Guest Post | Restoration at Sears Point

Sears Point in Sonoma County. Photo by: Julian Meisler
Unexpected flooding of Sears Point in Sonoma County brought thousands of birds to the site in late December. Photo provided by: Julian Meisler

Julian Meisler is the Baylands Program Manager for Sonoma Land Trust, responsible for overseeing Sonoma Land Trust’s holdings and projects along the bay including the 2,327-acre Sears Point Wetland and Watershed Restoration Project.  When project construction wraps up and levees are breached later this year, tides will rush in and connect this land with the rest of San Francisco Bay for the first time in over 120 years.

Every once in a while there are moments in our jobs, in our careers, when the significance of our work surfaces. I can attest as a field biologist turned project manager that these moments sometimes seem a little too infrequent.  Certainly our goals are lofty and pure but there are times when the day to day blurs to weeks and even years of permit negotiations, grant applications, reports, and presentations.  Alas, there are restorative moments that punctuate individual days of the year – a frog survey here, a rare plant survey there – and serve as reminders of why we do what we do.

But I’m talking about bigger moments.

For a little more than five years I have devoted myself almost entirely to a single project, the restoration of the 2,327-acre Sears Point property.  In 2005, Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) completed the purchase of this property which had come awfully close to being a casino.  The purchase set in motion years of work that would build and refine plans for management, enhancement, and restoration of the hilly pastures and riparian corridors of the uplands and the farmlands of the diked agricultural baylands below.  The most ambitious element of the plans would be the restoration of nearly 1,000 acres of the baylands to tidal marsh.

I came to the project after a lot of hard work had been done.  Surveys, studies, and assessments were compiled into a conceptual restoration plan and a draft EIR/EIS was complete.  My predecessor and a host of top consultants had laid the groundwork for the project.  My job was to get it done.  With our project partners at Ducks Unlimited and several agencies we slogged through more complications than the untrained eye would expect.  There were radio stations concerned with loss of power, PG&E installations and removals, threats from the NRA, evictions, deals, demolition, remediation, and budgets as convoluted as a fifth order tidal channel.  Not a single one of these topics, I might add, was ever mentioned in the tattered ecology textbooks of school, there were no references to such work in the Jepson Manual, nor even a nod in the soil survey.  This was project management through and through.

Yet we finalized the plans, we secured the permits, and we raised the money, and we began, in earnest, in 2014.  Beginning last summer, construction proceeded from dawn to dusk, six days a week for six months straight (without a single safety violation!).  The land was transformed and a buzz began to sound in the community.  By mid-December I was ready for a break and headed to cold and gray Pittsburgh, PA for visit to the land where I was raised.  It happened to be the week that the elusive El Nino briefly reared its head unleashing an atmospheric river that would rapidly and unexpectedly flood our future 1,000-acre tidal basin under three feet of fresh water.  Sunken from view were the six miles of channels that we’d excavated to build a 2.5-mile flood control/habitat levee.  Protruding from the water’s surface were the heads of 500 marsh mounds we’d built for the primary purpose of suppressing wind waves and thereby encouraging sediment deposition when the tides ultimately return next fall.  Ironically, rows and rows of oat hay sprouted along the crest and sides of the new levee overlooking the drowned fields that had grown that very crop for decades.  In fact, we had asked the farmer to seed our levee in order to buy us time to plan our ecotone and prevent the seemingly inevitable influx of non-native species.  All of this was rather remarkable for me to return to, having missed the storm entirely.

But the punctuation occurred on New Year’s Eve Day.  I visited the site to reoccupy the various photo points that I’d set up the previous year to track change over time.  This made for a long trek down the 2.5 miles of the new levee and the five miles of the old levee.  In the late afternoon, having covered a good number of these miles, I looked out over the water where farm houses and barns once stood.  Over a mile away the engines of the interminably busy Highway 37 were quieted by a typical afternoon backup.  Their sound was replaced by the flutter, the splash, and the whistles of what must have been thousands of ducks, geese, and shorebirds.  It was remarkable how quickly it had happened.  The site had been flooded for such a short period but these birds, some resident, some migrants, had found it.  It was habitat that hadn’t been seen on that site in generations.  I was struck and I was silenced.  Five years of work blended into a single meaningful moment. A moment of true punctuation.

The final denouement at Sears Point will actually occur this coming fall when we breach the levee.  It will mark the return of the tides for the first time in more than 120 years.  Unlike my private celebration on the eve of 2015, it will be public, the way it should be, for all to witness and enjoy.  Look for an announcement in the months to come.

– Julian Meisler