Work has started on the $18-million Sears Point wetland restoration project south of Highway 37, but it could be 30 years or more until nature completes what the Sonoma Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited have started.
The 960-acre project, which represents the largest private tidal marsh restoration project in the San Francisco Bay and one of the largest on the West Coast, got under way on Friday.
“When this project is complete,” said Julian Meisler, the Sonoma Land Trust Baylands program manager, “it will require us to rewrite the map ofv San Francisco Bay.”
More than 85 percent of San Francisco Bay’s historic tidal wetlands were lost beginning in the late 1800s when extensive diking of marshes took place and land was “reclaimed” for growing oat hay and wheat, and grazing dairy cows, to supply the growing city of San Francisco. The Sears Point project will assist in turning back this loss by reintroducing the tides and, as a result, restoring critical habitats for wildlife, protecting against sea level rise, improving water quality and expanding the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Meisler bemoaned the loss of natural filters and said, “Restoring the marshes will protect us.” He said there are 500 species of plants and animals that call the future marshes home including 20 threatened species.
The project includes nearly 500 marsh mounds – 50- to 70-foot-wide islands scattered about, designed to buffer the waves that cause erosion and roil the water.
The property, south of Highway 37 by Lakeville Road, is where the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria were originally going to build a new casino.
Meisler praised the tribe, which paid $4.2 million in 2003 for an option to purchase the land. But later that year, the tribe changed plans and donated the option to the Land Trust and contributed $75,000 for the project. The Land Trust used the option to help buy the $17 million property in 2005, and since then has been doing fundraising for the restoration project.
Sheri Cardo, the Land Trust’s director of communications, said the group is grateful to the tribe. “That made all the difference,” she said.
Meisler said the project will provide flood control, especially important with rising sea levels.
The Land Trust will be building a levee on the south side of the railroad tracks so that the tracks won’t wash away.
After constructing the marsh mounds and moving around some dirt, the Land Trust will breach the levees to San Pablo Bay in about 18 months.
Meisler said the two breaches will be about 300 feet wide. He said the breech on an earlier project right next to this one was only about 25 feet wide and it took a long time to fill with bay water.
Along the levee protecting the railroad tracks will be a trail with benches, interpretive signs and parking. And the trail will take visitors to the Baylands Center.
The $17.9 million project was funded with contributions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal EPA, the Federal Highway Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state Wildlife Conservancy Board, the Coastal Conservancy, the Department of Water Resources, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
In addition, the Land Trust brought in Ducks Unlimited to provide the final design, assist with the permitting and other environmental regulations and provide construction management services.
“It could be 30 years before we have a tidal marsh here,” Meisler said. “And it could be longer.”