Tide Rushes in at Sears Point: A Great Example of what Measure AA Can Do

The Sonoma Land Trust captured this dramatic video of the Sears Point levee breach.
More than a decade of planning, permitting, and restoration work culminated on October 25 with the breaching of a levee that had separated San Francisco Bay from a newly restored marshland at Sears Point, located near San Pablo Bay in Sonoma County.  For the first time in over 120 years, tidal flow is now occurring between the Bay and the 960 acre site, which was historically a wetland but had been diked, drained, and used for farming for decades.

The successful restoration at Sears Point illustrates the many benefits of regional Measure AA, which will fund similar crucial projects around the Bay Area.

The new marshland will filter excess nutrients from runoff and prevent them from reaching the Bay.  It will be a carbon sink, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  It will serve as habitat for species like the endangered Ridgway’s rail and salt marsh harvest mouse.  And it will serve as a natural bulwark against flooding caused by future storms and sea level rise.

Previously, the Sears Point Ranch property was proposed to be developed into a casino owned by the local Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.  However, the Graton Tribe ultimately dropped its purchasing rights for the site in 2003.  The Sonoma Land Trust, which preserves environmentally significant land in Sonoma County, bought the property in 2005 and began working with several funders and stakeholders to restore the ecosystem to its natural state.

The wetland restoration project broke ground in June 2014.  Agricultural hayfields were replaced with a grid of specially designed dirt mounds.  The mounds will help slow the speed of incoming water, causing the sediment contained in the water to drop out and settle into the marshland, where it can help anchor ongoing plant growth.  Additionally, a new levee was constructed to protect adjacent property and infrastructure.  The levee will double as new habitat for species that inhabit the ecological transition zone between the tidal marsh and the upland.

On October 25, hundreds of spectators came to observe the removal of the levee separating the Bay from the future wetland.  Within moments of an excavator crane scooping away the earthen barrier, water began pouring down into the site, to sustained cheers and applause from the gathered crowd.  Attendees were given small pods containing pickleweed seeds in order to participate in the re-seeding of the marshland.  I had the pleasure of witnessing the breach, along with Save The Bay’s habitat restoration director, Donna Ball, and our communications director, Cyril Manning.

The project also demonstrates the value of governmental and non-governmental entities working together towards a common environmental goal.  The Sonoma Land Trust partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, and Ducks Unlimited, among others, in funding and planning this $18 million restoration effort.

The work at Sears Point Ranch is by no means complete.  In the coming years, more investments will be made to improve the newly constructed levee, enhance public access, and fully reestablish tidal action and hydrology at the site. However, it is already contributing to a region-wide movement to reverse the damage caused over the past 150 years by wetland degradation and destruction.

According to scientists, the Bay needs to see accelerated action on more projects like Sears Point in next few decades. You can help ensure that the 36,000 acres of baylands awaiting restoration are given the funding they deserve by voting YES on Measure AA this June 7th.

Restoration Depends on the Tides…and People

When you hear the words wetland restoration, what image comes to mind? I’ll admit, before I worked for Save The Bay, I had very little idea of what the term meant, and even less idea of the actual process of restoring lost tidal marsh to the Bay’s shores.

Now I carry an indelible snapshot of a backhoe breaching a levee at high tide and brackish water rushing over the crystalized surface of a barren, former salt pond for the first time in over 100 years. For a soundtrack, there are cheers from a crowd of bystanders—some who have worked their entire lives for this moment. You can see exactly what I saw in the video below.

The levee breach I witnessed at pond A17 in Alviso, along with Save The Bay’s Executive Director, David Lewis, our Director of Restoration, Donna Ball, and our Senior Scientist, Laura Wainer, was historic. Situated at the southern tip of the Bay in the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, pond A17 is part of The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, the largest tidal wetland restoration project on the West Coast. When complete, the project will have restored more than 15,000 acres of former salt ponds to tidal wetlands. The moment that enormous shovel scooped up its first load of levee soil was the result of decades of groundwork and coordination among ordinary citizens, elected officials, scientists, wildlife managers, and conservation organizations.

So what does restoration look like? Unlike the hard work that precedes it, it doesn’t actually involve much human intervention. The pond will slowly fill over about a week’s time. As the tides flow into the pond, they bring with them Bay sediment and the seeds of the native marsh plants that will one day grow lush. Over the next five years, this white, salty, no-man’s land will build in elevation with mud, which will allow the seeds to take root and establish themselves into a pickleweed salt marsh. “We’re setting the table and letting Mother Nature do the heavy lifting for us,” says John Bourgeois, Executive Project Manager of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project.

As the tides become reestablished they help create the habitat for an entire ecosystem of invertebrates, birds, and other Bay creatures. To get an idea of what this area will look like, visit Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, a project that was begun in 2003 and continues still. You can also enjoy the salt marsh experience via your computer through our Virtual Marsh.

Wetlands are important to the health of the Bay and our entire ecosystem for many reasons: They provide habitat for wildlife, filter pollutants before they reach the Bay, offer opportunities for public access and recreation, and protect communities from sea level rise –something we should all be paying more attention to after Hurricane Sandy. San Francisco Bay has lost 90% of its original wetlands. Scientists say that we need 100,000 acres for the Bay to thrive, yet less than 45,000 acres exist. Learn more about restoration projects around the Bay and come out and volunteer on one of our programs.