As important as it is today for species diversity, groundwater storage, and connecting disparate habitats, Coyote Valley used to harbor a much greater variety of landscapes, and support a larger amount of life, than it does now. While we can’t reset the clock to the beginning of the 20th Century, when the Valley was relatively untouched, we can take a look at the possibilities of ecological restoration today, which could be increasingly important as climate change threatens to destabilize local ecosystems and the ever-expanding Silicon Valley seeks out new areas for industrial infrastructure.
The Missing Wetlands
While some of the great oak savanna remains, much of Coyote Valley’s wetlands have been lost, mirroring a trend across the nation in which vulnerable and biodiverse wetlands have been decimated by a combination of increased development and short-sighted hydrologic engineering. Fisher Creek used to sustain Laguna Seca, the large now-seasonal lake in Northern Coyote Valley, providing ample groundwater and surface water that supported a large and vibrant wetland habitat. A hundred years ago, Laguna Seca only rarely dried up and supported a variety of marshland and perennial ponds. But after being partially filled around the time of World War I, the lake disappears in the summer and is a fraction of the habitat it once was. Adding to the trouble is the connection of Fisher Creek to Coyote Creek via a manmade channel. This feat of engineering deprived the wetland habitat in Coyote Valley of much of its needed water. Although water still pools beneath the surface, there is less opportunity for terrestrial animals to drink and amphibian and fish species to spawn.
Coyote Valley’s place as the meeting point of the Diablo Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains has long been a strategically important site for many animal species, especially larger animals with more diffuse populations and solitary predators. The Valley remains a lifeline for these animals, but all too often their lives are cut short trying to cross Highway 101 or Monterey Road. Coyote Valley is now bounded by these thoroughfares, curtailing the safe and free passage of wildlife. The planned extension of the Caltrain via high-speed rail could worsen this problem, depending on whether the rail line is built at-grade in Coyote Valley or above-grade. Researchers such as those from Pathways for Wildlife and the Wilmers Lab at UC Santa Cruz have been looking specifically at bobcat movement in Coyote Valley and have lost several of their radio-collared research subjects to vehicular accidents, including mother bobcats with kittens.
Along the Creek
All through Coyote Valley, Fisher Creek provides key habitat and is widely used by traveling wildlife. However, besides being rerouted into Coyote Creek, it has lost many of its erstwhile tributaries and has been largely denuded of vegetation. While some destructive plans have been abandoned that would have further compromised this habitat, such as a recent proposal for a warehouse that would have introduced large trucks at a critical juncture by Fisher Creek, there is ample room for restoration to take place along the riparian corridor. Whether or not the creek is eventually rerouted (which would benefit Laguna Seca as well), widening the vegetation corridor would provide more cover for wildlife and enhance soil retention around the creekbed.
What Can We Do?
The authors of the Coyote Valley Landscape Linkage report have outlined several steps to take. First and foremost, the greatest returns are likely to be seen from restoring wetlands, including restoring the original flow of Fisher Creek into the Laguna Seca system. This would not only provide drinking water for animals, year-round habitat for aquatic species, and better groundwater recharge, it could also prevent damaging floods in San Jose like those seen in winter 2017. Secondly, we need to ensure that roads are more permeable for wildlife using Coyote Valley as a crossing point, whether that means more culverts, overcrossings, or other solutions (likely a mix of strategies). Thirdly, we can pursue revegetation throughout the Valley. Adding cover around Fisher Creek and fostering the regrowth of grasslands in areas currently held vacant in anticipation of development could provide tremendous help to species and further reinforce the integrity of the soils and the ability of the Valley to absorb rainwater.
We can’t move back, but we can take meaningful steps forward. With an understanding of the historical ecology of Coyote Valley, scientists, advocates, and policymakers can come together to ensure a future for Coyote Valley that does more than maintain the best last chance for wildlife in Santa Clara County. With careful planning and enough political will, we can allow ecosystems to flourish as they have not in decades.
About Protect Coyote Valley
The Protect Coyote Valley campaign is led by Committee for Green Foothills and supported by Greenbelt Alliance, Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, SAGE — Sustainable Agriculture Education, and the Land Trust of Santa Clara Valley. It aims to preserve Coyote Valley, San Jose as open space that offers flood-buffering wetlands, an essential wildlife habitat and migratory area, and active farmlands.