The Story of Cullinan Ranch

Update 1/6/15:

In a dramatic moment, on Jan. 6 work crews breached the levee that has kept Cullinan Ranch, 1,200 acres of diked wetlands in the Napa River Delta, unnaturally dry for more than a century. Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis, Habitat Restoration Director Donna Ball, and I joined representatives from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and other partners to celebrate the culmination of a decades-long effort to restore the site. What’s next? Project designers expect near-immediate resurgence of waterfowl and shorebirds, and with tidal waters already beginning to carry natural sediment to the site, native plants will eventually take root and re-establish habitat for our Bay’s wild creatures. Read the full story of Cullinan Ranch below. -Cyril Manning

The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via
The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via

Cullinan Ranch is a 1500-acre parcel of former tidal marsh at the top of San Pablo Bay, part of the Napa River Delta. As you can see from the map at right, it is an important puzzle piece in the sprawling restoration of the whole northern part of San Francisco Bay, work that has been described as an “aquatic renaissance… turning back the clock 150 years and transforming the area between Vallejo and Sonoma Raceway.”

Like nearly all the tidal marsh around San Francisco Bay, Cullinan was diked off in the 1880s to be farmland (see this nice timeline covering the history of the site). A proposed residential marina community nearly destroyed the area 25 years ago, but the proposal was defeated in 1987.

After the site was proposed for development, Save The Bay joined with local residents in Vallejo and hired Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger to sue over the “Egret Bay” development, which proposed thousands of homes on this restorable site, below sea level. Getting involved in the battle was a first for Save The Bay – actually advocating for restoration of a diked former wetland, not just against new fill and inappropriate shoreline development.

That successful lawsuit, along with the denial of construction permits by BCDC and the US Army Corps of Engineers, put a stop to Egret Bay, making possible Cullinan’s purchase by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1989, and protection as a wildlife refuge.  Now, this site — one and a half times the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park — is being returned to marsh as part of the West Coast’s largest wetland restoration effort.

After the site was first diked off for grazing and oat hay, the marshland dried out and compacted like a sponge, and now lies six to nine feet below sea level.  When the levees are opened later this year, the site will initially be open water and mud flats, then sediment from the Napa River and Bay will eventually build up, so that tidal marsh vegetation can begin to grow back.

Another key challenge is restoring the property while protecting the critical infrastructure that runs through and around it. A levee to protect Highway 37 from the new tidal action is the single most expensive element in the $16 million wetland restoration project. The SF Bay Don Edwards and San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuges are crisscrossed by much of the region’s critical transportation, electrical and water supply infrastructure, which add expensive urban complexities that are not usually a part of refuge restoration projects.

As local scientists, communities, and conservationists work together to bring us closer to the 100,000 acres of tidal marsh needed for a healthy Bay, sites like Cullinan Ranch serve as a valuable model and inspiration.  They show we can succeed in preventing projects like Cargill’s proposal to build homes in a Redwood City salt pond, and instead ensure that site is restored along with other ponds, together restoring the Bay for people and wildlife.

How Big is 100,000 Billion?

Bay Area homes stand below water level behind levee
Even without the significant impacts of sea level rise, some Bay Area communities are already at risk (Photo Credit: Matt Leddy).

Last month the National Academy of Sciences released a report describing the”unfathomable costs” faced by coastal societies around the globe from sea level rise. “The world needs to invest tens of billions of dollars a year in beefing up shoreline defenses against rising oceans or it will face mind-boggling costs in the decades to come,” reported Inside Climate News.

The scientists warned in their new report that future damage caused by sea level rise may be “one of the most costly aspects of climate change.” The report projected a worst-case dollar cost of $100 trillion by 2100. That’s a scary number – 100,000 billion dollars, across the globe.

Save The Bay is working to keep you informed and engaged on issues related to sea level rise around the San Francisco Bay region, where the impact from sea level rise is projected to be around $50 billion. As the National Academy of Sciences story points out, the response to this threat is not just building or hardening infrastructure like seawalls but also “preserving natural sponges like wetlands.”

This soft infrastructure is not just cheaper than old-fashioned hard engineering alternatives, it brings many benefits for people and wildlife over the long term. Healthy wetlands provide a natural buffer against storms and sea level rise by acting as sponges to absorb excess water along the Bay shoreline. Newly restored wetlands are making leopard sharks happy in the South Bay, where they are finding lots more to eat in wetlands being restored there than they did when the salt ponds were closed off from the Bay. The restoration also often includes new shoreline trails and public access, places to get your kids and the whole family outdoors on weekend outings. Of course, this work has to make progress now to stay ahead of the rising seas – and we’ve reported to you about significant wetland restoration progress to date.

I am hoping that you can see the connection between a prediction of massive potential damage from sea level rise around the world, and happy sharks and happy kids on the SF Bay shoreline. This great new video from a local college student helps put the Bay restoration project in perspective – please watch and share it. Because a healthy San Francisco Bay is vital to the quality of life and economy of all of us here in the region. Plans to adapt to rising seas may be difficult and expensive, in the Bay Area as elsewhere, but we are better served by facing the realities rather than ignoring them – and there are many benefits from restoring Bay wetlands to help the whole region cope.


