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Graton wetlands violated Atascadero dredging haulted by agencies; damages being weighed

by George Snyder
Sonoma West Staff Writer

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Graton – A Marin County contractor who allegedly did excavation work in an Atascadero Creek wetland without permits could face fines and potential criminal court action, according to state officials.

The work, which a wetlands activist said was done on a small year round tributary to the creek, was halted June 27 after neighbors of landowner Rob O’Brien lodged several calls to county, state and federal officials about the excavation.

“We got a number of complaints from neighbors about alleged illegal dredging on a tributary of Atascadero creek,” said John Short, a senior engineer with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Short said a water control board staffer visited the site on a 60-acre parcel purchased by O’Brien in January, as a result of the complaints, which also resulted in the dredge work being halted on June 27.

Short said the landowner would be responsible for paying for the restoration and possible enforcement action including potential fines.

Short said “The first step is for the agencies to come together to see if there is an immediate need for restoration work Š some of the neighbors are afraid that their water tables will be lowered,” Short said, adding “If there is no need for immediate work then we have more time to assess the situation for the best restoration plan and enforcement action.” O’Brien, who was not immediately available for comment, has, in published reports, said he only wanted to clear out a swale to prevent winter flooding and denied harming valuable riparian wildlife habitat along the creek.

A similar case about a mile south on Mill Station Road in 2003 cost an excavator some $1,000 in fines and a six day jail sentence after illegal tree clearing and brush cutting occurred on the creek where it crosses the road.

Officials said at least 200 feet of wetland area, which is near the West County Trail north of Occidental Road, and under the jurisdiction of federal and state laws protecting wetland wildlife habitat, had been disturbed.

“I don’t know if the creek is named, but we went out and documented illegal dredging of surface water, a violation of our own regulations and we did think it was serious. Since then we have been working with other agencies, including Fish and Game, NOAH and the county that have our concerns.”

Neighbors, who have long worked to get the wetland area along the creek preserved, said the dredging was something they had feared for some time.

“I was part of the effort of trying to get this put into open space five years ago,” said Julia Pollock, who lives nearby. “When we heard the property was going up for sale we hoped it would get the ball rolling to protect it, but although the open space district was interested the asking price from the seller was higher than they wanted to pay and so nothing happened.”

She said the property had been bought about a year and a half earlier by from the previous, long-time owner, Harrison Rued, who ran cattle on the land.

“This area and its flora and fauna are unique to this area,” said Pollock, “and if you tried to mitigate it, you couldn’t do it elsewhere. The whole riparian corridor is part of a chain, we were hoping to save it as the next jewel in the crown but it didn’t happen.”