Miracle at Adobe Creek
by Malcolm McConnell
Reprinted with the permission of Reader’s Digest Magazine
“Littered and dying, the trout stream was a casualty of modern life. Then a teacher and his students decided to change things.”
As a teenager in Petaluma, Calif., Tom Furrer used to wander a brushy, meandering stream called Adobe Creek through the farms and into the foothills of Sonoma Mountain. But farms had given way to suburban homes, and now, on a hot September morning, the 26-year-old hiked along a denuded creek bed. The creek was almost dry, littered by the hulks of refrigerators, washing machines and box springs.
Furrer had hoped that his high school science class would enjoy a field trip to observe the delicate web of life in a healthy stream. Not much chance of that, he realized watching mosquitoes fly above oily water trapped in an abandoned tire.
Rounding a bend, Furrer was surprised. In a cool bower shaded by willows, Charlie Malnati, a retired feed-mill worker, stood knee-deep in an isolated pool, a bucket in one hand, a dip net in the other.
“How’d these trees survive?” Furrer asked.
“I planted them years back to prevent erosion,” Malnati said. “The shade keeps the fish holes cool.”
“Fish?” Furrer asked.
“They’re baby steelheads,” Malnati replied, explaining that the silvery fingerlings were survivors of that spring’s meager steelhead trout hatch.
Their seagoing parents had followed their ancient instinct under the Golden Gate Bridge, across San Pablo Bay, then up the Petaluma River to spawn when Adobe Creek was at its highest during the winter rains. Stranded in these shrinking pools, the little fish would die before the next rains unless Malnati rescued them. For years the diversion dam upstream had reduced the creek to a muddy trickle in the dry summer months.
Studying the shade-dappled water as the fish darted between Malnati’s boots, the germ of an idea formed in Furrer’s mind: if one man could restore this small patch of creek, what about it’s entire six mile length? It was an improbable notion. Furrer had just begun teaching at Petaluma’s Casa Grande High School. The teenagers in this suburb north of San Francisco knew about shopping malls, but few had seen a wild stream. And yet that chance encounter in 1981 would start Furrer’s students on a remarkable crusade.
top Hard Questions
A passionate outdoorsman, Furrer had worked as a park ranger in Northern California. He relished introducing kids to the magic of the natural world, which was why he’d chosen to teach high school wildlife and forestry. Furrer hiked Adobe Creek often that year and into the next, learning the waterways. Finally he felt ready, and called a group of students together in the spring of 1983.
Adobe Creek, he told them, was not yet dead, One man, Charlie Malnati, had preserved the fragile life cycle of the steelheads. “If he can do it,” challenged Furrer, “why can’t you?”
Anna Kastner, a Casa Grande senior, was eager. “What do you want us to do?” she asked. “It’s not what I want,” Furrer responded. “Steelheads are one heartbeat away from extinction. Their future belongs to your generation, not mine. You’ll be leading this battle.” Kastner came from a family of eight whose widowed mother struggled to keep the home intact. Knowing little of the outdoors, Anna would become one of the most enthusiastic workers.
Walking the creek a few days later, Furrer showed several volunteers the rusting junk. “You’ll have to find some way to haul this to the dump,” he noted. Several boys offered their pickup trucks. Then Furrer pointed to the banks. Once, thousands of oaks, buckeyes and willows had shaded the shallows where fingerlings lived in the summer. Tree roots prevented erosion and silting, keeping spawning pools well oxygenated. As Furrer explained, his students gazed woefully at the naked banks. How can we plant thousands of trees? they asked. Will there ever be enough water for the steelheads to survive? “Excellent questions,” Furrer replied. “How are you going to find the answers?”
By fall 20 volunteers were calling themselves the United Anglers of Casa Grande High School. Soon they were knee-deep in mud, hauling out trash. Furrer was faculty adviser, but the students ran the show.
Sophomore Jule Lambert’s principal interest used to be cheerleading. The United Anglers awakened an interest in biology, and now she stood in hip boots, removing glass from the few remaining spawning holes.
Furrer led students up the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, where they snipped thousands of willow cuttings. Six weeks later the kids spread out across the banks to plant them. As they bent in the hot sun, poling trowels into crusted mud, one student said soberly, “It’s going to take years.” Another moaned, “Decades.” “Somebody’s got to start,” Jason Simmons said, reaching for another cutting.
