The Tragedy of Ross Common

by Gerhard Epke

For salmon and steelhead, the tragedy in Ross began in 1969-70, when Corte Madera Creek was encased in a concrete flood-control channel and a three-foot wooden wall was constructed across the upstream end, effectively blocking virtually all upstream migration of coho salmon and steelhead. A half-century later we have an opportunity to fix this problem by removing the wall and 900 linear feet of concrete channel. However, old habits die hard and trusting the US Army Corps of Engineers to finish what they started is hard for residents, and for the old-timers who witnessed this wholesale destruction of creek habitat.

Where the concrete channel stopped, in 1971, behind the Ross post office. Photo by Charles Kennard


The story of the Corps of Engineers project in this watershed goes all the way back to the 1940s, when frequent flooding prompted studies which ultimately led to the construction of Units 1, 2, and 3 in Larkspur, Kentfield and Ross in the late 1960s. The entire six-unit project was originally planned to extend upstream to Fairfax, but due to public opposition it was halted in Ross. If Friends of Corte Madera Creek Watershed had existed back then, we would certainly have been fighting the Corps and its local partner, the Marin County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, over this project. This project was built shortly before the modern environmental movement and important federal legislation such as the Clean Water Act (1972) and Endangered Species Act (1973).
Coho salmon and steelhead used to migrate upstream to spawn during the winter months in such numbers that fishing shacks were built up near San Domenico, and photos from the 1950s show kids holding big fish. In the years after the concrete channel’s construction, numbers of migrating fish have dropped off, and coho are considered extirpated from Corte Madera Creek. The reason for this is two-fold. At flows that attract spawning fish, the water velocity in the concrete channel is too fast and there are no places out of the fastmoving current where the fish can rest. In the event that they can swim up the channel, they are faced with jumping over a 3-foot wall, with no pool at the bottom to jump from.

Elmo Cozza, at his home on Dominga Avenue in Fairfax in about 1938, holds a steelhead he caught in a local creek. Fish biologist Andrew Bartshire pointed out that the fish is both large and thin, and the photo was taken in summer, all suggesting that the fish had been stranded in a pool, unable to return to the ocean after spawning. Photo courtesy of Fairfax Historical Society.


The transition from natural creek to concrete channel functions so poorly that the Corps and Flood District have reopened the project and proposed a suite of alternative configurations to achieve better flow conveyance through Ross. The Corte Madera Creek Flood Risk Management Project draft Environmental Impact Report/Study (EIR/EIS) was released in October and the comment period on the draft has closed. For the next nine months, the Corps and District will address comments received. At some point the County Board of Supervisors will hold another hearing and decide whether to certify the EIR and, separately, whether to move forward with construction.
The alternatives presented in the draft EIR/EIS contain combinations of methods to keep water from leaving the creek including channel widening, flood walls at the top of the bank, and a bypass tunnel. The configuration with the highest ratio of flood risk reduction benefits to cost, Alternative J, includes removing the wooden wall and upper 900 feet of concrete channel, widening the creek, creating a floodplain, and restoring the waterway as a more natural creek. The upstream end of the concrete channel would be moved down to the tennis courts in Allen Park. This part of the project (Phase 1) would be constructed with the state grant originally intended for the Phoenix Lake dual-use project. Friends of Corte Madera Watershed submitted a letter in support of the project and adoption of Alternative J, the one also preferred by agencies.
The fact that all these years later we are supporting the Corps project would seem to make us strange bedfellows, but at least partially addressing the fish passage barrier has been a major goal of our organization for many years. If this first step could be achieved, it would set the stage for more work downstream to benefit salmon. If salmon were able to return to Corte Madera Creek, the tragedy of Ross Common would have a happy ending years later.

