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History of Sonoma Baylands, the ‘big sky country’

Editor’s Note: To the south, Sonoma and Napa counties melt into San Pablo Bay, a coastline of many marshy miles. When healthy, those wetlands function like natural sponges, filtering toxins and absorbing water from tidal surges and rising sea levels. Since 1996, the Sonoma Land Trust has been working to restore portions of that marshland, often breaching levees built by farmers to keep the water out. Here, historical ecologist Arthur Dawson explains the land’s history and its valuable environmental attributes.
The Sonoma Baylands have been nicknamed “big sky country,” and they are. Standing by the edge of the bay, there is a delicious sense of solitude. Millions of people live nearby, but you may not see a single one of them, even though the horizon stretches all the way to Mount Diablo and Tamalpais.
It wasn’t always this way. Fifteen thousand years ago you would have seen a wide valley, greened by countless creeks and dotted with the villages of the First Peoples. Across that valley flowed an enormous river, carrying half the runoff of California. A tremendous roar filled the Golden Gate, as all that water poured over a steep cascade on its way to the ocean, which lay beyond the hills that would become the Farallon Islands.
As the last ice age ended, the sea slowly rose and that valley was transformed into San Francisco Bay. Vast tidal marshes formed as pickleweed, tules and other salt-tolerant plants colonized the water’s advancing edge. This rich habitat attracted myriads of fish and birds. By necessity, the First Peoples periodically moved their villages to higher ground, but stayed close to the marsh because it was such a good place to hunt and fish.
With such abundant resources, the Bay Area was more densely populated than almost anywhere else in the Americas when the Spanish arrived in the 18th century. Groups along the marsh edge soon began losing their people to the missions. Some were taken forcibly, others chose to leave. Introduced diseases, against which they had no immunity, also took a heavy toll.
Read more at: Sonoma Baylands, the ‘big sky country’

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Bay Area wetland restoration tax passes

A ballot measure expected to raise $500 million over two decades for wetlands restoration and other projects designed to improve the health and resilience of San Francisco Bay passed Tuesday.
As of Wednesday morning, the measure received 69.3 percent of the vote. To pass, it needed support from two-thirds majority, or 66.7 percent of voters within the nine Bay Area counties.The measure fell short with 63.3 percent of the vote in Sonoma County, one of four North and East Bay counties where it trailed. The others were Napa, Solano and Contra Costa counties.
The measure, the San Francisco Bay Clean Water, Pollution Prevention and Habitat Restoration Program, would impose a $12-a-year parcel tax on property owners in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, Sonoma and San Francisco counties, generating about $25 million a year over its 20-year lifespan.
The money would be used to fund a host of shoreline projects around the region intended to restore tidal marshes and freshwater wetlands that play a critical role in filtering bay water, creating wildlife habitat and buffering against flooding and climate-related sea rise.
Wetlands are the bay’s “heart and lungs,” keeping the water clean and providing abundant wildlife habitat, according to Save the Bay, an environmental advocacy group. Yet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the region has lost 95 percent of its original wetlands due to human activity since the mid-19th century.
“We’ve done extensive polling on the measure and about people’s attitudes toward the bay for many, many years,” said David Pine, chairman of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority. “What’s encouraging is people across the bay — even those who don’t live near the bay shore — have a strong affinity toward the bay and see it as a defining asset of our area and one that needs to be passed on to the next generation in better shape than we got it.”
Source: Bay Area wetland restoration tax passes | The Press Democrat

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Op-Ed: Measure AA is vital for future of the bay 

