WINTERS — Near the Lake-Sonoma counties border — not far from Mount Saint Helena and Snow Mountain — Southwest Peak of Cobb Mountain stands higher than all else in the Mayacamas Mountains. On the east side of Cobb Mountain flows the headwaters of Putah Creek. The downstream landscape of the creek changed dramatically with the construction of the 304-foot Monticello Dam between 1953 and 1957.

Another historical landmark was constructed 20 years ago. The Putah Creek Accord was signed May 23, 2000, during a ceremony at the Putah Diversion Dam. “They set up tables and chairs,” said Rich Marovich, the streamkeeper for the Lower Putah Creek Coordinating Committee and the Solano County Water Agency.

“It was like signing a peace treaty on the deck of a battleship and that was as close to a battleship as we had.”

Whiskey and water

Mark Twain famously wrote, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.” And when the source of the water runs dry due to drought, the fight is most definitely on. It was during the drought in the late-1980s that Robin Kulakow and her fellow birdwatchers began noticing that Putah Creek was running dry.

UC Davis scientist Eric Chapman handles a trout that his team collected while taking fish samples from Putah Creek, near Winters in 2017. Robinson Kuntz/McNaughton Newspapers photo

The same observation was being made at places such as Camp Davis, a popular site near the university where youth paddled their canoes and participated in other activities.

“The area turned muddy, the fish were dying and it smelled bad,” said Joe Krovoza, who became chairman of the Putah Creek Council at the time the accord was negotiated and signed. “It got pretty ugly.”

So Kulakow formed the Putah Creek Council, and along with other environmental advocates began looking into where the water was going. As it turns out, most of it was going to farmers trying to keep their crops alive. Former state Sen. Lois Wolk was elected to the Davis City Council in 1990 and found herself drawn into the fight.

“Before we got into litigation, there was an effort by the Putah Creek Council to mitigate this,” Wolk said. “Sadly, that did not work.”

Krovoza said, “You had these old guard Solano farming-types and the Davis environmentalists.” The council took the water agency to court, citing the Public Trust Doctrine, which gives the public standing in matters of the public good. Another weapon was a little-used provision of the Fish and Game code that essentially stated that an agency that operates a dam has the legal responsibility to protect environmental interests.

But historically, prior to the existence of the dam, the creek would go dry each summer.

“We took the position that the extra water in Putah Creek was not needed, or at least not as much as (the Putah Creek Council) asked for,” said David Okita, who was the general manager of the Solano County Water Agency at the time. Wolk eventually convinced the Davis council to join the fight. And Peter Moyle, then a professor and researcher at UC Davis, and still one of the pre-eminent fish biologists in the nation, brought the university on board. The interesting twist to that is UC Davis was then, and still is today, the largest water user from the creek, and in a very real sense, was on both sides of the battle.

Depending on who is being quoted, those years were generally amicable or they were very tense. Okita described it as amicable. Yes, it was adversarial in court, but the individuals on both sides of the issue got along pretty well. He recalled meetings, prior to the start of official business, where folks stood around talking about their children. Krovoza said it was less amicable as it was professional. Solano County Supervisor Skip Thomson, who sided with the environmentalists on many of the issues, called the political environment “testy.”

“It was somewhat controversial,” Thomson said. “And as I recall, it wasn’t as friendly as you are hearing.”

Wolk said she remembers that when she was considering a run at the state Assembly — a district that included Solano County — she wondered if her role on the litigating side of the Putah Creek fight would cost her. Feelings run hard and long.

Fly fishing judge

The lawsuit landed in the courtroom of Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Richard Park. Marovich cannot remember when he learned that the judge liked to fish. Was it during the proceedings, or after? “He was a fly fisherman, and that probably helped,” Marovich said. Wolk said it is a disservice to Park to suggest he ruled over the lawsuit with a fly-tying kit on the bench. But she does believe his hobby gave him a good understanding of waterways, the ecosystems and the fisheries. She said it was Park who paved the way to the accord.

Putah Creek is shown Friday, May 22. Robinson Kuntz/McNaughton Newspapers photo

“It took Judge Park to say if you can’t get to an agreement, I’m going to rule this way,” Wolk said. “And that was the signal that got the water agency to the table.” While Park’s ruling dictated that the water agency must increase water flows to meet environmental concerns, he did not say how much. In turn, the Solano County Water Agency appealed the decision. The agency’s choice carried a big risk.

“The water agency did not want a precedent set statewide,” Wolk said, which would have happened if the state Appellate Court upheld Park’s decision. Okita acknowledged there was a risk involved. “Looking back at it, we should have stuck to our guns so we could have a precedent,” Wolk said. “But we were not looking at making great law.”

Time to talk

UC Davis Wildlife and Fisheries Conservation program employee Emily Jacinto, left, and student Thomas Grossman, right, collect fish samples from Putah Creek, near Winters in 2017. Robinson Kuntz/McNaughton Newspapers photo

It was during the waiting period for the Appellate Court to take up the matter that the two sides began negotiating what became the Putah Creek Accord. Krovoza said there are a number of important elements to the accord, but he points to two primary achievements.

