Conservation projects frequently start in one of two ways: a government agency that provides a publicly mandated service plans and carries out a project, or citizens object to a proposal for development and organize to prevent it or at least influence the outcome. In central and eastern Contra Costa County, these conservation scenarios are playing out in three current projects.
A drainage ditch turns into a lively marsh
In an example of a government agency initiating a conservation project, the Contra Costa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District (FCD) created the Lower Walnut Creek Restoration Project to resolve a long-standing dispute with the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) over flood control and habitat protection. Back in the 1960s, the two agencies joined forces to prevent flooding in the lower reaches of the creek, where new suburban housing developments had been built in the floodplain. However, USACE’s mandate to maintain an open flood-control channel conflicted with FCD’s mandate to also protect water quality and sensitive habitat after federal and state governments passed major environmental laws in the 1970s.
Eventually the two parties agreed that the only solution was to get a “divorce” so FCD could do what both parties knew was necessary to solve the drainage problem and protect habitat. Separating the two agencies’ areas of responsibility for the creek literally took an act of Congress, which Rep. Mike Thompson arranged. FCD then applied for grants to finance a major wetland restoration project for lower Walnut Creek. Environmental groups and others wrote letters of support, and there was no opposition.
After several years, FCD secured sufficient funding to begin the project’s design and then construction. FCD had to extensively reconfigure the creek channel to better connect Walnut Creek to its historic floodplain and provide habitat for the salt marsh harvest mouse, Ridgway’s and California black rails, and other protected species. John Muir Land Trust owned a piece of land in the project area and took on responsibility for creating low-impact visitor amenities including walking trails, elevated vistas, bird blinds, interpretive signs, and an educational facility. Marathon Oil donated another crucial piece of land.
In October of 2021, the day came to breach the levee and let the waters of Suisun Bay flow into the newly reconstructed marsh. FCD planned a celebration and invited staff, contractors, donors, and the press. Finally, two earth movers scooped out the last bucket of levee soil and the bay waters flowed in. It has now been six months since the levee breach; the new plants are thriving and observers are noting greater numbers of animals. John Muir Land Trust will install the visitor amenities over the next year, and the East Bay Regional Park District will connect the area to its regional trail system.
The most unusual thing about this project is it involved a marsh, a habitat type too often destroyed because its visual appeal and environmental value are not as obvious as those of some other habitat types. A marsh’s beauty is subtle, but it does contain pretty plants and interesting wildlife, it cleans toxins from the environment, and it protects against sea level rise. As a result of this project, we now have more of these benefits.
Pittsburg citizens challenge ridgeline suburban sprawl
The second conservation project in the eastern part of our chapter area is more typical: citizens challenging a proposed housing development. In this case, Discovery Builders, Inc. (owned by Albert D. Seeno III and known for its political influence) proposed a large project to build 1,650 houses in the hills between Pittsburg and Concord. The project, named Faria/Southwest Hills by the developer, would have stretched all the way from the western boundary of Pittsburg, just beyond the city limit, to the ridgeline of the surrounding hills. The top row of houses would have been clearly visible on the skyline above Concord’s new Thurgood Marshall Regional Park.
The property provides habitat for rare plants and animals, so our East Bay CNPS chapter’s Conservation Committee wrote letters, and our Conservation Analyst testified in favor of a plan that would preserve the rare plants and the park’s viewshed. The public brought up other issues, including traffic and sprawl.
When the Pittsburg City Council voted to approve the development anyway, Save Mount Diablo led the opposition. They sued on the basis that the environmental impact report (EIR) was inadequate, and they won. Discovery Builders then appealed the ruling and lost. The EIR will have to be revised, and all previous approvals for the project are now null and void. This ruling was very recent, so we don’t know what the final outcome will be; we could end up with the same project or something better or worse. What we do know is it’s a chance to try for a better result.
Antioch changes its mind about growth
Another citizens’ challenge to proposed development is the effort to save the Sand Creek area south of Antioch. Sand Creek is part of the wildlife corridor between the Central Valley and Black Diamond Mines Regional Park. Our CNPS East Bay chapter joined a coalition of citizens and environmental organizations that formed six years ago to oppose development of Sand Creek.
Our first objective was to place an initiative on the 2018 Antioch ballot to protect the area by creating a permanent urban limit line. CNPS East Bay took a more active role in this issue: our members helped gather signatures for the petition and walked precincts to build support for the ballot initiative. Antioch voters passed the initiative, but the court struck it down for procedural reasons. A second vote in 2020 was 79 percent in favor of the permanent urban limit line. Now the question is how to implement that limit and where Antioch will put its future growth. This question is being addressed through Antioch’s city planning process, and although there has been no real news since the planning process began, we continue to follow this issue closely.
What’s next? (You can help!)
We continue to take a role in projects affecting native plant habitat in Contra Costa County, but we need more help. We know we have a substantial number of members in the eastern part of our chapter area, and we know some of you belong to local organizations dealing with similar issues. If you’re already engaged, would you consider partnering with our CNPS East Bay chapter on issues of mutual concern? Or if you’re not affiliated with another organization, would you like to help CNPS East Bay? There are easy things you can do that don’t require an ongoing commitment, like following an issue, sharing local opinion with us, posting about the issue on Nextdoor or other local platforms, helping with a specific activity, etc. If you’re interested, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll let you know when something is happening. Or maybe you’ll hear about it first and write to me about it.
— Lesley Hunt, Outreach Chair, CNPS East Bay Chapter, email@example.com