WINTERS — Choked by brambles and filled with silt, Putah Creek was more dead than alive as it eased its way past the Winters pedestrian bridge.
The creek — more the size of a river — carried more water than it was meant to carry, due to man-made dams and gravel mining. At the end of summer, it was more than 60 feet wide and 8 to 12 feet deep. The slow-moving vast waterway held in heat, which was not conductive to native fish, which thrive in faster-moving cool water.
Now, less than three months later, Putah Creek is not only the right size but it is also a healthy, cool and fast-moving body of water.
“I’m really excited,” said Libby Earthman, the executive director of the nonprofit Putah Creek Council. “Now, it can act like a creek. Before, it acted like a really big pool.”
Rich Marovich, the streamkeeper for the Lower Putah Creek Coordinating Committee, added: “It’s really what we hoped for, but it’s another thing to see it after it settles in for a couple of winters.
“Right now, it’s a bit too uniform. Creeks are self-forming, we’ve reinforced some areas of the creek, but we’ve minimized where so it can scour its own path.”
For the past three months, Marovich and Earthman have overseen professionals operating heavy machinery and local volunteers wielding small hand tools as they transformed the once overgrown banks into an inviting greenbelt area.
Gone are the invasive non-native plants, gone is the Perc Dam and gone are the dangerous routes to the water’s edge. Instead, there is an easy-access path next to the pedestrian bridge on the Yolo County side; the Solano County side has a “rabbit” trail. There also are 630 freshly planted native saplings and new swimming holes to be discovered.
Under the bridges, Putah Creek looks like a shadow of its former self. Running now at about 15 feet wide, the creek meanders through the freshly graded river bottom. A proper flood-plain area has been added, for those years when winter storms and runoffs are bigger than normal.
“Putah Creek flows don’t vary a lot,” Marovich said. “But there is also the potential for high flows when the Glory Hole at (Lake) Berryessa spills. This flood plain gives the creek the capacity to handle high flows.”
The area near and around the Perc Dam shows a great deal of change. Just how much has the water level dropped? A rope swing, which before the channel corrections probably would have been inches from the water, is about 20 yards from Putah Creek.
“All this before was just straight,” said Marovich, who wrote much of the grant that gave $400,000 to the project. “I didn’t have a flow. That’s important because of the native fish.”
There were three goals for the realignment project, and Earthman said they met them.
“We wanted to increase dissolved oxygen (which is how fish breathe), reduce the temperature and increase the riparian area,” she said. “It’s important to know that this project was never intended to roll back the clock.
“The creek had been manipulated for a long time. Now, with conditions and the way the land is used and the water flows, we can maximize the benefits to humans and wildlife.”
While the channel was being diverted, Earthman and Marovich helped with a project to rescue fish. They were excited to find trout, which are typically found upstream but rarely in the Winters area because of the warmer waters.
They also found lamprey, which were rumored to be in the river but hadn’t been seen. During the rescue, Earthman said they spotted hundreds.
“It was very exciting,” she said.
She has also seen more people in the area, including a couple who were picking up trash.
“We’ve engaged the community a lot,” Earthman said. “It’s a big deal to have this in your back yard.”
— Reach Kim Orendor at [email protected]