Marin County Sued in Fight Over Protecting Endangered Coho Salmon

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The Central California Coast Coho salmon population are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. (courtesy of SPAWN)

Two conservation nonprofits are suing Marin County for allegedly violating the California environmental law.

The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, or SPAWN, concerns the protection of endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout in streams in Marin's San Geronimo Valley.

SPAWN's Executive Director Todd Steiner said the county has failed to adopt a streamside conservation ordinance to preserve and protect the habitat of these fish.

"They're on the verge of extinction and meanwhile the county just continues not to take the necessary actions to give these animals a fighting chance of survival," said Steiner.

Marin's Lagunitas Creek watershed, including the San Geronimo streams, is home to one of the last remaining strongholds of coho salmon in a stretch of coastline that runs from Humboldt County to near Santa Cruz.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has identified the watershed as critical habitat for both coho and steelhead, and it's one of the areas the agency has targeted for action to prevent extinction of coho in the region.

The regional coho population has declined by more than 95% from historic levels, according to a 2012 recovery plan from the NMFS.

The coho play an important role in streamside ecosystems. Over 100 species feed on the fish, and when coho die after spawning their carcasses provide ocean-derived nutrients to both the animals and plants that live in and around creeks.

This lawsuit comes after the county's board of supervisors certified a supplemental environmental impact report in August.

The report looked into possible impacts to the San Geronimo Valley watershed from future development, like infrastructure connected to housing and roads. The report found that there would be no major impacts to fish – if several mitigation efforts were adopted. It includes a self-imposed deadline of five years to adopt a streamside conservation ordinance.

But Steiner said the report is inadequate and does not include a well thought out or timely proposal, violating the California Environmental Quality Act, a law that aims to reduce environmental impacts from development projects by requiring thorough and often time-consuming reviews.

Marin County Counsel Brian Washington said his office is reviewing the lawsuit.

"We are very disappointed that the petitioners are wasting time and resources on litigation rather than working with the county to continue to protect salmon and other natural resources in the San Geronimo Valley," Washington said.

Tom Lai, Marin County Community Development Agency assistant director, said in an emailed statement the county has spent millions on restoration projects in the valley.

"We have creek setbacks enforced on all building permits and all discretionary planning applications, as well as a native tree ordinance," said Lai. "It is not the wild, wild west as far as development regulation goes."

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The county also coordinates a creek restoration and fish passage program that removes barriers along streams that run up against road crossings. The county says 14 fish passage projects have been completed, 12 of which were in the San Geronimo Valley watershed.

SPAWN brought a similar lawsuit against the county in 2014. In that case, the group challenged the adequacy of the environmental analysis of Marin's countywide plan regarding the San Geronimo Valley watershed.

A state appeals court sided with SPAWN, and ordered the county to complete a more thorough analysis of potential impacts to fish in the watershed. The redone analysis is now the subject of the new lawsuit.

SPAWN's Steiner said Marin's coho population has continued to decline in the five years it has taken the county to conduct and process this new report. Steiner said the worry now is that the coho could die out by the time the county adopts a sufficient streamside conservation ordinance.

"These fish could blink out in a minute," Steiner said. "It's critically important that we protect this last remaining population from going extinct."