Faulty water system pulls Russian Gulch off closure list

June 14, 2012

A mechanical breakdown could, oddly enough, be one of the reasons Russian Gulch State Park comes off the state parks closure list just before a July 1 shutdown.

The State Parks Department had been in discussions with a Mendocino nonprofit eager to take over operations of Russian Gulch, a coastal beauty located one mile north of the historic town of Mendocino. But a recent breakdown in the drinking water infrastructure here means the nonprofit Mendocino Area Parks Association (MAPA) can no longer take it over.

Because the parks department will be forced to deal with the faulty system, officials decided it’s most practical for the state to continue running the park

Photo by Christine Sculati

“We are no longer going to put this park out to a nonprofit agreement,” said Mendocino District parks superintendent Loren Rex.

After decades of battles to preserve the scenic and natural wonders of the Mendocino area from unsightly development, eight of Mendocino County’s 16 state parks landed on the infamous state parks closure list. Mendocino area parks — from Hendy Woods in the Anderson Valley to the dramatic bluffs of the rugged California coast — feature ancient redwood groves, ocean views, beaches, wildflower and wildlife viewing, hiking trails, kayaking, swimming holes and campgrounds.

In the Mendocino District, Rex is working with community members, ranging from local nonprofits to a federally recognized tribe, to find solutions and keep the parks open. So far, only one of the eight Mendocino state parks slated for closure has officially gained a reprieve – Jug Handle State Natural Reserve.

At Russian Gulch, state officials shut down the new water treatment plant on May 23 because of problems caused by incompatible old pipes. The park was forced to haul in water with a price tag nearing $2,000. Engineers are working to solve the problem, which could continue to rack up water charges.

In a situation like this, Rex said the nonprofit MAPA wouldn’t be able to absorb those costs on its own, and would have to cancel its main source of projected revenue for the park – campground reservations.

“If MAPA got stuck with a water hauling bill of $2,000, that would not be right to do to that organization,” Rex said.

Ultimately, however, there are also other circumstances at Russian Gulch that make it impractical to close this park. Russian Gulch is one of two Mendocino area parks on the closure list that received funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, so legally the State Parks Department must allow public access to those parks.

Photo by Christine Sculati.
Photo by Christine Sculati.

And the Mendocino District office for State Parks also happens to be inside the park, so costs for water here are “sunk costs,” said Rex.

This might not be all bad news, said Carolyne Cathey of MAPA. If Russian Gulch remains open to the public and protected, MAPA’s ultimate goal would be achieved, Cathey said.

A state park since 1934, Russian Gulch offers a campground with 28 sites, beach access, picnic areas and hiking trails that give visitors dramatic views of the Mendocino area coastline as well as access to an inland canyon filled with second generation redwoods, an understory of ferns and Pacific rhododendrons, culminating in a waterfall. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program, built a recreational hall and a road that connects the ocean bluffs to the park’s interior.

On a recent visit here, I could see why the park has its ardent supporters. Arriving at the entry kiosk for the park, the State Parks staff person gushed about the hike to a 36-foot waterfall up the Fern Canyon Trail in Russian Gulch Creek Canyon, and the “Punch Bowl” — a large collapsed sea cave with churning water.

As of June 4, the plan is to keep the campground open on a first-come, first-served basis.

“The Department will continue operations until we get the water system resolved,” said Rex.

Rex is awaiting the green light from Sacramento to officially announce that Russian Gulch will not close.

Status of Eight Mendocino Area Parks on Closure List:

While Rex works out issues at Russian Gulch, he also keeps busy with trying to find solutions for other Mendocino area parks on the State Parks closure list. Here is the update as of June 4:

•Greenwood State Beach: Several donors have stepped up to support a donor agreement to fund this park and historic visitor center and museum on the Mendocino Coast including the Olmsted Fund, MAPA and the California State Park Foundation.

•Hendy Woods: Thanks to the support of the newly formed nonprofit Hendy Woods Community, Save the Redwoods League and the California State Parks Foundation, this park will likely be taken off the closure list.

•Jug Handle State Natural Reserve: The Olmsted Fund and California State Parks Foundation signed donor agreement with California State Parks to remove this park from the closure list.

•Manchester State Beach: At a minimum, California State Parks must keep this park open to day use because the park is a past recipient of Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grant monies, according to State Parks Loren Rex. Rex recently met with the nonprofit Moat Creek Managing Agency to discuss an operating agreement.

•Point Cabrillo Lightstation State Historic Park: The nonprofit Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association that has run this park as a concessionaire to California State Parks will renew its agreement on a month-to-month basis to take this one off the closure list.

•Russian Gulch State Park: State Parks decided to keep this park open due to a combination of complicated circumstances, which made it very impractical to close this park. The park will be staffed and the campground will be open on a first-come, first-served basis.

•Standish Hickey State Recreation Area: MAPA’s leaders prepared a proposal to operate this park and have been discussing it with local park officials. They recently sent the proposal to Sacramento and expect that it will take at least five weeks to receive approval. Donations are needed.

•Westport-Union Landing State Beach: State Parks is working on an interagency agreement with the Cahto tribe, an independent nation with strong connections to the lands here. This would represent the first time for State Parks to enter into a formal agreement with an independent nation. A proposal is under review in Sacramento.


About the Author

Christine Sculati is a Bay Nature contributor and writes about state park closures and nature on her blog,

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