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History of the Arcata Marsh

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History of Arcata Marsh[edit]

The Wiyot people were the original inhabitants of Humboldt Bay, living off the land and its resources for thousands of years. In the 1860’s when European settlers first made their way to Humboldt Bay, they saw the vast amounts of resources, and the potential for a booming timber industry. The region was developed to facilitate the production and export of timber, a wharf and railroad connected Arcata to the shipping channel, lumber mills were constructed along the bay to process the timber and the marshes were drained and diked for agricultural development.

In 1949 the first wastewater treatment plant was constructed by the City of Arcata. The solid particles from the wastewater were removed in primary treatment and then the effluent was flushed into Humboldt Bay without chlorination. Oxidation ponds were constructed in 1957 that removed the suspended solids and BOD (biological oxygen demand) from the effluent and in 1966 chlorination and de-chlorination completed the secondary treatment of the wastewater.

In 1969 Dr. George Allen, a professor of fisheries biology from Humboldt State University (HSU), began experimenting with raising salmon in the oxidation ponds in the wastewater treatment plant. In 1971 he created the Arcata Wastewater Aquaculture Project, a successful operation that rears and releases salmonids into the bay and local streams. He saw the wastewater as an untapped resource that could be beneficial and useful as opposed to thrown away.

In 1972 the Clean Water Act would change how wastewater treatment plants across the nation would deal with their discharge. Administered by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), the Bays and Estuaries Policy prohibited the discharge of treated wastewater into any enclosed bay or estuary unless the discharger could demonstrate “enhancement of the receiving waters.”[1] In 1974 the Humboldt Bay Wastewater Authority (HBWA) was formed and in 1975 a regional treatment facility was proposed as the solution to the new policy. The regional facility would cost an estimated $25 million and would connect the wastewater of the surrounding communities of Humboldt Bay via pipeline running along highway 101 and out the mouth of Humboldt Bay to the ocean. The treatment facility was energy intensive, and subject to damage due to earthquakes, boating accidents and shifting sea bottoms during winter storms. The City of Arcata opposed the regional treatment plant because they feared the newly installed pipelines would open up the city to additional development of their agriculture lands; there would also be the loss of the investment capital in their existing treatment facilities and the loss of wastewater resources for George Allen's fish hatchery project. The citizens and City Council members of Arcata wanted to find an alternative approach to the regional treatment plant and suggested a local system that relied on constructed freshwater wetlands that used the natural biological processes to treat the wastewater.

In 1977, a Task Force consisting of HSU professors Dr. George Allen and Dr. Bob Gearheart, City Councilman Dan Hauser, and Public Works Director Frank Klopp formed to further develop the treatment and enhancement marsh idea and challenged the proposed regional treatment plant. The Task Force took the marsh idea to the State and Regional Water Quality Boards and demonstrated that it would be a viable alternative solution to the problem. In 1979 the SWRCB allowed Arcata to establish a two-year pilot program to treat 10% of Arcata’s wastewater. [Little handout] From 1979-1982, Dr. Bob Gearheart conducted experiments with partially treated wastewater and the natural processes of wetland ecosystems, and demonstrated that constructed freshwater wetlands could be used to treat Arcata’s wastewater and at the same time enhance biological productivity of the wetland environment into which treated wastewater was discharged [handout from FOAM].”

In 1981, the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency concerned with restoration of coastal resources, funded the purchase and restoration of three wetland marshes. The Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary was dedicated on July 3, 1981. In 1983, Arcata was authorized to release wastewater into the enhancement marshes by the SWRCB. With the addition of the Butcher’s Slough Marsh, funded by the Coastal Conservancy in 1986, the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary now totaled 154 acres and the integrated wetland wastewater treatment system was complete.

In 1987 the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary received the Ford Foundation’s “Innovations in Government” award and $100,000, which enabled the construction of the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center. The City recently received funds from the Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program and the Wildlife Conservation Board to purchase 75 acres of agricultural lands lying to the west of the Sanctuary. Plans are underway to cooperatively restore and enhance up to 250 acres of the former tidelands. [1]