The first is that it established water flows for the native fish, and most importantly, the ocean-going salmon and steelhead. Second, it created the framework, through the creation of the Lower Putah Creek Coordinating Committee and the streamkeeper program, for what has become the restoration efforts on the creek.

Krovoza and Okita are credited universally for making the accord happen.

The water agency is credited for providing the funding to make it all work, and that was particularly important when the economy crashed in 2008. Wolk said that just under the surface of the litigation and the negotiations for the accord was the acknowledgment that everyone wanted the same thing: a vibrant, healthy creek.

“We always knew there was a great love for the creek,” Wolk said. “As soon as the conflict was resolved, there was just a great overflow of community support and dedication to the issues.”

Toughest fight still ahead

Marovich said he hopes the 20th anniversary marks a time of celebration. But he admits that all the struggles were not over when the accord was signed. There was still an issue of riparian rights, and most of the landowners who held them had always taken water as available.

Putah Creek is shown Friday, May 22. Robinson Kuntz/McNaughton Newspapers photo

“The issue for the water district was if they released more water to meet flow requirements, what was to stop a farmer from taking more than they were supposed to?” Marovich said. He said riparian rights never meant unlimited water, but no one had defined how much was too much because the creek used to run dry. The district’s efforts to rein that in, which often included threatening letters, Marovich said, left many landowners feeling the water agency was after their rights and water.

“When I got here, none of the farmers would talk to (Marovich), except for a handful of people,” said Herb Wimmer, who bought his property along the creek in 2004 and built a home there in 2007.

He said the person who sold him the property had even warned him not to talk to the Solano County Water Agency representatives. “He hated those people,” Wimmer said. Part of that lingering distrust and hatred was because many landowners had helped fund the water agency’s court battle, and were willing to take the issue to the end. They felt betrayed when the agency reached an accord. Wolk said when the accord discussions were picking up, the landowners also became less and less involved – much of it their own doing.

Still, as the coalition got broader and legislators such as Vic Fazio and Tom Hannigan got involved, the landowners were pushed to the back. “Some of the landowners even refused to tell us when they would run their pumps, which didn’t make any sense because they were big diesel pumps you could hear a block away,” Marovich said. Thomson remembers the agency sending people up and down the creek to find out when the pumps were running. Marovich said the district just needed to know when the pumps would run so they could better control water flows.Marovich said from 2000 to 2008, there were three violations for taking excess water. There were eight in August 2008 alone.

That brought the issue to a head, Marovich said. The turning point was when the agency hired Dennis Bowlen as a facilitator. Bowlen came with a trunk full of credentials. “He taught me and people like me throughout the state how to organize communities and protect watersheds,” Marovich said. There were five meetings held from August to the end of the year, out of which an agreement was reached that defined when pumping could occur and how much. But it also had a provision that stated if there was an emergency, such as a well going dry, the water agency would help that farmer.

“From the district’s perspective, that was the right thing to do,” Marovich said. “And a friend with 1.6 million acre-feet (of water) is a friend indeed.”

A crew works on the third phase of the Putah Creek restoration project in September 2018. McNaughton Newspapers file photo

Work on the creek begins

The next year, in 2009, Marovich and the Lower Putah Creek Coordinating Committee completed its first project – the removal of the percolator dam. “Because we couldn’t have a functioning channel with a chunk of concrete in the middle of it,” Marovich said.

Wimmer came to Winters because of the creek and he immediately began working with Marovich to start removing invasive plants within the nearly 1,000 feet of creek that runs through 22 acres of riparian habitat.

He also leases out a small walnut orchard, but that does not use creek water directly. Since then, there have been three major phases of work that included the creation of the Winters Putah Creek Park, which was identified by the community as the top priority. That work has resulted in some court challenges and accusations that the water agency was destroying the creek habitat. None of those cases have prevailed, and accolades have come from around the country.

Millions of dollars have gone into redirecting the channel, its flows, improving fish habitat, clearing out invasive plants in favor of native species and much, much more. The water agency in recent years has poured $1 million annually into the projects. The renovation work has been hailed as some of the best in the country.

Davis gave the agency its environmental award, just eight years after it had essentially called it an enemy of the environment. Wolk presented the award. “It’s a regional asset,” Wolk said of Putah Creek. Thomson said the Putah Creek success, however, starts well before the accord. He said the leadership that had the vision to build the Monticello Dam created the groundwork for all that has followed. Thomson also noted the work on the creek will have a positive effect on the groundwater mandates counties face.

“I have always believed the accord was good for both sides . . . and look at the creek now,” Thomson said. “It is something SCWA brags about now.”

By Todd R. Hansen McNaughton Newspapers

— Todd R. Hansen is Reporter-Editor for the Daily Republic. He covers Solano County, Transportation, the Environment and General Assignment. Reach him at 427-6932 or

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on May 24, 2020 | Printed in the May 24, 2020 edition on page A1