Sungnome Madrone: How to clean up Clam Beach

Clam Beach made the state’s dirtiest beaches report again and has been getting worse each year, according to a report by Heal the Bay. This year it is at the top of the list for polluted beaches. Luffenholtz and several other local beaches also made the list. The culprit is fecal coliform from animals and failing septic systems. So what do we do about this?

Back in 2006 the local communities surrounding Trinidad Bay began considering actions they might take to protect the water quality and aquatic productivity of the bay. At this time the City of Trinidad, the Rancheria Casino and the Humboldt State Marine Lab all received notices of water quality violations from polluted runoff entering the bay.

At this point the community had a couple choices. We could bury our heads in the sand and pay lawyers to fight the state or we could identify our problems, our solutions, and gather the resources to fix the problems. LA and other coastal communities chose the stall and fight path. The Trinidad area community chose to identify and solve our problems.

When we were at this important crossroad, the decision on what to do was not easy. Fortunately as the Director of Natural Resources Services (NRS) at Redwood Community Action Agency (RCAA) I had gained extensive experience with starting watershed councils and identifying and solving watershed problems.

For 10 years the Ford Foundation paid my wages and expenses to travel all over the United States helping communities develop watershed councils and solve problems. This process brings together stakeholders from throughout the watershed to identify and work on common problems. We recognize and respect our differences and agree to work on common goals.

I remember the first meeting to establish the Trinidad Bay Watershed Council (TBWC),when many community members attended.

Several residents from the McKinleyville area in particular said that they thought this was just another government program to dictate what folks can and cannot do. I understand those fears, but in this case it was not true.

The watershed council has no authority to dictate anything. Its greatest asset is in bringing together folks of varying interests (stakeholders) to work on solving common community problems.

That is exactly what we have done with the TBWC. In the past 10 years our community has secured over $10 million dollars in grant funds to solve our problems and clean up Trinidad Bay.

Having a stakeholder group and a watershed action plan moved our proposals to the top of the funding list, out-competing Los Angeles and many other coastal communities. These funds have helped lower-income property owners fix faulty septic systems, helped the city reduce storm water pollution from city streets, replaced the creosote piling pier, and helped reduce sediment input from dirt roads entering local water supplies and the bay.

By coming together as a community we have identified our problems and raised funds from our tax dollars to create local jobs and solve our problems. This process has also helped our residents come together with a common vision of protecting our watersheds and the bay.

Recent water quality monitoring efforts have shown that treatment of the roads has reduced turbidity and improved water quality in Luffenholtz Creek. Luffenholtz Beach has moved lower on the most-polluted beach list, although it’s still higher than anyone would like.

While there are many more septic systems to repair, progress is being made.I would recommend that a similar process be organized for the Strawberry/Patricks Creek watershed area to clean up Clam Beach and solve watershed problems. The county is working to locate the sources of pollution, but then what?

The reason for the problems is often a lack of resources for families to fix failing septic systems. We cannot regulate and enforce our way to a better future.

We can identify our problems, develop action plans to fix the problems and then raise the resources to solve our problems. The resources are there for communities that work together as stakeholders.

Cleaning up Clam Beach will help ensure that children playing in the creek as it flows to the ocean do not get sick.

Cleaning up the creeks flowing out into the ocean will help protect the clamming beds that gave Clam Beach its name and protect the fish and other aquatic species that live in the creek.

The cleanup efforts will employ local contractors and workers at living wage jobs, and cleaner creeks and beaches will help us grow our tourism economies while providing safe recreational opportunities for local residents.

It is a win-win for the economy and the environment and for local residents. We can do amazing things when we come together to solve our problems.

Stephen Sungnome Madrone is a Forestry and Watershed Management Professor at HSU, is the Executive Director of the Mattole Salmon Group and helped spearhead the completion of the Hammond Trail. He lives in the Trinidad area.


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