The San Francisco Bay defines our region — a shared natural resource that unites residents and visitors with its breathtaking beauty. The truth is, the bay is highly threatened by pollution and sea-level rise. Thousands of acres of wetlands must be restored because miles of bay shoreline face increasing flood threats from extreme weather and rising seas. If we are going to pass on a healthy, beautiful bay to our children and grandchildren, we need to come together and act now to protect and restore it.
For the first time in our history, the entire Bay Area has an opportunity to financially support the San Francisco Bay and make it healthier and safer for future generations. Measure AA on the June 7 ballot in all nine Bay Area counties is a small parcel tax that generates big benefits. For only $12 per year per parcel, amounting to $1 per month, Measure AA will raise $500 million over 20 years to restore wetlands around the bay — including in Sonoma County — that will provide habitat for fish and wildlife and filter out pollutants from the water. These wetlands — such as the Sonoma Land Trust’s own Sears Point Wetland Restoration project along Highway 37 — also provide a natural barrier against flooding and offer recreational open space for all of us.
North Bay counties will receive millions from Measure AA for essential wetland restoration projects. The allegation made by some that these counties — and Sonoma County in particular — will receive less than our fair share of the $500 million in funding is simply inaccurate. Measure AA has many built-in provisions to ensure the funds are used where they are most needed. Sonoma County has thousands of acres of wetlands restoration projects ready to go, and our projects will be highly competitive with other regions.
Of all the anti-AA arguments, the claim that the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority is not answerable to the public completely distorts the truth. The restoration Authority board was set up under state law and is made up entirely of local elected officials. In other words, they are the same county supervisors and city council members who we rely on and interact with every day. Each region of the bay has a designated representative on the board. The current North Bay representative is Supervisor Keith Caldwell from Napa.
Our own Supervisor Susan Gorin has expressed interest in being nominated to the authority for the North Bay seat when it opens up for a term change. Measure AA also includes an additional level of openness and accountability by establishing a citizen oversight committee whose sole job is to make sure the authority is following the law and being transparent with its funding decisions.
Measure AA is endorsed by the most diverse coalition the Bay Area has ever seen, including local and national environmental organizations, leading businesses and organized labor and mayors and other elected officials, from Gov. Jerry Brown to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Reps. Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson — more than 600 groups and individuals in all. They understand Measure AA will bring us critical bay improvements for people and wildlife, and green infrastructure that will help protect our cities from flooding.
Sonoma Land Trust is campaigning hard for Measure AA because we have confidence in its safeguards and believe it is our best chance to fund the restoration of large sections of the Sonoma and northern bayshore before ocean levels rise even higher. We trust you won’t believe the scare tactics of the anti-tax groups. Please free to reach out to us if you have additional questions.
Dave Koehler is the Executive Director of the Sonoma Land Trust.
Source: Close to Home: Measure AA is vital for future of the bay | The Press Democrat

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Living on Earth: Saving the Bay Area

Air Date: Week of May 27, 2016
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Alviso wetlands
Much of San Francisco Bay used to look like the small wetlands in Alviso (Photo: Emmett Fitzgerald)

In June, San Francisco Bay Area residents will vote on Measure AA, a proposed tax that would fund wetland restoration. Bringing back wetlands would provide habitat for many bird species, and could help save the Bay Area from the rising seas expected from global warming. But some argue the funding mechanism is unfair.
Source: Living on Earth: Saving the Bay Area

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New hiking trail opens up along San Pablo Bay 

Sonoma County’s newest hiking trail officially opened Sunday just a few hundred yards from the often backed up and typically frustrating Highway 37.
The Eliot Trail, located at the edge of tidal wetlands near where Lakeville Highway meets Highway 37, gives travelers an experience opposite to the nearby roadway.
The two-and-a-half mile trail offers walkers, joggers and cyclists a tranquil view of Mount Tamalpais and the skyscrapers of San Francisco as they traverse the flank of the new northern border of San Pablo Bay.
“It is such nice place to take a run,” said Julian Meisler, the Baylands program manager for Sonoma Land Trust. “For Sonoma County, this is one of the best access points we have to the bay.”
Jim Jackson of Sonoma said he was impressed with the extremely flat trail after doing the round-trip five-mile hike with his wife, Sharon.
“You get great views of the entire bay. It’s extremely peaceful and quiet out there. You can hear the water lapping by you,” Jackson said. “You realize how quickly you are away from 37.”
Read more at: New Sonoma County hiking trail opens up along San Pablo Bay | The Press Democrat

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PD Editorial: Yes on Measure AA for the bay

Consider that by the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of the wetlands that had once surrounded San Francisco Bay were gone. Thanks in large part to the environmental awakening that occurred shortly after that, the filling-in of the bay came to a halt and thousands of wetlands have since been preserved. But it has been slow-going. The tidal marsh area, which once totaled nearly 200,000 acres, is only at about 44,000 acres today.

Bay Area voters will soon have an opportunity to accelerate these efforts in a significant way. Measure AA on the June 7 ballot calls for approval of a $12-per-parcel annual tax for enhancing wetlands and wildlife habitat, for the expansion of public access and recreational opportunities and for the protection of public infrastructure — from highways to wastewater treatment plants to schools — from the threat of rising sea levels.

The tax would raise $500 million over 20 years. Half would be distributed to each Bay Area county based on population. The other half would be available through competitive grants, But the North Bay stands to benefit significantly as restoration projects have already been identified and public-private partnerships are in place to make them happen.

The kind of work involved was on display in October when crews broke through a 140-year-old levee at Sears Point, allowing saltwater to reclaim more than 1,000 acres at the southern tip of Sonoma County, land that had been used for hayfields. Another 35,000 acres of land has been acquired around the Bay Area, the largest estuary on the West Coast. But money is needed for restoration of those lands.

Officials from the Sonoma County Water Agency say the North Bay stands to receive at least $45 million, which would be used to leverage state and federal dollars for restoration projects along Sonoma Creek, the Petaluma River and in San Pablo Bay.

