Celebrating Earth Day, Las Gallinas Ponds

Mute swan with cygnets

For Earth Day this year I am happy to introduce you to the Las Gallinas Ponds, a place I have been visiting for nearly 20 years. This trio of shallow lakes is a humble but noteworthy example of how a large community has learned to integrate wildlife and human needs.

 

Las Gallinas is an Earth Day story. For over half a century humans and wildlife have been inhabiting this same functional space. It is more than just a park. It is an important facility in the San Rafael community, covering 400 acres and serving 30,000 residents.

 

As you walk around the three lakes and gaze upon the marsh and fields, you are greeted by birdsong and vast, open wilderness. Over 188 birds species live here, as well as mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and other wildlife.

 

Las Gallinas Ponds, San Rafael, California

Pair of Common Mergansers

 

This marsh on California Bay Area’s San Pablo Bay has a pedestrian walkway that winds around each lake. It is flat and wide, and a magnet for neighborhood walkers, joggers, bikers, and wildlife enthusiasts. It accommodates wheelchairs, strollers, and people of all ages; and is surrounded by mountains and bay.

 

Two of the ponds have small islands where black-crowned night herons, egrets, ducks and geese gather. In winter the waters are covered with migrating waterfowl.

 

Cattails and reeds host marsh wrens, bitterns, rails, and gallinules; while songbirds flit in the surrounding trees. I always see at least five different species of raptors cruising the open sky, including peregrine falcon, merlin, harriers, kites, and red-tailed hawks.

Snowy Egret

A few weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we heard about a pair of mute swans on a nest, from other trail walkers.

 

We found the nest and waited patiently, knowing that eventually the mother would stand up, turn the incubating eggs. And when she did, she revealed a nest of five large eggs.

 

Mute Swan Wikipedia. 

When the swan stood up, we saw her eggs. Look closely underneath the swan.

The next Sunday when we returned, we found two fluffy cygnets tucked underneath Mom’s large wing.

 

That day we saw so much springtime:  wildflowers in profusion, mating cinnamon teal, the absence of most of the winter migrators, and the arrival of swallows by the hundreds.

Mating Cinnamon Teal

 

I truly love to be here at the ponds. But I do not bring friends unless they are hardy outdoor people…because it is actually a sewage treatment facility. Birders go wherever the birds are, but not everyone is so undiscriminating.

 

The ponds are holding tanks for human waste, called reclamation ponds. There are 200 acres of wastewater storage, freshwater storage, and pasture irrigation fields. There is also a field of nearly 3,000 solar panels for generating electricity. See diagrams at the end.

 

This sanitation plant not only opens their grounds to the public, but they also provide generous numbers of picnic tables and benches, maintain the grounds for visitors, and host school groups. There’s even a bowl of water for dogs. Their website is also inviting, with funny educational videos.  Check out “Can’t Flush This Song” and “Recycled Water Taste Test.”

 

When you first arrive, it looks like the processing plant that it is. There are many large tanks with huge churning arms, and lots of pipes in all sizes. Hundreds of gulls, red-winged blackbirds, and starlings hover over the stirring tanks.

 

The processing station only occupies the front section, and in two minutes you don’t even notice. The trail extends alongside the ponds, stretching out for several miles.

 

Northern Mockingbird

By this past Sunday, the third one in a row, we were nervous about what we might find at the swan nest. Who, we wondered, had been successful: the swan family or the predators? There are river otters, badgers, and coyote here who would love to crack into a big swan egg.

 

Wildlife check list at Las Gallinas Ponds

American White Pelican

Good news. The two cygnets were still around, had even grown a bit, and they were earnestly paddling beside their parents. I don’t know about the other three eggs.

 

People laugh when I tell them I go to the sewage ponds for my birthday. They think I’m kidding.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

LGVSD Pond Poster

Courtesy Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District

Solar Power Project

Solar Power Project. Courtesy Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District

 

China Camp

China Camp State Park, California.

China Camp State Park, California.

Named for the fishing villages that Cantonese families established here in the 1800s, China Camp is now a California State Park and a Historical Landmark.

 

Once a prime spot for harvesting shrimp, Chinese families lived busy lives here, and before that the Miwok Indians.

