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History of the Laguna de Santa Rosa


History of the Laguna

At one time the Laguna de Santa Rosa consisted of wide expanses of oak woodland, deep riparian forests, lakes, perennial and seasonal freshwater wetlands. Herds of elk and pronghorn antelope were hunted by Native Americans, mountain lions and grizzly bears. Tens of thousands of migratory birds relied on the Laguna flood waters in the winter and its rich food and shelter resources for breeding and nesting in the summer.

Native Americans, Past to Present

Archeological studies have established that Native Americans, including Pomo, Wappo and Miwok peoples, have lived in the Laguna watershed for more than 10,000 years. Nomadic seasonal gatherers, they thrived on acorns, roots, seeds, berries, fish, coastal shellfish, waterfowl, and a variety of game animals. They fashioned canoes, shelter, and rope from tule, wove fine, watertight baskets from willow and sedge, and harvested numerous other plants for food, clothing, dyes, and medicines.

Now established as the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the current tribe consists of both Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people.

Boating on the Laguna de Santa RosaAlterations to the Laguna

The first Mexican land grant in the Laguna was established in 1833 and was the beginning of ranching and farming in the area. In the 100 years that followed, the Laguna was dramatically changed. Early settlers cleared oak woodlands to make way for grain, row crops, orchards, and hops. Hunters supplied San Francisco’s markets with wildlife (in 1892, a single market hunter killed 6,200 ducks). Resorts were built along the western edge of the Laguna and lakes were drained.

Agricultural use of the land intensified during the 1900s, as did residential and commercial development in the upper watershed. Miles of the Laguna were channelized for flood control and riparian vegetation was removed. By 1990, 92% of the Laguna’s riparian forest was gone and the yellow-billed cuckoo, a riparian-dependent bird, had disappeared.

The Laguna de Santa Rosa Today

Where once swales and marshes formed and rainfall slowed and ponded in vernal pools throughout the valley, water now rushes in concentrated flow to the Laguna where it is joined by runoff from the western hills. Although the natural drainage system is now confined to the western third of the valley, it remains an impressive 14-mile-long waterway, with a floodplain of more than 7500 acres.

The floodplain and adjacent uplands contain many distinctive natural features, including braided channels, pools, springs, seasonal and perennial wetlands, and riparian and oak woodland. In the summer these features are separate and distinct, but in the winter they can appear as one vast lake. The Laguna watershed comprises approximately ten percent of the entire Russian River drainage; and when the river floods, the Laguna can act as a huge natural reservoir, storing up to 80,000 acre-feet of water. For the residents of Guerneville, this can result in a 14-foot reduction in the height of the 100-year flood.

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