Water Supply in the Corte Madera Creek Watershed

by Nicholas Salcedo

When you turn on the water, did you know it likely comes from the Lagunitas Creek watershed? Yes, it’s possible it could come from Phoenix Lake, which is in the Corte Madera Creek watershed, but Phoenix Lake is primarily a reserve supply because it costs more to pump and treat than Lagunitas Creek water from Alpine or Kent lakes.
This potable water is delivered to the Corte Madera Creek watershed via an ingenious network of reservoirs, pipes, tanks and pump stations designed and constructed by the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD), projects begun in the early 1900s and lasting largely through the 1950s. Importantly, they take advantage of gravity wherever possible. Key facilities of which you may be aware are Pine Mountain Tunnel, Concrete Pipe Road (both near Fairfax) and Ross Reservoir (the one that looks like a covered swimming pool above Phoenix Lake). These facilities are around 100 years old and at or near the end of their useful lives.
While Concrete Pipe Road has had its pipes and valves recently replaced, the Ross Reservoir is deteriorating and is threatened by a downslope landslide. Pine Mountain Tunnel, which was converted from a raw water conveyance system to treated water storage, doesn’t meet modern standards for water storage. Approximately 1 million gallons of the 3.7 mg stored in the tunnel serves Ross Valley. Treated water is pumped up to Pine Mountain Tunnel from the San Geronimo Treatment Plant, and it can also be conveyed to the tunnel by gravity flow from the Bon Tempe Treatment Plant.
The natural environment of the Corte Madera Creek watershed was considerably damaged by the construction these facilities. The main impacts were landform alterations, multiple road-related creek crossings (some bridges, but mostly culverts) and the loss of vegetation. The roads also facilitated the spread of invasive, nonnative species through the area. Persistent impacts are erosion or sedimentation from the Ross Reservoir landslide and unpaved roads, and the continued spread of invasive plants. The replacement of the Ross Reservoir and Pine Mountain Tunnel present further environmental issues.
If the people of the Corte Madera Creek watershed want clean, reliable water, then yes, we need to fix Ross Reservoir and find a solution for water storage in Pine Mountain Tunnel. MMWD has also decided that additional water storage is needed for better reliability, especially in the event of a natural disaster or prolonged power outage. MMWD, which relies on electricity to pump water uphill to holding tanks through much of Marin, is the largest user of electricity in the county. For this reason, one could argue that Pine Mountain Tunnel should be retained as a gravity-powered water conveyance facility, one that doesn’t use electricity or contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in its operation.
So, what’s the best solution? About five years ago, MMWD proposed building a new 4-mg tank at Five Corners (just off of Deer Park Road, on the ridge between Deer Park School and Phoenix Lake), and replacing the 1-mg Ross Reservoir with two new, 2-mg tanks. This would have almost doubled current storage, from 4.7 mg to 8 mg, an amount that MMWD believes is adequate for operational and emergency storage needs. However, this proposal, which would have been one of the largest infrastructure projects in the Corte Madera Creek watershed in decades, was abandoned due to environmental and logistical issues, including significant earth excavation, numerous truck trips, restricted work windows (mainly due to northern spotted owl nesting), impacts on recreation, and questions about how much storage is actually needed for operations and emergencies.

Major work is necessary at Ross Reservoir, to halt erosion and replace the storage tank. Photo by Gary Leo


MMWD is now looking at a phased approach that could begin as soon as next year: 1) construct a new bypass pipeline and fix the slide at Ross Reservoir, 2) construct 4 mg of storage at Ross Reservoir, and 3) reassess the need for additional storage and the Pine Mountain Tunnel replacement. The cost is estimated to be about 20.7 million dollars. If the reassessment determines that a total of 8 mg of water storage is necessary, this cost could double.
The construction of 4 mg of storage at the Ross Reservoir site would still be the largest infrastructure project in the area since the construction of the Bon Tempe Water Treatment Plant in the mid-1900s. This construction would still require significant earth movement, numerous truck trips, the need to work around special-status plant and animal species, and road and trail closures that would impact the public. Another 4 mg of storage, for a total of 8 mg, would only increase the severity of these impacts. The real question appears to be, how much additional storage is needed, and at what environmental and fiscal cost?
A staff report presented at the District Operations Committee’s meeting of September 21, 2018, provides a good update on the project, and is available on MMWD’s website. The next formal opportunity to comment on the project will not likely be for another year or more. It is anticipated that a scoping meeting for an Environmental Impact Report will be held in 2020. In the meantime, you can voice your opinions to the MMWD Board of Directors. Larry Bragman, Jack Gibson, and Larry Russell are directors whose divisions include portions of the Corte Madera Creek watershed. If you have questions, your Board member should be able to direct you to staff who can provide answers.
Because of its complexity, cost and potential environmental impacts, the more the people of the Corte Madera Creek watershed know about this project, and the sooner they know about the assumptions being used and the decisions being made, the more transparent and acceptable such decisions will be.