 

While there was much success and enterprise in the Chinese villages here in the late 1800s, harsh anti-Chinese laws put a strain on their life in the early 1900s, forcing most villagers to disperse.

 

Sampan, old Chinese shrimp-fishing boat

Sampan, old Chinese shrimp-fishing boat

The new century brought many more changes including polluted waters, loss of shrimp, and real estate development threats.

 

By the 1970s, Gulf Oil had big plans to build high-rise condominiums and commercial establishments.

 

But the residents of the surrounding area, San Rafael, California, with conservation groups and concerned citizens, protested. As a result, the land was sold to the state of California and a park was made.

 

In the early 21st century, when California had budget crises, there was more talk of closing the park. It was running on a deficit. But this too was resolved by the heroics of residents and community organizations, who formed nonprofits and raised funds, and saved the park.

 

china-camp-sign

Chinese characters: Wa Jen Ha Lio, the fishing village’s name

China Camp history and info here.

 

The park is 1,514 acres (613 ha) on a section of the San Francisco Bay. Little kids frolic on the shoreline, people jog and walk their dogs under the oak trees, picnic on the grass.

 

There is also hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, paddle boarding and other recreational activities. Gorgeous vistas across the bay, and a healthy list of birds, too.

 

Concession Stand (still open on weekends)

Concession Stand (still open on weekends)

The village buildings have been preserved, open to the public for viewing and educational touring.

 

Gentle volunteers run the gift shop selling t-shirts, and there’s an old-fashioned concession stand with a photo inside of John Wayne who filmed a movie here with Lauren Bacall (Blood Alley).

 

The beauty that is humans reaching out, making plans, and achieving their goals is here. There have been ups and downs for centuries here, subjugation and conflict, and I suppose there will be more too.

 

China Camp overview

China Camp overview

But for today, we breathe in the briny air and soak up the California sun.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Golden Gate GraveyardMy new book , available for purchase.

Click here to purchase paperback or digital version from publisher

Digital ebook also available on Amazon and other etailers (paperback version not yet available at these sites).

 

Marin Co. Civic Center

Marin Civic Ctr. inside atrium

Marin Civic Ctr. inside atrium

There’s a Frank Lloyd Wright building you can see from the freeway, about 18 miles (29 km) from the Golden Gate Bridge.  For 20 years I zoomed by it.

 

A national and state historic landmark, the Marin Co. Civic Center is a complex of buildings Wright designed–administrative county buildings.

 

An American architect, Wright (1867-1959) designed mostly residential or commercial buildings.  One of his last major designs, these are his only governmental buildings.  See the complete list of his 425 works below.

 

Marin Civic Center.jpg

The Marin Co. Civic Ctr. as seen from Hwy 101. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The main building includes the Hall of Justice, Administration Building, county library, and other departments. There are nearby additional buildings including a post office and auditorium he designed.

 

In the mid-1950s, Marin County moved forward on their project to consolidate their county services in one place. They were built in the 1960s, just after Mr. Wright had passed away.

 

Marin Co. Civic Center

Marin Co. Civic Center

More Civic Center information here.

 

On weekdays the complex is a busy county government seat where lawyers, judges, and jurors conduct civic duties.

 

Marin Co. Library front desk

Marin Co. Library front desk

The day I was there was a Saturday and much of the building was closed, but the library was open.

 

We were meeting friends nearby, so we looked around.  They also give docent-led tours.

 

Library stacks

Library stacks

I loved the library.  The rotunda is a white dome, and all the light fixtures, in perfect Wrightesque fashion, were also little white domes.

 

He envisioned his buildings in the rolling California hills providing a place of beauty dedicated to “a working public.”

 

Looking out from the library

Looking out from the library

An expression of his belief in government openness, the building is flooded with light from skylights and open atria.

 

Busy creating art until his final day, Frank Lloyd Wright drew stunning and innovative designs all over the country.

 

Frank Lloyd Wright, 1926. Courtesy Wikipedia

May we all live such long and successful lives, providing beauty and originality around us.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

 

For more Marin Co. Civic Center building photos and plan drawings, click here.

 

Marinciviccenter01.JPG

Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Marin Civic Ctr, by FLW. Courtesy Wikipedia

List of over 425 works by Frank Lloyd Wright, click here.

Info about Frank Lloyd Wright, click here.