If you are looking for an example of why creeks are important, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than the 82-acre Morrissey Ranch between Los Osos and Morro Bay.
The property off Turri Road is crisscrossed by three creeks: the Los Osos, Turri Road and Warden creeks. It is a habitat for a host of rare and endangered plants and animals and is a crucial component in the effort to stem the flow of sediment into the Morro Bay National Estuary.
As various agencies observe Creek Day on Sept. 26, they will be celebrating successes like the recent conservation of Morrissey Ranch and acknowledging the crucial role creeks play in San Luis Obispo's ecosystem.
The main feature of Creek Day is cleanups along seven creeks throughout the county. Not only do these cleanups protect the creeks and their natural environments, they also remove trash before winter rains wash it into the ocean.
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Past cleanups have shown that plastic litter — such as food wrappers, beverage containers and cigarette butts — make up 60 to 80 percent of the debris collected. If such items wind up in the ocean, they threaten water quality, public safety and aquatic ecosystems, because ingestion of these materials by marine animals can cause malnutrition, starvation and even death. Large items — such as ironing boards, tires and mattresses — are also removed.
“While the overall amount of trash removed from our local watershed is declining, we are still seeing a lot of illegal dumping and littering,” said Teresa Tibstra with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County. “It’s disheartening to see such big items being pulled from creeks.”
In January, the Coastal San Luis Resource Conservation District received final approval to purchase Morrissey Ranch and restore it as a wildlife habitat and to catch sediment before it reaches the estuary.
The property was purchased for $646,500 using a combination of grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Coastal Conservancy. Acquiring the project was considered a high priority by multiple government agencies as well as the Resource Conservation District.
Most of the property is wetlands that are a tangle of willow trees, perfect for slowing down the creek flows and allowing sediment to drop out before it reaches the bay. Sedimentation is a top environmental threat facing the Morro Bay estuary because it gradually fills the bay and smothers eelgrass and other ecosystems vital to wildlife.
Adrienne Harris, director of the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, said she was excited to learn that Morrissey Ranch had been conserved. It will be much easier to do restoration work on the property with the Resource Conservation District owning it.
She described a property like Morrissey Ranch as a filter that removes sediment and pollution before it reaches Morro Bay. The ranch could play an important filtration role this winter.
A powerful El Niño weather system is developing in the Pacific Ocean and could bring heavy rains to the Central Coast during the winter. Considerable amounts of sediment were deposited on Morrissey Ranch during the last powerful El Niño event in 1997-98.
“The health of the bay is very much determined by what drains into it,” Harris said. “The activities around those creeks affect how healthy they are, and wetlands are great natural filters.”
Restoration work ahead
The ranch is a habitat for steelhead trout, tidewater gobies and California red-legged frogs. It will also be managed to maximize its value as a habitat for Morro shoulderband snails and the Morro manzanita. All of these species are listed as either threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
One of the first goals of the conservation district will be to remove a dirt road that runs through part of the property. The road cuts across Los Osos Creek and adds considerable sediment to Warden Creek.
It also forms a dam that blocks the natural flow of the creek. If this impediment is removed, creek flows will be extended longer into the summer and this will improve the wildlife habitat on the property, said Neil Havlik, president of the conservation district’s board of directors.
“It makes sense to me that if you improve stream flows, you will benefit wildlife,” he said.
Other restoration work will include reshaping the creek banks so the topography of the property serves as a floodplain and sediment catch basin. Some of the willows could also be removed and replaced with cottonwood, dogwood and other native trees to increase biodiversity.
“The willows serve as good wildlife habitat, but it would be better if the property wasn’t so much of a monoculture,” Havlik said.
Over the years, the property has been used as farm and dairy land. It has an extremely dilapidated house, barn and shed, as well as rusting car bodies and farm equipment, which will likely be removed. A variety of invasive plants will also be removed such as pampas grass, cape ivy and arundo donax, which is an invasive cane plant.
Havlik estimates that it will take about eight months to prepare a restoration plan for the property. However, it is unknown how long it will take to complete the restoration work. That will depend on how much work needs to be done and how long it will take to get grants to carry it out.
Because the ranch is managed for habitat restoration, it is not open to the public.
CREEK DAY 2015
Volunteers are needed for Creek Day 2015 and are asked to check in at the following locations at 9 a.m. SATURDAY, Sept. 26
Larry Moore Park, Riverbank Lane, Paso Robles. 227-7241
206 Fifth St., Templeton. 434-4914
Atascadero City Hall parking lot. 464-5347
Cal Poly’s Dexter Lawn. 756-5347
San Luis Obispo’s Santa Rosa Park. 781-7511
W. Tefft and Carillo Sts. Nipomo. 781-5259
SUNDAY, Sept. 27 229
Stanley Ave. Arroyo Grande. 473-5420