A Point in Time: The San Quentin Peninsula

by Ann Thomas

In earlier days, Corte Madera Creek was a busy shipping route serving San Francisco. San Quentin is seen at the top left. Photo by Charles Kennard


Few other place names in the Bay Area are as well-known as San Quentin, and the peninsula bearing this name has, since the settlement of Marin County, seen more than its share of land-use disputes, political scrabbles, and headlines.
The peninsula’s south side, up to the state prison, is the northeastern-most point of the Corte Madera Creek watershed. This area is largely within Larkspur city limits, with the prison and San Quentin Village in county jurisdiction. The peninsula north of the ridge is in San Rafael. Coast Miwok inhabited the peninsula prior to European settlement and the name derives from a Miwok baptized Quintino who rebelled against Mexican rule. The peninsula and much of the lower Ross Valley comprised a land grant known as Rancho Punta de Quintín which in the 1840s was deeded by Governor Juan Alvarado to one Captain Cooper to liquidate a debt. In the hurly burly Bay area of the mid19th century, land and politics were closely commingled, and in 1852 one owner of the land grant sold 20 acres to the State of California for $10,000, the site that would become a prison. The village of San Quentin grew up at its main gate.
Corte Madera Bay’s deep channel and proximity to San Francisco defined it as a major transportation hub in the early 19th century. According to the 2002 History of Corte Madera, “Whaling ships used the bay at Corte Madera as anchorage in 1846, and steam boats were loaded at Corte Madera Creek with lumber, hides, beef, produce, and fresh water for San Francisco by 1850.”

A sketch defined the 9,000acre grant made to Juan Cooper in 1840. San Quentin peninsula juts into the Bay at bottom left; Mount Tamalpais is the southern boundary or “Lindero” at the top; Corte Madera Creek crosses at a diagonal in the center.


