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Heading off another bank failure

Town acts to protect buildings along the edge of a creek from burrowing beavers.

October 16, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

MARTINEZ, CALIF. — Ever since the beavers arrived here in John Muir's adopted hometown, the human residents have been divided. Some wanted to save them. Others wanted to kill them.

The first two beavers swam up from the delta in 2006 and began building lodges and dams in the creek that runs through downtown. Their construction work has caused some property owners along the creek to worry that all that burrowing will undermine their buildings and cause major damage. For Martinez, bank stabilization has nothing to do with a fiscal crisis.

After months of acrimonious debate, the city is gambling that it can shore up the creek-side buildings without driving away the beavers -- which have drawn thousands of tourists who might never have ventured to the industrial town.

On Wednesday, workers used a vibrating hammer to begin driving 2-foot-wide corrugated sheet piles into the creek bank next to the beavers' lodge. The metal wall will extend along an entire block on one side of the creek and is expected to cost $375,000. The beavers remained out of sight.

The beaver, North America's largest rodent, appears to be making a comeback in California and is driving some local governments to distraction as it moves along waterways into urban areas. Last year, public opposition stopped Bakersfield from exterminating the "bike path beaver," which was chewing up trees along a bikeway. Elk Grove, just south of Sacramento, has killed dozens of beavers in recent years to protect trees and prevent flooding.

In Martinez, the city's handling of the issue has been as messy as a pile of wood shavings. Residents complain of closed-door City Council meetings, city refusal to release documents and the alleged skirting of environmental laws.

Beaver supporters, who have formed a group called Worth a Dam, fear that one or more of the animals could be crushed or trapped when the 25-foot-long sheet piles are driven into the ground. They also worry that the noise and vibration could scare off the animals, which now number eight.

"Any city that is smarter than a beaver ought to be able to keep beavers," said Heidi Perryman, president of Worth a Dam.

Martinez, a city of 37,000 located 35 miles northeast of San Francisco and founded during the Gold Rush, has long had a split personality. It boasts that it was the home of Muir, the great conservationist, for 24 years. But it is better known for the huge oil refinery established in 1915, the year after Muir died.

Alhambra Creek, where the beavers have taken up residence, is known to overrun its banks during heavy rains and floods downtown. Officials say the collapse of a creek-side building could unleash a major flood.

One building owner, Earl Dunivan Sr., has threatened to sue the city if it does not protect his property from the beavers. He did not return phone calls for comment.

Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder acknowledged in an interview that he had participated in council discussions about the beavers before recognizing that he had a potential conflict of interest. An insurance agent, the mayor insures downtown property that could be damaged in a flood. Schroder recused himself from the issue Oct. 1.

"I want to do the right thing," the mayor said.

Last year, the city obtained a permit to kill the beavers by shooting them in the head, but backed off after outraged residents protested.

In September, an expert hired by the city concluded that the beavers were causing damage by burrowing into the bank. Worth a Dam, which hired its own expert, disputes the finding.

Citing Dunivan's threatened lawsuit, the five-member City Council -- including the mayor -- discussed the matter behind closed doors last month, further angering beaver supporters, who allege that the sessions violated the state's open meeting law.

The council concluded that the beavers' burrowing constituted an emergency, thereby exempting the city from a state law that requires an environmental review before taking action.

Beaver backers went to court to block the creek-bank project, contending that the burrows do not threaten any buildings. Worth a Dam has attempted to rally support by posting videos of the beavers on its website, www.martinezbeavers.org, and on YouTube.

But last week, Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga sided with the city, saying there was substantial evidence that the beavers were causing damage.

The beavers, which are primarily nocturnal, have attracted tourists from the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, giving a boost to downtown businesses. Councilman Mark Ross said he was stunned to find that a couple had driven from their home in scenic Carmel to see the beavers.

"Welcome to California. You've got a beaver lodge 20 feet from a parking meter in the hometown of John Muir," the councilman said.

While the work is being done, Worth a Dam plans to monitor the beavers day and night. The group is particularly worried that the beavers could panic, flee deeper into the burrow and be trapped behind the metal sheeting.

Ross, who reluctantly voted for the project, said he hopes that the noise and vibration will prove to be only a "temporary inconvenience" for the beavers.

"There is going to be a period of angst," Ross said. "I don't want to lose any of them. The last thing we want is the tomb of the unknown beaver."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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