passed an interim 29-month “Stream Conservation Area Ordinance” that does little to protect the three iconic species of salmonids that struggle to survive in our streams.

Their hope is that after this period, the supervisors will have enough information and community input to inform and codify a permanent countywide ordinance.

Because of potential conflicts of interest, only three of the five supervisors were allowed to vote. Supervisors Susan Adams, Kathrin Sears, and Judy Arnold all voted in favor of the ordinance. Supervisor Kinsey,  who had taken the lead promoting it, and Supervisor Katie Rice were disqualified from voting by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which cited economic conflicts of interest because they own homes near creeks.

Because of a 2011 lawsuit brought by the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) against Marin County, the court issued an injunction placing the unincorporated areas of the County in San Geronimo Valley under a development moratorium until the County adopted a streamside ordinance as required by the 2007 Marin Countywide Plan. However, the ordinance’s protections for salmon are weaker than those in the Countywide Plan, despite Endangered Species Act listings. Further, the ordinance contains a “poison pill” provision that stipulates it will be nullified by any legal challenge, and one environmentalist testified on Oct. 29 that if the ordinance was passed with the poison pill, he would file a lawsuit before the ordinance goes into effect.

The Sierra Club will consider possible legal actions in support of other groups. If a lawsuit is filed, there is some uncertainty whether the moratorium will remain in effect, but ultimately it will be up to the courts.

Other communities, such as Santa Cruz County, have had strong stream and sensitive-habitat protection ordinances for over 30 years.

A letter signed by 140 scientific experts recommended a setback of 100 feet for all streamside development. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Central Coast Coho Recovery Plan 2012 states that “urban development” is the number-one threat to coho in Marin’s Lagunitas watershed. The Sierra Club and 29 other environmental organizations signed a letter and took out a full-page ad in the Marin Independent Journal in support of the scientist’s recommendations and opposing the ordinance.

The details of the ordinance are complex, but we fear that it will lead to diminished habitat and degradation of water quality for all aquatic species. The ordinance fails to implement a core principal of the Countywide Plan: that development near streams should be avoided whenever possible. It does not require mitigation for smaller projects, and thus will result in a net loss of critical habitat and in cumulative impacts throughout our watersheds. Its plethora of exceptions will allow sheds, impermeable patios, paths, structures, pesticides and herbicides, and home-remodeling in the stream conservation areas. The ordinance is inconsistent with the Countywide Plan’s calls for “no net loss of riparian acreage” and for a “watershed approach” to planning that considers the connections of streams throughout the system and the impact of development on the entire system. The science-based recommendation for 100-foot setbacks from all streams is ignored.

Why is protection needed now?

The federal government lists coho as endangered and steelhead as threatened. Chinook are not listed. Once in most of the eastside Bay-flowing streams, coho are now extirpated from those streams. They are only in a handful of Marin’s ocean-flowing streams. The Lagunitas Creek watershed is one of the last strongholds for coho in California. Steelhead are still in many streams, and chinook are occasionally found in some of the larger stream channels, but all Marin salmonids are down to only 5 – 10% of historic populations.

NMFS warns of an “extinction spiral” with too few salmon left for the species to remain viable, leading to extirpation in our area. These fish are keystone species that many other species rely on for their survival. Salmon fishing was once a mainstay of northern California’s economy.


Contact the Marin County Board of Supervisors at:

3501 Civic Center Dr.
San Rafael, CA 94903

Tell them to create stronger protections for streams and fish, based on the scientists’ recommendation, by creating a “Sensitive Habitat” ordinance quickly.

You can send an automated e-mail to the Board at www.savemarinsalmon.org.

To keep updated on the county’s process, see www.co.marin.ca.us/depts/CD/main/comdev/advance/SCA.cfm.

To see salmon spawning in Lagunitas Creek, go on the Muir Woods salmon search 2B hike on Sat., Jan. 11 (see Chapter Calendar).

Laura Chariton, Executive Committee, Sierra Club Marin Group


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