Standing in the first light of dawn at the corner of Castro and Escobar streets in downtown Martinez, I searched the dark water for the town’s newest celebrities: four members of a beaver family living in Alhambra Creek. My guide was beaver enthusiast Heidi Perryman, a Martinez resident who has made short films featuring the family and posted them on YouTube (search for “Martinez beavers”). As Perryman showed me a scrapbook about the family, a pup swam under the bridge with a willow twig in its mouth, then dove to enter the family lodge through an underwater entrance.
Last winter, the beavers claimed the lower stretch of the creek where it passes through downtown Martinez. The beavers built a six-foot dam and a nearby lodge at the foot of an Italian restaurant. Since this impoundment, local residents have observed other wildlife frequenting the creek, including a river otter. At dusk and dawn, residents and tourists stop by to watch the beavers, and during school hours, local children walk the creek to learn about the beavers and their habitat.
The town is built on the floodplain of Alhambra Creek; in response to nearly annual flooding events, citizens taxed themselves in the late 1990s to help fund a $9.7 million flood control and habitat restoration project. The restored habitat may have been what attracted the beavers.
However, these aquatic mammals are something of a mixed blessing in the middle of town, at once a living nature lesson and a potential flood hazard. “The beavers have been a positive thing,” says Mayor Rob Schroder, “but I would be abdicating my responsibilities as a mayor if I didn’t do something about them.” To assess potential downsides of the beaver dam, city officials contacted Philip Williams and Associates (PWA), the consulting firm that worked on the restoration project. The firm concluded the dam would reduce the creek’s drainage capacity by half, so the city decided that the beavers had to go.
An ensuing public outcry forced officials to agree to relocate the beavers rather than euthanize them. Under further pressure from residents, the city decided in November to allow the beavers to stay. To decrease flood risk, city workers removed part of the dam and installed a cable system that can pull out the dam in the event of a flood.
Some watershed activists go even further. “The town was built in the wrong place,” says Igor Skaredoff, with Friends of Alhambra Creek. He suggests that the city implement a 50-year plan to purchase properties in the floodplain as they become available. He’d like to see a 100- to 200-foot-wide floodplain that extends two miles up the creek. PWA engineer Mark Lindley agrees that any creekside land the city could acquire and set aside would help give the water a place to go during periods of high run-off. Skaredoff says the floodplain lands could be used for ball fields, nature trails, or growing food crops in the silt-laden soils. “That way,” he says, “the creek and all that live in it could be left alone and wouldn’t bother anybody.”
For updates about the beavers, visit this website.