Winters in uproar over Putah Creek beavers, otters

A beaver swims in Putah Creek. Nature lovers are alarmed that local officials plan on scaring off beavers and otters to finish a rehab project.
A beaver swims in Putah Creek. Nature lovers are alarmed that local officials plan on scaring off beavers and otters to finish a rehab project. Andrew Seng

In this sleepy, orchard-ringed commuter town, a former newspaper reporter wondered aloud last week whether she ought to chain herself to a bulldozer.

The source of her and others’ unlikely, new-found activism? A languid 1,000-foot stretch of Putah Creek and a group of beavers and river otters living inside a wide, deep pool.

Some Winters wildlife lovers are pushing back against the last phase of a city stream rehabilitation project that will shoo the aquatic mammals away.

The project’s managers insist that disrupting the beavers’ and otters’ lives is a short-term necessity to finish a nearly $5 million creek restoration and trail project. They say that after it’s complete, the habitat will be better for the beavers, otters and many other species. That includes imperiled Chinook salmon that only recently started spawning in downtown Winters, a city of 6,600 people 45 minutes west of Sacramento.

Work was slated to start on Monday, but late last week, project managers announced they were going to hold off for at least a month, allowing time to consult with biologists “out of abundance of caution for wildlife,” said Rich Marovich, the Putah Creek streamkeeper for the Solano County Water Agency.

“None of this is legally required,” Marovich said Friday. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Carol Brydolf was relieved. On Thursday, the former reporter had discussed with a fellow activist whether she had the fortitude to chain herself to a bulldozer to stop the project. She said Friday that the project’s managers were finally listening to their concerns.

“They really, really blew us off,” she said.

The upheaval over the beavers and otters has spilled over into public meetings, newspaper letters to the editor, social media accounts and an online petition. City Manager John Donlevy Jr. said he is exhausted by the acrimony.

Donlevy said project managers have performed detailed scientific assessments and have gotten input from every stakeholder group, including the animal lovers. The beavers and otters won’t be harmed, he said. They just have to move somewhere else for a little while.

“The reason why they’re there is because of the success we’ve had on other portions of the creek,” he said.

Made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival in the song “Green River,” for decades Putah Creek was far from an ideal habitat.

In the 1870s, settlers changed its course to keep it from flooding downstream Davis. Later, levee builders turned it into a glorified drainage ditch. In the 1950s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation blocked it entirely with the Monticello Dam that formed Lake Berryessa.

Below the dam, the stretch that runs through Winters used to be mined for gravel. Sewage ponds sat nearby.

A 2000 settlement agreement ensured that Lower Putah Creek stayed a year-round, cold-water stream.

In 2006, the city and its project partner, the Solano County Water Agency, began the first of four phases of rehabbing the creek through the city’s 30-acre Putah Creek Nature Park.

A dam was removed, in-stream gravel pits were filled and the channel was narrowed. The waterway was straightened to increase its speed and make it cooler, both of which are better for salmon and rainbow trout.

Last year, a record 200 Chinook were counted in the creek.

Marovich, Putah Creek’s streamkeeper, has no doubt the park restoration played a critical role bringing salmon back. He says narrowing and adding gravel to create shallow riffles in the last 1,000-foot stretch will create even more spawning areas.

Some opponents, including Tim Caro, a Winters resident and UC Davis wildlife biologist, are skeptical.

Caro said it’s such a small section of the stream that the benefits to salmon likely will be negligible and not worth depriving residents of a fascinating window into the natural world from their neighborhood nature trail.

“Schoolkids in the city of Winters could learn about biology by seeing these charismatic mammals,” he said.

For the time being, they still can. At least for another month.

Ryan Sabalow: (916) 321-1264, @ryansabalow