Celebrate Sonoma’s shoreline this Bay Day

San Pablo Bay borders just a few square miles of Sonoma County, but its significance to locals is far greater than the area it covers.

It is part of our identity — after all, don’t we in Sonoma County refer to ourselves as the North Bay?

We rely on the Bay for recreation and the health of our economy. Its tidal wetlands sequester carbon, provide habitat for endangered and threatened species, filter bay waters, and protect us from sea level rise. The Bay is an extension of our open space — and as such, we at Sonoma Land Trust aim to protect it for future generations.

That is the motivation behind our Sears Point Restoration Project. After purchasing the property in 2005, Sonoma Land Trust began planning and fundraising to bring the tides back to 1,000 acres of former wetland at Sears Point, which neighbors the Sonoma Raceway and overlooks the Bay.

The project took 10 years, $17.9 million and the efforts of our amazing partners. The land was diked to create farmland in the mid-1800s and remained dry until Oct. 25, 2015, when we joined our partners and supporters to look on as we breached the levee and the waters of San Pablo Bay came rushing into to fill the tidal basin.

Photo by Michael Woolsey
Photo by Michael Woolsey

We immediately saw the effects of the returning tides.  Within a few days, shorebirds and waterfowl had already flocked to the restoration site. After the levee breach, the site was closed to the public for a few months while construction — which included a new 2.5-mile section of Bay Trail — was completed and finishing touches were put in place.

The Bay Trail was opened to the public on May 15, 2016, and the land was transferred to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, becoming part of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The site will take 20 to 30 years to shift from open water to a fully vegetated marsh — but, thanks to that new section of Bay Trail, it is a process that Bay Area residents can now bear witness to as they walk, hike or cycle for fun or to work.

Sonoma Land Trust formed a docent program for those who love and want to learn more about the Bay. Every Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., docents are stationed at the site with birding scopes, ready to impart their wisdom, dispense knowledge, or simply walk with visitors along the trail.

We are also celebrating Bay Day on Saturday, Oct. 1 at Sears Point! Local expert Roger Leventhal will give us a look into the future of the Bay, and teach us about climate change adaptation strategies as climate change continues to raise sea levels.

Afterwards, we will join the docents for a walk along the marsh. Whether you show up early for the talk or drop in for the marsh hike, it is a great way to celebrate Bay Day — and show how much you love the Bay.

Photo by Lance Kuehne
Photo by Lance Kuehne

This blog was written by Nicole Na, Sonoma Land Trust Communications Coordinator. 

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

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.

China Camp State Park: A San Francisco Bay Treasure

China Camp tour
Save The Bay supporters tour China Camp with Donna Ball and Doug Serrill.

Last weekend Save The Bay’s Nursery Manager, Doug Serrill and I had the opportunity to take advantage of the warm spring weather and hike two of the many trails at China Camp State Park with a number of Save The Bay Board members, guests, family, and friends.   Group participants included long-time supporters and founding members of Save The Bay, new Save The Bay members, and long-time conservationists who have worked hard over their lifetime to preserve and protect important wetlands around San Francisco Bay.

China Camp has a rich history as a Coast Miwok hunting ground, Chinese shrimping village, and more recently as a State Park.  Our group of 40 guests and staff arrived early in the morning eager to hike and learn about the area.   We divided into two groups and each group had the chance to learn about the ecology of tidal marshes and to see one of the few remaining relict marshes of San Francisco Bay, while the other group learned about native grasses and oak woodlands and got to view the spring wildflowers on the hill slopes above the marsh.   Being outdoors on a beautiful Saturday morning was incredible, but more importantly it was an amazing opportunity to share the morning with people who have a common passion for the work of Save The Bay and for protecting and preserving wetlands and valuable places like China Camp that make San Francisco Bay such a wonderful place to live.

There were a surprising number of people in our group who had never been to China Camp.   If you too have never been there, be sure to find time soon to visit this State Park gem with 1,500 acres of hiking, biking, and picnicking opportunities situated at the edge of San Pablo Bay.  China Camp is currently operated by Friends of China Camp who work with the California State Parks to ensure that China Camp is available to everyone 365 days a year.  If you would like to know more, visit www.friendsofchinacamp.org.