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.

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

Set Sail on a Wine Regatta for the Bay

Eastside Bunch Wineries
Sip wine to Save The Bay this Saturday in Healdsburg.

Where can you drink wine, eat seafood, and save the Bay this weekend? Why, the Eastside Winery Regatta in Healdsburg of course!

$5 from each ticket and 10% of the day’s wine sales is donated to Save The Bay.

Sail over to the 8 wineries of Sonoma County’s Eastside Bunch, as they embark on celebrating the Bay Area leg of the America’s Cup race and navigate their support to Save The Bay. Each location will be pairing wine with a superb seafood dish (think fresh oysters, seafood pizza, paella and more) provided by Diavola Pizzeria, Chef Peter Leary and Chef Fabiano Ramaci to name a few.

When: This Saturday, August 4, 2012, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Where: Check in at any Eastside Bunch winery, listed below

Purchase tickets: $35 in advance, $45 at the door, $10 for designated driver tickets.

Save The Bay is excited to be the non-profit partner and beneficiary of this Sonoma County event. A special thanks to the Eastside Bunch for helping to ensure a healthier San Francisco Bay for future generations.

– Kaitlin Chandler, Development Associate