Fenced Off – Part 3

Negotiating Memory and Access at the Antioch Dunes and Waterfront

Part 1 introduces the current state of the Antioch Dunes Wildlife Refuge and covers the history of several individuals who grew up along the river in Antioch. Part 2 continues their stories, discussing dangers, costs, and strategies for negotiating access to the river. Part 3 discusses various points of view regarding current and future access to the river and waterfront. 

Part 3 of 3

Fences Reframed:  Preserving and Sharing the Antioch Dunes and Waterfront

Contra Costa Wallflower. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Rich Hiebert’s background in hunting and farming instilled a strong concern for the preservation of habitat, wildlife, and care for the environment which he has passed on to his children and grandchildren. But he believes that we need to find ways of preserving habitat while also making space for people to continue using the land and water. He stated, “If you want to restore something that’s fine, but people aren’t going to go away, and you can’t keep chinking away at the armor of the area we live in and say you can go here, but you can’t go here…we’re here. We have to make what we restore accessible to the people. And if you don’t do that, it’s a failure of both people wanting to preserve and people wanting to use…that’s my take on putting the sand back there [at the dunes]. It’s a good thing, but if you don’t let people use it and appreciate it, then it’s a waste of money, it really is.”

Lauritzen suggested that the land that is currently being used to park recalled Volkswagens and other land along the waterfront could be developed with more industry that would bring jobs to the community. He suggested that better economic development along the waterfront would provide funds for local infrastructure, and that the development of a beach with public access along the river would be dependent on sufficient economic resources to support it.

James Pfleuger. Photo by Beverly Knight.

James Pflueger, the manager for the Antioch Marina, believes that opening a beach would potentially draw much-needed tourism into the Antioch and surrounding areas. Even taking into account current depths of the river due to dredging, he identified at least two if not three possible sites where such a beach could feasibly be developed, along with more access for people coming in from out of town for salmon fishing during the salmon run from August to October. He stated, “There is no shortage of [potential] beach-goers. People come down frequently to the marina to dip their toes into the water and get their feet wet.” And Pfleuger also receives many inquiries about access to the water. He reads these expressions of interest as an indication that many people want more access to the water, and with the right development plan and promotion, he believes that connecting people with the water could be a source of significant economic and cultural growth for Antioch.

More than that, Pfleuger believes that it would increase a sense of identity, belonging, and pride of place that were once very strong in Antioch, but in recent years have wavered as the city’s population has boomed and knowledge of Antioch’s rich history and place in the Delta have been forgotten. The recent growth brings great potential, and the city of Antioch has been in the process of re-establishing this strong sense of identity throughout the community. Pfleuger explained, “There is an evolving culture of what Antioch is and what it is becoming.” But he sees reconnecting with Antioch’s proud history as a key water access point and transportation hub in the Delta as essential to Antioch’s future.

The ADNWR managers are aware of these sentiments. With minimal budget and staff, they have built strong relationships with the gypsum plant, negotiated for sand with the Port of Stockton, and are currently engaged in further negotiations with PG&E for further access to monitor the wildlife and habitat on adjacent waterfront property. In addition to all of these tasks and the daily maintenance and recovery projects of the habitat itself, they have also been actively engaged in hosting school field trips and public tours of the refuge in an effort to increase public awareness of their goals. By inviting the public behind the scenes onto the property that many locals once knew and loved, tour-goers get a glimpse of the efforts being made to ensure the survival of the butterfly, plant species, and habitat. These efforts benefit not only protected species but also those who, like the residents interviewed, have cherished this area for many decades. Terrazas stated that he would love to see a time in the future when the refuge could consider reopening a space to the public, but due to limited funding and to the fragile state of the endangered species there, that time has not yet come.

As time has passed, and without a budget to facilitate public outreach, a few misconceptions have taken root regarding the goals and methods used to save these species and the justifications for doing so. For instance, there is a perception that counting butterflies is a futile undertaking because they fly and can therefore be “counted twice,” causing some skepticism regarding the annual butterfly counts at the refuge. But this species of butterfly can only fly very short distances (100 to 1,300 feet). This factor allows the refuge team to use various techniques for ensuring the accuracy of the count. The team does not use the count as an exact number but rather as a good index that they can use from year to year to monitor the health of the LMB population.

Also, the memory of gypsum dust from the local plant may be lingering longer than the dust itself. Over time, the refuge has built a strong partnership with the nearby Georgia-Pacific Gypsum plant to reduce dust. Hiebert remembers when the plant, once owned by Kaiser, and later DomTar, covered the whole area with dust. “When Kaiser Gypsum was there and it was running full bore, the dust literally covered [everything], it looked like it was snow or frost. The oak trees — everything — was white.” At the time, there were complaints filed with the Air District (BAAQMD), and during the sixties, seventies, and eighties, there was documented evidence of asbestos. But after Georgia-Pacific took over the plant, they implemented newer and safer materials and technologies, leading to a reduction in the levels of dust. In 2017, they began using a misting cannon instead of a water truck to trap dust and particulates and according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District records, they currently operate 27 mitigation devices. The plant’s current policies include ceasing operations when winds exceed 15 miles per hour, and future plans include building enclosures over raw gypsum and recycling piles, which will further reduce the possibility of dust escaping into the air and depositing along the waterfront. Due to these policies and practices, there have been very few complaints filed against the plant after Kaiser acquired it in 1996, and none at all since 2007.

