Since time immemorial the wetlands where the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary now sits were an important source of food, and a transportation and trade network for the Wiyot people. From their permanent villages on higher ground around Humboldt Bay the Wiyot used tidal fluctuations to maneuver redwood canoes through the waterways as far as villages along the Mad River. Fish, bivalves, and crustaceans, waterfowl, and marine mammals provided meat. Marsh, creek and pond plants provided various berries and root foods, as well as materials for basket making and other uses.
The Wiyot managed and worked with their wetland environment, in contrast to European-Americans who, after settling the area in 1850, began altering the area to suit their commercial enterprises. Along with overt violence against the Wiyot, this reconfiguring of the land and water displaced and killed most of the original inhabitants.
By 1853 the first redwood lumber mill opened on Campbell Creek. A year later the ill-conceived Mad River Canal diverted tons of sediment into the north bay, and a year after that the Union Wharf and rail line were built in the bay to bring mining supplies in, and send lumber out. A new creamery built in 1892 encouraged the dairy industry which led to the diking of marshland to create pasture. From 1904 to 1960 Arcata’s sewage system dumped raw sewage into the bay, and in 1906 the foot of F Street became the City Dump. It was not until 1962 that clean-up, reclamation and rehabilitation of the area began after the City of Arcata acquired acres of former marshland.
The sites of the landfill and several lumber mills are still visible. Closed and capped in 1973, the landfill was rechristened “Mount Trashmore,” and it now supports grasslands and Monterey pines that attract wildlife. Klopp Lake was created when bay muds were excavated and used to cap the landfill. The view from Klopp Lake to the south allows visitors to imagine the Arcata Wharf, which reached far out across Humboldt Bay’s shallow waters to convey lumber products to ships that could not reach the shore. The Log Pond, a remnant from the lumber mill, where floating logs were once de-barked, is now a popular location for black-crowned night herons. The Interpretive Center, built on the concrete foundation of a defunct mill, houses art shows, exhibits, a book/gift shop, an information desk, and restrooms.
The Arcata Marsh we enjoy today would not exist were it not for Arcata’s pioneering wastewater treatment plant and two important experiments conducted there by Humboldt State University and the City of Arcata.
In the mid-1970s, the State of California cracked down on the discharge of wastewater into bays and estuaries unless “enhancement” of the receiving water could be proven. This law effectively made most wastewater plants in the Humboldt Bay area obsolete. The Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant, which originally discharged primary-treated effluent into Humboldt Bay, was then the site of an experiment by HSU fisheries professor Dr. George Allen. Dr. Allen had been doing research at the plant since the late 1960s, raising fish in a combination of wastewater and bay water. His experiment taught the state and regional water boards that trout and salmon could be raised in nutrient-rich, secondary-treated wastewater — in other words, that wastewater can be a resource.
The second experiment at the plant would show the state how wastewater can be further enhanced through a natural system of marshes. In 1979, the regional water quality control board required the city to demonstrate that constructed wetlands can treat wastewater to the level of secondary treatment quality. In 1980, Dr. Robert Gearheart, an environmental engineering professor, and HSU students designed and implemented Arcata’s “Pilot Project.” The project consisted of twelve 20 x 200 ft. wetland cells that were built to be operated with varying vegetation and flow rates. The successful results of the Pilot Project were presented to the regional and state water boards, and, in 1983, approval was granted to the city to design, construct, and implement a full-scale wetland treatment system.
The constructed wetlands introduced other benefits: wetland habitat, research, and opportunities for environmental education. Friends of the Arcata Marsh addresses the third, environmental education.