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Dig Out the Sand and Save the Fish

The breaching of the seasonal sandbar at the Pescadero Lagoon will, in theory, give the steelhead a chance to move out and into the ocean where they'll have a chance to live.

Patrick Rutten figures if everything goes according to plan, a handful of volunteers will be digging in the sand at the Pescadero Lagoon, just north of Pescadero Road, by Tuesday, Sept. 18, which could result in allowing upwards of 300 steelhead fish to live full, productive lives.

Then again, maybe it won't work, which would also be OK because it would be the first step to a better understanding of the ecosystem.

"This is a pilot project," Rutten told a group of media personnel and other interested parties on a cliff overlooking the breach site on the lagoon. "We may not do it right, but we will learn something, and we can move forward."

Rutten understands the project as well as anyone. He's the Restoration Center Southwest Region Supervisor for the Habitat Restoration Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It's his name that appears on the permits, a process that began in April and needed the cooperation of half a dozen agencies and led to 10 revisions of the project's purpose.

The breaching of the seasonal sandbar on the lagoon will, in theory, allow water from the lagoon to escape and be replaced by water rich in oxygen. The need for such action came about when studies revealed that hundreds of steelhead, along with other species, were dying due to the stagnation of the water behind the sandbar.

The natural breaching which normally occurs has been disrupted over the years by man's intervention. The current sandbar was formed over a period of 72 hours.

Steelhead is a threatened species, which requires monitoring. The proposed plan would give the steelhead a chance to move out of the lagoon, in which they develop into big, fat, strong fish, and into the ocean.

"From the 60s, the steelhead population has generally dropped by more than half," Director of the Department of Fish and Game Chuck Bonham said. "There's also the warming climate aspect and how it relates to the further fragmentation of the system."

The project primarily focuses on the steelhead and water quality, and could also lead to a better understanding how the entire lagoon system, which is designated an area of concern, works.

"It's about the whole entire habitat," said Susan Moore, Field Supervisor for the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office. "We can learn how it affects every species. The point is we're doing something and we're doing it together."

Bonham said the project's announcement serves as turning point for the future.

"In the short term it concerns the steelhead," he said. "It's also how we balance long term concerns through collaboration. This is a new moment between two state agencies and their federal counterparts. It takes all of us coming to the table."

Bonham said a Science Panel will be formed over the coming months that can help guide future projects, create a plan of action and establish steps and phases.

"Hopefully we can see how well we're moving in the right direction," Acting Director of the California State Parks Janelle Beland said.  "We can build a coalition with complex issues and work with the community."

Pescadero Lagoon is one of the largest and most unique of the lagoons on the central coast of California, where fish kills have been observed during a number of years occurring at the time of the natural breach of the sandbar.

The low tech breaching, using volunteer crews with hand shovels, figures to take about three hours and will create a channel.

"We just want the water to move, Rutten said. "We wanted to try and do something."

All of the involved agencies agree the project should move forward with the results closely monitored and evaluated to obtain information that may be useful in working towards the conservation and recovery of listed species and other aquatic life in the Pescadero marsh.

Pescadero Lagoon is a complex ecosystem, with eight special status plant species, 10 wildlife species and two creeks.

There are three federal threatened species: the Central California Coast steelhead, the California red-legged frog, and the Western snowy plover. There are two federal endangered species: the tidewater goby and the San Francisco garter snake. In addition, the Western pond turtle is the only native turtle in California and it is listed as a Species of Concern by the California Department of Fish and Game.

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