Many local scientists believe that gypsum dust negatively impacts the butterfly, but whether this is so and what levels of exposure interfere with the species has yet to be fully determined. There has been one study to date which indicated that gypsum dust does have a negative impact on a surrogate species similar to the Lange’s metalmark, but the study was terminated due to wildfire and so the results were inconclusive. A previous study from 1959 demonstrated that gypsum dust is lethal to termites. Further funding for research is needed to verify a correlation between levels of gypsum exposure and the declining butterfly population.

But gypsum is only one of several threats that have led to the precipitous decline in the butterfly’s population. Nitrogen deposition from other nearby industries has been shown to encourage non-native plant species that compete with both the Antioch Dunes Evening Primrose as well as food sources for the Lange’s metalmark. This issue led to a lawsuit against the EPA for permitting the construction of a PG&E plant, but the district court found that the permit had expired before the plant was completed and that the EPA could therefore not be held liable. A 19 acre wildfire in 1999, a 24 acre wildfire in 2002, and an 11 acre wildfire in 2006 led to sharp declines in the Lange’s metalmark population. From 2012 to 2016, drought disrupted the timing of the butterfly’s life cycle and that of their food sources, causing an abrupt drop in reproduction. These factors suggest that human practices have had a cumulative effect, with climate change emerging as a larger force that is contributing to the extreme loss of this species in recent years. Last year, in 2018, the total count for the butterflies across eight weeks was 20, and the peak count, or the most counted on any one day, was 6.

Lange’s Metalmark Butterfly. Photo courtesy of U>S> Fish and Wildlife.

A recent report on the captive breeding program for the Lange’s metalmark at Moorpark College states, “The conditions for population growth of Lange’s metalmark at ADNWR should occur in the coming years, and a pressing need exists to keep the butterfly from slipping into extinction before those conditions occur. The captive breeding program is a temporary measure, but an essential one, to ensure that newly restored habitats have butterflies in place when environmental conditions become optimal and to reinforce populations in existing habitats.” Everyone involved in efforts to save the Lange’s metalmark is waiting eagerly for some sign that the population is turning around.

The refuge has served as a way to preserve land that would otherwise have become private property. Despite his skepticism about the reserve, Brink acknowledges that had the federal government not purchased this land, that it would most likely still be closed to the public today, because all of the other property currently owned by various industries is closed to the public. He observed that liability is more of a concern now than it was decades ago.

It is clear, then, that the refuge is serving the public in several important ways. First, it is helping to preserve habitat and local species which are part of the memories that many local residents hold dear. Second, the refuge has forged many partnerships with local industries and government agencies, and these relationships could form the groundwork for future partnerships and negotiations within the community to increase public access to the waterfront. And third, the refuge serves as a sort of placeholder or temporary property holder that buys time so that residents of Antioch, the Delta, and the state may ponder and discuss visions for the future of this waterfront gem.

Lange’s Metalmark Butterfly. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

It is not inconceivable that this waterfront area could yet become a space that accommodates thriving, sustainable industry which will also allow Antioch’s offspring, both human and of many other species, to flourish in a revitalized urban setting. It will take time, patience, and negotiation to build such a future. The ADNWR, if supported by industry, government, and the public, may be able to serve as a model or even as a liaison for partnership between multiple sectors. As the partnership between the ADNWR and the Port of Stockton demonstrates, with patience and good faith effort on all sides, negotiating mutually satisfactory scenarios is not beyond reach. Some fences may remain, but how we use them, the meanings we assign to them, and who and what they keep out and keep in, may be more malleable and negotiable than it might seem. 

When we look at the history of the region, and the memory and lives of the young of all species that have flourished here, political divides begin to break down. What emerges is the need to think creatively and carefully about how this region can be both preserved and developed. If we as people are “not going away,” we may think about how our need for a thriving economy and for our ways of life have sometimes worked both for and against the environments, the people, and the livelihoods that we love and need. There are no easy answers to these questions, but negotiating as the ADNWR and the Port of Stockton have done, and learning more about the memories, practices, and priorities of wildlife refuges, industries, and local residents, may promote civil and productive dialogue that could allow us to re-envision the way we live in this beloved region.

Antioch Bridge as seen from the Antioch Dunes. Photo by Beverly Knight.


If you or members of your community would be interested in sharing your stories with the Delta Protection Commission for its anthology of sources, please contact Carrie.Alexander@delta.ca.gov. For further information on the anthology project, please visit delta.ca.gov/anthology.

To volunteer with the annual butterfly survey or for more information on the Antioch Dunes Wildlife Refuge, please call 707-769-4200 or visit their website at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/antioch_dunes/. Public tours take place on the second Saturday of every month from 10 AM to 11 AM. They meet at 501 Fulton Shipyard Road in Antioch. Reservations are not necessary.

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