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Climate-Smart Restoration: Levee breach transforms 1000 acres of Sears Point farmland back into wetlands

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Levee breach transforms [1000 acres of] Sears Point farmland back into wetlands

BY DEREK MOORE AND DIANE PETERSON THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

October 25, 2015, 6:37PM

Cooled by a stiff breeze off San Pablo Bay, about 300 supporters and partners of the Sonoma Land Trust cheered on Sunday as an excavator’s crane broke through a 140-year-old Sears Point levee, allowing saltwater to flood back over 1,000 acres of reclaimed oat hay fields at the southern tip of Sonoma County. As the water rushed in, the crowd of government officials and others involved in the decade-old Sears Point Restoration Project threw balls of pickleweed seeds into the mud to aid the wetland’s rebirth. It is expected to take another 25 to 30 years before the marshland’s vegetation and wildlife comes back completely, but a flock of sandpipers swept in Sunday to investigate the small levee breach, which will be widened to 285 feet. “Historically, over a quarter of the bay’s estuarine habitat was up here at the north end of the bay,” said Don Brubaker, the National Wildlife Refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of about two dozen partners in the project. “We’re going to see ducks coming in, and wading birds like herons and egrets … eventually, salmon could move in here.” About 1,000 members of the public were expected at a tour of the levee site later Sunday. The morning breach was just the start of the work planned this week by the Sonoma County Land Trust, which plans to lower about a mile of the old levee and cut another 285-foot breach along Tolay Creek.
During the past three years, the Sonoma County Land Trust has excavated a channel for the tidal water to enter the field and used the soil to build a new levee protecting the railroad tracks about a mile to the north, which will become the new northern edge of San Pablo Bay. Public access to the site is expected in early 2016, once safety measures at a railroad crossing are added. Sunday’s celebration started at 10:30 a.m. with a festive brunch and a string of speakers from various organizations and government, including Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena; state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Solano; Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa; and Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt.

Officials praised the restoration project’s many benefits, saying it will lessen the impact of rising sea levels, protect against floods, filter runoff pollution and attract wildlife.
“We are putting a big down payment toward our sea-level-rise insurance policy,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the southwest regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. “I have spent a lot of time trying to make levees bigger and stronger, so this is ironic,” Wolk said. “But what we learned with (Hurricane) Katrina is that when the Mississippi Delta was eliminated, that created more of a problem when the sea rose.”

….The project adds nearly 1,000 acres toward a goal first established by the scientific community in 1999 of restoring 100,000 acres of wetlands in the Bay Area. About 45,000 acres have been restored to date, according to Save the Bay.

Meisler, with the land trust, confessed Friday that he had major doubts whether the tidal restoration would ever be realized. Perhaps the greatest hurdle was finding money for the project. The land trust raised $20 million to acquire the property in 2005 and raised another $18 million for the restoration work. Major donors included the state Wildlife Conservation Board ($5 million), California Coastal Conservancy ($3.2 million) and the Environmental Protection Agency ($2.5 million). There also have been many technical challenges with the project. To raise the farmland by about 7 feet, project managers are relying on the natural process of allowing tides to carry sediment into the area versus the standard — and more expensive — practice of trucking dirt in. The natural approach has never been tried before on a project of this size. Crews added more than 500 small islands to support marsh plants, act as wind breaks and filter out sediment from the incoming tides.

Standing in the dry basin Friday, his boots caked in dirt, Meisler acknowledged not knowing what would happen once water began flowing in. Asked to describe what it would look like in 30 years at the spot where he stood, he replied, “at least six feet under water and covered with pickleweed.”

 

Observers watch the levee being breached Sunday at Sears Point Ranch near Highway 37. A 1,000-acre tidal basin was created for the marsh restoration project. (Frankie Frost/Marin Independent Journal)

San Pablo Bay tidal basin flooded for marsh restoration project

By Janis Mara, Marin Independent Journal Posted: 10/25/15, 9:04 PM PDT | Updated: 1 hr ago

The long arm of the excavator scooped up a load of mud from the levee, and as onlookers gasped, the waters of San Pablo Bay flooded the tidal marsh basin Sunday at Sears Point Ranch in Sonoma County. The moment was the product of 10 years of planning and $18 million in funds, plus tireless work on the part of lead agency Sonoma Land Trust and more than a dozen governmental and advocacy groups. “The restoration of tidal flows is incredibly important,” state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, told a group of about 300 activists and dignitaries who watched the levee breaching at noon. Nearly 1,000 members of the public signed up to watch the water flowing into the recently constructed 1,000-acre tidal marsh basin off Reclamation Road near Highway 37 at 2 p.m. “(The tidal basin) will be the first line of defense against rising sea levels and the intense storms we know are to come,” Wolk said. “The delta and its survival are part of our national heritage and we must protect it,” Wolk said. “Fresh water mixes with the salty Pacific Ocean and this is what makes this ecosystem special. All species depend on tides and wetlands.”
The project is one of several restoring thousands of acres of marshland around the bay….The levee at Novato’s former Hamilton Field was breached in April 2014, unleashing the bay’s waters into the 648-acre area. That $200 million project will help restore the habitat for the California clapper rail, the salt marsh harvest mouse, fish and tidal plants. “It’s a thrill to be out here today to see the breach happening,” said Roger Leventhal, a senior engineer with Marin County. He was previously a design engineer for the preliminary design for the Sears Point Ranch project. “If you look at what happened at Hamilton and will hopefully happen in Novato, we will have a string of wetlands all the way from China Camp all the way around up to the Napa River,” Leventhal said. The next step in the Bay Area-wide plan is restoration of 1,850 acres north of Hamilton, including a large part of Bel Marin Keys….. “Today we are seeing what is the beginning of a new segment of the trail, two and a half miles,” said planner Maureen Gaffney of the San Francisco Bay Trail project. “This will connect to an existing one that is one and a half miles away at Sonoma Baylands, and will eventually make a ring around the entire San Francisco Bay.” Gaffney added, “The access for hiking and biking and wildlife viewing is amazing.”…

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