The students planted 1200 willows and Douglas firs during the first year. They kept to that pace the next year, and the year after that. As word of the restoration spread, club members were joined by fellow students and their parents for weekend trash-hauling or planting marathons. As the years passed, the club began to acquire an alumni group. Anna Kastner worked her way up through the state’s resources system, but still dropped by to help. Jim Kirk and Darcy Hamlow pitched in during time off from their jobs. Scott Whitcomb waded through the mud while on leave from the Army.
The students researched municipal records, discovering that Petaluma had been damming up Adobe creek for decades but now used less than five percent of the water in Lawler Reservoir. Since most of Petaluma’s needs came from wells and other sources, the club tried to persuade officials to open the dam and keep water flowing all year.
The showdown came in May 1987 when club members, led by Julie Lambert, met with engineers in City Hall. City officials wouldn’t budge, saying the diversion was needed to keep an old water-treatment plant running in the summer. Furthermore, Lawler Reservoir was “our emergency water reserve.” “We just want to give these fish a chance to survive,” Julie said. “Young lady,” the official said, “I’m talking about water we’d need in a nuclear attack.” “If they drop the H-bomb,” Julie replied, “none of us will need water.” Furrer told the students not to give up. “Believe in your dream,” he said.
The club bounced back with a new idea: they would build a small hatchery in a campus greenhouse, a Noah’s Ark to preserve the species until the problem of the permanent water supply could be solved. They would release steelhead fingerlings in the partially restored lower creek, and if the steelies returned in three years to spawn, the students would know their efforts were paying off. Furrer was elated by their response, but he wanted them to understand its implications. ‘You’ll be gone by then,” he told Julie. She shrugged. “Other kids will come behind us.”
To raise funds, students held car washes, spaghetti feeds and candy sales. Within months they collected $6000 and finished the hatchery. Then Furrer got bad news from a school official: “The hatchery doesn’t meet the earthquake code.” It had to abandoned. Now even Furrer’s spirits fell. “Let’s just go back to cleaning the creek,” he said, discouraged. But Jason Simmons went to the blackboard and sketched a bold new plan: a bigger hatchery to provide thousands of fingerlings for all the threatened streams in the area. Furrer was skeptical. Who would run such a complex facility? “We will,” the students said. And, Furrer wondered, who would teach them how? The answer was plain. The next summer Furrer volunteered at an Alaskan hatchery to learn the skills he’d need.
top Changing the World
Over the next two years the students raised money for their new hatchery. The California Department of Fish and Game offered $50,000, but only if the students scaled back their ambitious facility. The kids refused, counter offering to also raise chinook salmon, a coastal species whose number were dwindling. The department agreed to nearly double its contribution. Local ranchers Peter and Conni Pfendler donated a substantial sum. For years they had watched the students toiling in the creek. “These kids should be rewarded,” they said.
Supporters also gave noncash contributions. A lumber company donated building materials. Electricians union officer Al Ferris designed a network of control pumps, aerators and refrigeration units. Still, the city refused to open the dam. Then one day two students laid out a geological map on the floor of Furrer’s classroom and pointed to an earthquake fault line beneath Lawler Reservoir. “Let’s see if people in City hall know that,” Furrer said. In fact, the city had been wrestling with this for months: state authorities required that Lawler Reservoir either be reinforced of abandoned. So the city council voted to abandon the Adobe Creek water system. In October 1992 Adobe Creek was restored as a free-running stream for the first time in eight decades. Soon the students observed what seemed like a miracle–hundreds of steelhead fingerlings began appearing on their own in the ancient spawning pools.
The hatchery was dedicated on April 25, 1993, as students unfurled their banner: “Together we will change the world.” Within a year the student hatchery, no longer needed for the steelhead trout, was producing thousands of chinook salmon.
On a sunny day last winter, Tom Furrer sat on a boulder overlooking Adobe Creek. For years he’d spent personal funds and sacrificed his social life for Adobe Creek. More than once, he has been asked if it was worth it. To answer, Furrer spoke of the young faces crushed by disappointment or shining with the joy of some small victory. Today, he said, Anna Kastner is an managing director of the Feather River Fish hatchery; Julie Lambert is studying for an advanced biology degree; Jason Simmons married fellow United Anglers alumna Nancy Fowler and settled in town. The United Anglers, Furrer added, now teach students from other Petaluma schools to restore nearby streams. Then Furrer pointed to three pairs of spawning steelheads. Using their tails to scoop out nests in the gravel, the females dropped pale yellow eggs. “Steelhead have repeated this life cycle for centuries,” he said. “I want our children to see them do so in the future.”