Sharing Inspiration to Save San Francisco Bay

Bart Ad
There’s a long history of fighting to save the Bay

It is interesting to learn how much the effort to save the Redwood City salt ponds from development is an inspiration to people all around the Bay Area. We are proud to be in the lead against this scheme to build a new city at sea level in San Francisco Bay, the biggest threat to our Bay in 50 years.

The campaign to save this important site for restoration already goes back at least a decade. Wherever I go and often no matter what subject is on the agenda, people I am meeting with frequently bring it up and ask about Cargill. And the context is invariably positive and supportive of Save The Bay’s work. It’s apparent that the Bay Area community is broadly inspired by this Baylands protection effort, by the folly of the Bayfill housing plan contrasted with the restoration vision for the site, and probably also by the drama of a small environmental group dueling one of the largest corporations on earth.

These are just a few recent examples:

  • A Bay Area high school student was recently in touch with Save The Bay and wrote a school paper about the controversial Cargill proposal. We regularly hear from students who are researching and writing about this issue, from law school to elementary schools. But this paper was a bit different. The student called us back to tell us that his paper had inspired his teacher to make a donation to Save The Bay.
  • Starting back in 2009, a group of current and former elected officials learned about Cargill’s threat to fill in these restorable salt ponds and began collecting names from each other to use their voices as community leaders to say “no.” Their collective statement of opposition to the grew rapidly in 2009 and 2010 until there are today almost 200 state and local leaders representing millions of Bay Area residents who are proud to publicly denounce plans to build in a restorable salt pond.
  • Most recently, we have seen months of engagement around the Cargill campaign from a group of second graders at Aurora Elementary School in Oakland. They have petitioned the Army Corps and the USEPA and gotten a notable response. They wrote to Cargill and also got a response from their Bay Area land manager, who reached out but then declined to participate in a debate with Save The Bay. And they made a video, which we hope to be able to share with you.

We ourselves are inspired by the work of so many that have stood up for the Bay over the years, including Matt Leddy & Gail Raabe whose work in Redwood City to preserve their threatened shoreline spans decades. You can watch their story here.


A “Big Day” for Bay Wetland Restoration

"This is enlightened self-interest and insurance against a disaster or sea level rise that could happen tomorrow." - Carl Guardino, Silicon Valley Leadership Group president
San Francisco Bay wetlands

We are thrilled to learn this week that Sonoma Land Trust purchased Haire Ranch in the North Bay. Ownership of this 1100 acres is essential to the ability to restore tidal influence at Skaggs Island, covering an area four times greater than just the former ranch itself – altogether 3000 football fields in size. That’s a lot of marsh!

SLT calls the ranch “the holy grail of conservation projects.” Progress toward a tidal Skaggs has been pending since the Navy left the site 20 years ago, because the restoration of Skaggs Island could not proceed without Haire also being flooded.

San Francisco Bay is the heart of our region and people and wildlife stand to gain dramatically from this work, part of the largest tidal restoration project on the West CoastWe are working to identify the resources to double the Bay’s current tidal marsh, protecting shoreline communities and vital infrastructure all around our region while creating better habitat and improving water quality.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the California Coastal Conservancy helped fund SLT’s purchase of Haire Ranch. Many thanks to them and all the many partners who are working to make this vision a reality.

I was out on the shoreline at dusk on Monday evening in Palo Alto and again this morning in Hayward. It is amazing how beautiful and truly wild — full of wildlife – these areas can be. I hope you all will find some time over the holidays to get out into our amazing SF Bay shoreline.

Remembering Senator Petris

This Sunday I was honored to celebrate the life of Senator Nicholas Petris at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Ascension. The former Senator died in March, after serving 37 years in the state legislature.

Senator Petris co-sponsored the groundbreaking McAteer-Petris Act, the 1965 law sought by our founders that established the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). Save The Bay worked closely with Petris and others to enact this vital legislation, so we were invited by the Ascension Historical Society to speak at the memorial.

Senator Petris among others with Governor Reagan at the signing ceremony for the creation of BCDC.
Senator Petris among others with Governor Reagan at the signing ceremony for the creation of BCDC.

The Senator stands behind Governor Reagan in this photo, as the governor signs this groundbreaking environmental regulation into law.

BCDC was the first coastal-zone management agency in the world, a progressive reform that blazed a path for the California Coastal Commission and many other agencies and organizations dedicated to preserving our natural marine environment.

I was thrilled to meet Nick’s brother, Gus Petris, and to learn about many significant accomplishments of this Oakland native who did so much for his city, the region and the people of the State of California. In her opening remarks, Elaine Moulos, head of the historical society, said out loud what I was thinking: we badly need people like Nicholas Petris in government today.