Nothing is Sometimes Better Than Something – Restoring San Francisco Bay

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Oil Painting: New Beginnings – Pat Meier-Johnson

I have fond childhood memories of drives to rural Sonoma County, of looking back at distant San Francisco over a vast stretch of farmland at grazing cattle, a trail of dust billowing as an old farm vehicle crossed the field. Little did I know, but that was a bad thing.

Diking and other development had reduced San Francisco Bay tidal wetlands by 85 percent since the late 1800s and together with climate change, these areas became vulnerable to storm surges, pollution runoff, endangering animals such as baby crab, salmon and other species critical to the wetlands ecosystem.

Today I make that same trip along the Baylands toward Sears Point and I see nothing. The long expanse of open space off Highway 37 is almost empty save a handful of old barns and a wetland teeming with birds.

And that is a good thing.

But all could have gone very wrong.

For one thing, The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria had an option to build a 200-room hotel and casino on this precious land.

Something had to be done

Rescuing the Land and the Water

The 1970’s were a great time for the genesis of numerous land trust organizations founded by people who recognized the importance and value of preserving open land. The Sonoma Land Trust, a non-governmental organization dedicated to conserving open land raised $20 million and acquired the Sears Point property, adding it to the segments of Bay lands they had been buying since the 1980’s. The tribe donated their option on the land and built their casino elsewhere. But that was only the beginning.

It would take another $18 million of heavy lifting, excavating across existing marsh and mudflats to connect with other channels in the bay, allowing tidal water to deliver sediment so that local marsh plants could become established. The Sonoma Land Trust collaborated with several organizations to create a “habitat” levee that provides flood protection and wildlife refuge during extreme tides and storms. Months of work went into preparing the land, building marsh mounds, six feet tall that mimic the highs and lows of the tides, break up eroding wind and catch sediment to nourish tidal marsh plants and wildlife. Slanted banks would allow wildlife more chances to hide from predators during extreme tides than before, when they were forced onto the tops of old levees where they were easy prey.

And then the dam broke…on purpose.

VIDEO: SONOMA LAND TRUST

On October 25, 2015, an earthmover bit into the old levee, gorging itself on the earth until a trickle and then a stream and then a flood of water moved into the basin that had not seen bay water for more than a century. Native plants had been restored, the marsh mounds were ready to protect little mollusks, and almost immediately, as if in a flyover salute, shorebirds streamed across the new body of water.

Today, you can look east and west across Highway 37 and see nothing but open tidal land protected by the Sonoma Land Trust. The acquisition of the 1000 acres of the Sears Point marshlands means that they are now protected forever, being restored and becoming a natural attraction in their own right.

As an added attraction, a new 2.5-mile extension of the Bay Trail  lets people walk along the marshlands, sit on benches, view Mt. Diablo, Mt. Tamalpais and the San Francisco skyline, observe the wildlife and learn about it from interpretive signage. The Sonoma Land Trust has, since 1976, protected more than 48,000 acres of open space to keep it open and wild forever.

A real good thing.

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