Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

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On a foggy afternoon in tiny Arcata, Calif., strollers ambling through coastal marshland seem caught in the colors of an impressionist canvas. As they walk past, sandpipers and pelicans patrol the edge of Humboldt Bay. Just inland, a freshwater swamp is alive with thousands of mallard, teal and pintail ducks. Egrets and herons poke among islands of leathery bulrush. Joggers are framed against fields of daisies and Queen Anne's lace. One walker, former City Councilman Sam Pennisi, proudly points to a sewage pipe spewing dark water into the bay. "This," he tells a visitor, "is what home-rule democracy is ! all about!" Hold on, Sam. Mixing sewage and wildlife, then bragging about it in the name of democracy, doesn't sound like common sense. But Arcata (pop. 14,600), a timber and fishing town in Northern California populated by a curious mix of rural curmudgeons, refugees from suburbia, and college students, often thinks differently about things. Pennisi and his companions, Humboldt State University professor George Allen and HSU environmental engineer Robert Gearheart, are showing off an environmental vision they and others championed for more than a decade: a wildlife habitat and public park that help dispose of the city's sewage.

If the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary sounds like the Whole Earth catalog gone bonkers, listen carefully. Sewage and wetlands wildlife, like each other when the sewage is free of industrial metals, Arcata has found. Since this is the case in most small and midsize American cities, combining them is technically easy. The swamp substitutes for some of the high-cost stages of sewage treatment. But take caution from weary Arcatans: skip the politics. The city's sewage saga sounds more like Gilbert and Sullivan than John Muir's diaries.

The story began 15 years ago. California was fat with grant money from the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act, so state bureaucrats planned a regional sewage system for Arcata and two neighboring cities accused of dumping inadequately treated wastewater into Humboldt Bay. The plan envisioned a network of pipelines carrying sewage from the bay's communities to a central disposal plant. New state legislation banned pumping waste-water into bays and estuaries unless a city's effluents "enhanced" them.

But Arcatans began to worry about environmental overkill. The idea of sewer pipes running amuck through bucolic farm and forest lands frightened them. And the system's budget, a mix of federal grants and local assessments, ballooned to $56 million. Frank Klopp, Arcata's gravel-voiced public-works director, concluded that maintenance costs might force him to double the city's sewage rates. Klopp, known as "Klippity" in a city hall addicted to folksy nicknames, took himself to the mayor's office. "We really ought to get out," he growled. Gradually, others agreed. The bay's tugboat captains were worried that a submerged pipe might snag their anchors. City Councilman Dan Hauser, now a state assemblyman, feared an invasion of developers along a pipe near Highway 101. Then a citizens' committee in nearby Manila, a residential ( district near a planned pipeline, sued and stalled the project for nearly two years.

The delay gave everybody time to think. Arcata still needed an alternative disposal system that would "enhance" Humbolt Bay. Its sludge-skimming plant piped the city's wastewater into an oxidation pond (where most microbes are rendered harmless by sunlight), but the runoff no longer met legal standards. Locals knew vaguely that wastewater had some environmental pluses. Humboldt Bay oysters fed on its nutrients, and Professor Allen, a likable tinkerer whom Klippity Klopp calls Crazy George, raised salmon fingerlings in a mix of sea and wastewater. Other ideas emerged. HSU biologist Stan Harris was for a bird sanctuary. Gearheart came in as an expert on oxidation ponds.

City-hall workers naturally dubbed their new professorial task force "Fishy" (Allen), "Tweety" (Harris, the bird man) and "Blue Eyes" (Gearheart). Another nickname mattered: an abandoned dump near the oxidation pond was called Mount Trashmore. No one put it all together until Allen probed his students one day. A student "who slept all the time" raised his hand. No problem, the student said. "Just run it ((the wastewater)) around Mount Trashmore."

Allen remembers a lightning bolt. "I ran out of class to get Bob, who said, 'Oh my God!' " He recalls, "We rushed to the site, tramping around in the mud." Their solution: filter the postoxidation pond water through a man-made wetland before piping it into the bay. The process is called polishing. Algae and other potentially harmful microbes cling naturally to swamp plant roots, starting a food chain. Filter-feeding organisms in the marsh water eat them.

Good science as far as it went, but Arcata's thinkers hadn't reckoned with the State of California's political food chain. The city's neighbors still wanted the state system to solve their sewage problems. State bureaucrats believed the city's opposition to the proposed plant was naive and anti- environmentalist. In May of 1977, Arcata approached a regional meeting of the state's Water Quality Control Board and sat for seven hours until allowed to speak during an "open comments" period.

The board demanded a feasibility study of Arcata's proposal in three weeks. "That was war," recalls Gearheart. Such studies normally cost thousands of dollars and take months to produce. But three weeks later, after Gearheart wrote and volunteers made copies all night long at city hall, a Greyhound bus $ took the study away at dawn. The board promptly rejected it. Allen, Gearheart and Councilman Hauser spent nearly two years flying to regional meetings to counter further state objections while they appealed. Finally, the city, through some adroit politicking, won permission from state officials for a pilot project.

Arcata followed up immediately by coaxing California's Coastal Conservancy into constructing three full-size freshwater marsh ponds, so that a full-size wetlands would be ready by 1981, when the pilot project proved them right. And it worked. The combined marsh and disposal plant finally opened in 1985, costing $3 million less than Arcata's share of the megasystem's original budget. "We declared victory and withdrew from the war," recalls Hauser. Since wars require monuments, the sanctuary has ponds named Hauser, Allen and Gearheart. A saltwater slough where pelicans and cormorants gather is called Klopp Lake. Mount Trashmore has evolved into a wildflower-rich meadow. Standing by his pond, Allen recalls that first day he and Gearheart tramped through the mud with the idea exploding in their minds. "We flushed a deer out of that spot," he says. "It seemed like a good omen." An uncommon one, at least.