In the 1840s two sawmills constructed at the mouth of what became Baltimore Canyon in Larkspur provided lumber for booming San Francisco. Mill employees stripped southern Marin’s hills of redwoods, milled the lumber which was then hauled to Ross Landing (near the current location of College Avenue in Kentfield). There it was loaded onto barges, and floated down Corte Madera Creek to the bay; from there it went to construction sites around the Bay. The steamship Ida carried passengers between Corte Madera Creek and San Francisco three times weekly in 1860. The mills operated for about 10 years, shutting down when they ran out of timber.
“The only means of transport to San Francisco was by water through Corte Madera Creek with a landing running out from the present site of Larkspur Station,” according to The History of Marin County, as reported in the Marin Journal in 1911. “During busy years following the discovery of gold, this was a very busy scene….”
Erosion from denuded hillsides eventually silted up the creek, making it difficult for vessels to get all the way up to Ross Landing. Jack Mason’s history of Marin described the situation thus: “With the coming of the railroad and closing of the mills, and also the brick yard, navigation was neglected. The creek was allowed to fill up with mud and silt, until now even a row boat must wait until high tide.”
The peninsula continued as an industrial center into the 20th century. The Remillard Brick Company, operating from 1891 to 1915, produced some ten million bricks, sold all along the coast. The Hutchinson Quarry, mining the Franciscan “blue rock” began operation in 1924 and its products were barged around the Bay until the late 1950s.
Largely due to the presence of the state prison, the peninsula has played a part in almost 20 Hollywood movies, including Humphrey Bogart’s Dark Passage and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry–the movie series. Dirty Harry’s many chase scenes included one through the old Hutchinson Quarry and a daredevil ride in a 1968 Ford Custom 500 along Sir Francis Drake Blvd, featuring views overlooking Francisco Bay.
Marin geologist Salem Rice observed in his 1976 guide for land-use planning in Marin that the peninsula has two contrasting topographies: steep to very steep hills and ridges underlain by ancient bedrock tens of millions of years old, and marshes along the Corte Madera Creek channel. Much of the uphill, Rice wrote, “includes mostly landslide deposits, whether presently active or not, and slopes on which there is substantial evidence of downslope creep of the surface materials. These areas should be considered naturally unstable.” Much of the low-lying land, including a portion of the site occupied by San Quentin State Prison, he identified as bay mud with “unique and severe stability problems…. Bay mud is unconsolidated, semifluid, and highly compressible.”
Environmental reports prepared for subsequent land-use projects on the peninsula have further identified wave and tidal bank erosion, Miwok burial remains, shallow groundwater under the prison, visual impacts, and increased vehicular traffic as considerations in land use planning.
Potential constraints have not discouraged development. From the mid-20th century, there has been a building boom on the peninsula, including Larkspur Landing (now Marin Country Mart), reuse of the brick kiln for a succession of restaurants, the office complex atop oak-covered Wood Island, retail uses in the flat area known as Buckelew Flats next to Wood Island, Drakes Way housing, Lincoln Properties’ 478-apartment complex, Larkspur Courts Apartments on Old Quarry Road, and the ferry terminal, built in the mid-70s across from the main peninsula.
Miwok Park, an eight-acre open space on the hill above the former brick company remains a nostalgic remnant of earlier times. The park was set aside as a condition of approval for Lincoln Properties’ development. Its major feature is the freshwater Tubb Lake, a small manmade lake that was impounded by an earthen dam to provide water for brickmaking. With the closing of the brick company, the lake in the 1920s became a popular swimming hole for local teenagers. It was the site of a pottery studio in the 1960s, and now provides habitat for a variety of bird species. It is also a popular hiking destination. The kiln is in the National Register of Historic Places.
Remillard Park, across Sir Francis Drake Blvd from the kiln and former Ross Valley Sanitary District property, has a multi-use path paralleling Sir Francis Drake Blvd, with benches and a freshwater marsh that is home for western pond turtles, and migratory and resident birds. The 30-foot statue of Sir Francis Drake at this location was donated by sculptor Dennis Patton in 1988.
There have been periodic moves to close or downsize San Quentin State Prison to free the property for other uses. Two of the most spectacular were in 1971 and in 2001-2005.
The top headline across the front page of the January 7, 1972, San Francisco Chronicle read, “Quentin to Close by 1974—Reagan Tells Other Plans.” The chairman of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, learning the news on his drive in to work that day, said “I’m delighted,” and opined his hope that the property be turned over to the University of California at Berkeley. Other interests intervened, and the prison stayed open.
A major effort to close the site took place from 2001 to 2005, complicated by state plans for a new inmate complex on the site, a feasibility study for a rail terminus, and a re-use planning process spearheaded by county supervisors. Proposals for the 275-acre site included a new town of 3,500 housing units with a 10-story apartment building. Supervisor Steve Kinsey was quoted in a 2001 Pacific Sun article suggesting that, “if we maximize the use of the 6070 acres of the prison grounds we could build a self-contained village with the population of Sausalito.”
Other forces again intervened and the prison remains. The Marin Countywide Plan now simply states “San Quentin is expected to remain a state prison for the duration of this Countywide Plan and is therefore designated as Public Facilities, reflecting its current use. No other designation or policy is established by this plan. However, should non-prison uses become feasible in the future, consideration could be given to development that is less than or equal to the energy and resource consumption and traffic-generation of the current prison use.
Bicycle travel soon begins on the Richardson Bay Bridge, and within a couple of years the Sonoma-Marin commuter train will travel daily to Larkspur Landing. So the peninsula is not through making headlines.

In earlier days, Corte Madera Creek was a busy shipping route serving San Francisco. San Quentin is seen at the top left. Photo by Charles Kennard

A sketch defined the 9,000acre grant made to Juan Cooper in 1840. San Quentin peninsula juts into the Bay at bottom left; Mount Tamalpais is the southern boundary or “Lindero” at the top; Corte Madera Creek crosses at a diagonal in the center.