In 1996, the City of Cotati asked Jenny Blaker and her husband, Neil Hancock, if they could use about 15 feet of the back of their Cotati property to complete a bike path they were building along the Laguna de Santa Rosa. They said yes. Not only was the path completed, along with a bike bridge over the Laguna de Santa Rosa channel north of East Cotati Avenue, the act launched Blaker into action to beautify, preserve and protect this area of the creek she called home.
Construction of the bike path and bridge caused much of the channel’s banks to become bare and it was the idea of Maria Alvarez, Cotati Community and Environment Commission member, to plant some native plants, shrubs and trees along the channel to restore the habitat. The City of Cotati and Sonoma County Water Agency approved the work and Alvarez, along with Blaker and a group of neighbors and friends, went to work with their own shovels, gardening tools and plants, primarily propagated at Alvarez’ home. The small group nicknamed themselves Cotati Creek Critters.
“The name kind of stuck, but the name is misleading,” says Jenny Blaker. “People assumed we were working along Cotati Creek although we were working on the Laguna de Santa Rosa. We considered changing the name but the name stuck and people already heard about it so we just kept it.”
For six years, Cotati Creek Critters continued as a volunteer group of residents that met once a month from October to April to remove invasive species and plants, mulch and to maintain new native plants along the Laguna de Santa Rosa, north of East Cotati Avenue as well as along Cotati Creek in De Llano Park and the Laguna channel in Putnam Park. During this time hundreds of trees and shrubs were planted, the creek was cleaned up and more birds had returned to the area.
“For quite a long time there was just this little group of us that wanted to take care of this small section of the Laguna channel, plant some trees, and keep it free of invasive plants,” says Blaker. “It was a little stewardship project behind a few houses and it just felt like the right thing to do – ecologically friendly and a little piece of local action.”
Once Blaker became more involved in cleaning up the Laguna de Santa Rosa, she learned of Cotati’s proximity to the headwaters of the Laguna and the significance this has to the overall wetland. Today, the Laguna Wetlands Complex is designated a Ramsar Site – a wetland site designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by UNESCO that “provides for national action and international cooperation regarding the conservation of wetlands, and wise sustainable use of their resources.”
“Everything that runs into the Laguna is important,” says Blaker. “It’s important what happens here in Cotati. Everything that runs downstream from here has an impact on the rest of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean.”
In 2005, Cotati Creek Critters applied for an Urban Stream Restoration grant from the California Department of Water Resources. Backing them up was the Sonoma County Water Agency and the City of Cotati, as well as a sponsorship from the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation. The collaboration of the organizations, along with the number of community members involved, resulted in the CCC being one of ten applications out of 91 that were fully funded with a $169,000 grant.
Now the organization could get more serious, with a base for operations, more tools and equipment and a plant nursery. Blaker became Outreach Coordinator and Wade Belew, who had also been involved with Cotati Creek Critters since its early days, became Stewardship Coordinator.
Blaker and Belew made over 50 presentations to citizens groups and classes and greatly expanded the reach of Cotati Creek Critters, involving many organizations and organizing stewardship days specifically for various groups. What started with just a small handful of concerned citizens evolved into a list of 1,400 people that signed up to be a part of the ongoing project. Many different groups from Sonoma State University got involved, as well as the Rohnert Park Active 20/30 Club, the Kiwanis, Rancho Cotate High School, scout groups, the environmental education organization Acorn Soupe, the STRAW project (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed), among others.
In 2006 Blaker initiated the Inside/Outside Nature Education series, meant to teach local residents about their local environment and to raise awareness of various environmental issues and concerns with actionable items that people could do to help.
“It was partly inside in that we would invite different speakers to come give presentations,” says Blaker. “We’d have speakers cover all sorts of things, from water politics, to birds, to a movie about soil. We had speakers come talk about plastics, native plants, anything related with creeks. We also had guided fieldtrips with experts. Mostly we were helping people learn about nature in their own backyard.”
The presentations and events were generally well attended, often drawing 30 to 40 people, and sometimes up to 80 for especially popular speakers.
The initial grant from the California Department of Water Resources lasted approximately three years, followed by other funding from the Sonoma County Water Agency and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and smaller grants from the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment. At the end of 2012, both the funding and Cotati Creek Critter’s contract with the Sonoma County Water Agency ended. Today, the Laguna de Santa Rosa in Cotati and Rohnert Park is maintained by the Sonoma County Water Agency through their Stream Maintenance program.
“It’s a very different job because of the scale,” says Blaker. “When we were doing it with Cotati Creek Critters, we had volunteers out planting little trees, giving them a lot of individual attention – weeding, mulching and that kind of thing. Now, some of those trees are 20 to 30 feet high! The work that is needed is at a much bigger scale. We were going out regularly every week, doing small scale work. Now, the water agency goes in once or twice a year and weed whacks the undergrowth and cuts back the lower limbs of some of the trees so they don’t get caught up in flood water. It’s a much bigger scale job – you need more trucks to take material away and bigger machinery and equipment.”
For her steadfast efforts, Blaker was nominated Cotati Citizen of the Year in 2007 by Cotati’s Chamber of Commerce, in recognition of her “dedicated service and involvement in the community” and her “enthusiastic and diligent work” with Cotati Creek Critters. In 2009 she also received an award from the National Women’s History Project. Cotati Creek Critters also received two other awards in 2009, including the Outstanding Environment Education Award from the Sonoma County Conservation Coalition and Sonoma County Adult and Youth Development’s Environmental volunteer award.
Even though Cotati Creek Critters no longer exists as an organization, Blaker has not stopped being active in the community, especially related to environmental issues, and she continues to advocate for local creeks. She will be involved in a couple of events this fall, including a trash pick up day along the Laguna channel in Cotati on September 16, hosted by Petaluma-based Daily Acts, “a sustainability non-profit that inspires action to create more nourishing, connected, and resilient communities.” On October 1, Blaker will help lead a Laguna Foundation walk to the historic headwaters of the Laguna in Cotati.
Blaker also continues to be involved with local environmental issues in other ways such as supporting Teri Shore of Greenbelt Alliance last year with the campaign for Community Separators (Measure K, passed by 81 percent of Sonoma County voters) and renewing Cotati’s Urban Growth Boundary. Recently she participated in a group to encourage Cotati City Council to sign onto the Mayor’s Initiative on climate change, in support of the Paris Climate Agreement. She is also actively involved with the group Sonoma Solidarity with Standing Rock. .
As she says, “Just plugging away at the local level!”