JENNER — The clearing of the waterway under Willow Creek Road and construction of the new bridge that spans it means coho and steelhead could return to this area of Sonoma Coast State Park near Jenner, which was once teeming with salmon.
Second Bridge, a short span on a lightly traveled road near Pomo Canyon Environmental Campground, was celebrated Friday by dignitaries from around the state who hailed the 10-year project as a crucial step in returning the area to its natural state.
“Restoration of this site means getting out of the way and getting out of the way means building a bridge,” said project coordinator, Lauren Hammack, a fluvial geomorphologist with Prunuske Chatham Inc. “This is one of the few true ecological restoration projects because we can get out of the way.”
Getting out of the way on Willow Creek meant a 10-year, $1 million odyssey to raise the road three feet, remove six culvert pipes and clear the creek of debris. The project is intended to avert regular flooding of the road and clear the creek for salmon to pass into prime spawning habitat.
“This opens up five miles of breeding habitat for coho and about seven miles for steelhead,” said Joe Pecharich, fisheries biologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, one of the partners on the project.
The opening of the redesigned bridge follows the release of 11,000 coho salmon into Willow Creek in October. The waterway is the largest tributary flowing into the nearby Jenner estuary.
“Hope is very much alive for salmon in the Russian River,” said Charlton Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Game.
Willow Creek flows nearly nine miles from Coleman Valley to the Jenner estuary and was once prime habitat for salmon before runoff from logging and farming - coupled with the end of dredging efforts meant to prevent flooding - filled the waterway with sediment.
Culverts intended to help water flow often became clogged with debris and sediment, flooding the area and providing major obstacles for salmon.
The non-profit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods proposed replacing the six culverts at Second Bridge with a 43-foot span under which water can freely flow.
While the watershed is mostly within Sonoma Coast State Park, the restoration project brought together a slew of agencies and non-profit groups including the stewards group, State Department of Fish and Game, state parks and the Sonoma County Water Agency.
“People can see what the land is supposed to be doing and we can't do it without partnerships,” said Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks. “This is a historic moment.”
The cost of the new bridge was about $1 million funded largely by grants, in addition to $500,000 of planning and studies of the larger area.