Tax funds also will be used to help protect infrastructure threatened by rising sea levels. According to the National Academy of Sciences, bay water levels are expected to rise by at least two feet by 2050 and as much as five feet by 2100. Studies by the Bay Area Council have found that such a rise would put an estimated 1,780 miles of roads and highways and 89 schools and health care facilities at risk of flooding. Flooding also would occur at the Oakland and San Francisco airports. Restoring wetlands would help provide protection from these storm surges.

The tax would be administered by the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, which was created by state law in 2008 to restore wetlands in the Bay and along the shoreline.

As David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, said, “The sooner we start, the sooner they can provide benefits.” But it won’t be easy. The tax requires a two-thirds majority vote of residents in the nine Bay Area counties. It’s an ambitious goal. Yet, it’s a modest sum — $1 a month — for the cumulative benefit involved. Other regions — such as the Puget Sound area, Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes areas — receive significantly more federal dollars than the Bay Area for habitat and water protection. Measure AA would, once and for all, provide a stable revenue source that would allow Bay Area residents to ensure we get our share of those dollars while protecting this natural resource that binds us all.

We encourage a yes vote on Measure AA on June 7.

Source: PD Editorial: Yes on Measure AA for the bay

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Levee breach transforms Sears Point farmland back into wetlands

Derek Moore & Diane Peterson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

History: The Changing Wetland Landscape of San Pablo Bay

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.
Read more at: Levee breach transforms Sears Point farmland back into | The Press Democrat

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SF Bay: Bird populations doubled since 2003 in vast salt pond restoration area

In a clear sign that the largest wetlands restoration project on the West Coast is already improving the health of San Francisco Bay, bird populations have doubled over the past 13 years on thousands acres of former industrial salt-evaporation ponds that ring the bay’s southern shoreline, scientists reported Thursday.
The overall population of ducks and shorebirds in that area, which is about the size of Manhattan, has increased from roughly 100,000 in 2002 to 200,000 today, researchers doing detailed counts every winter found.
“It shows that what’s been done so far appears to be working. It’s really great,” said Susan De La Cruz, a wildlife biologist in Vallejo with the U.S. Geological Survey who has conducted much of the research.
In a landmark deal in 2003, Minneapolis-based Cargill Salt sold 15,100 acres of its bayfront salt ponds, which stretch from Hayward to San Jose to Redwood City, to state and federal agencies for $100 million. That sale also included an additional 1,400 acres near Napa.
The idea was to take the ponds — used for a century to harvest salt for food, medicine and road de-icing — and restore them back to natural conditions over 50 years, bringing back birds, fish, harbor seals, leopard sharks and dozens of other species that have struggled in the bay because of development and a burgeoning human population.
San Francisco Bay has shrunk by a third since the Gold Rush of 1849 due to diking, filling and development. Most of that stopped in the 1980s with the advent of the federal Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws.

Now, scientists, environmental groups and many political leaders are trying to turn back the clock and expand the bay out again, bringing back wetlands, along with the wildlife, public trails and natural flood control that come with expanded marshes.


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Sonoma Land Trust giving preview of restored wetlands near Sears Point

The completion of a major wetland restoration project south of Sonoma is months away, but already, the landscape along San Pablo Bay has been transformed.
Fresh water several feet deep covers former farmland, concealing all but the tops of hundreds of newly created marsh mounds. On Friday, the melodic sounds of thousands of shorebirds offered sweet relief from the foggy gloom.
Project officials were so surprised by the sudden transformation of the 1,000-acre property that they’ve decided to share the wonder with the public during a one-day preview Monday, on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the new 2.5-mile levee trail will be open to hikers, birdwatchers and leashed dogs.
“We were as stunned as anybody by this beautiful new landscape, and the thousands of birds that are enjoying it right now,” said Sheri Cardo, a spokeswoman for the Sonoma Land Trust. “We wanted to share it with everybody.”
The $18 million project, one of California’s most ambitious wetland restoration efforts, is the culmination of a decadelong effort to return Sears Point Ranch to its natural state. The tidal marsh and levee system will support wildlife, provide flood control and offer new recreational opportunities for visitors. Upon completion, the site could become the premier access point into San Pablo Bay from within Sonoma County, organizers say.
via Sonoma Land Trust giving sneak peek of restored | The Press Democrat.

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SMART to restore wetlands, habitat

The agency tasked with building the North Bay’s commuter rail line is about to embark on a $1.9 million environmental restoration project that will create new wetlands, protect valuable habitat for endangered species and help the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority meet the conditions of its construction permits.
Without discussion, the SMART board Wednesday approved a deal with contractor Stacy and Witbeck/Herzog to restore the former Mira Monte marina site — 56 acres of marshland straddling the Sonoma-Marin county line at the spot where San Antonio Creek joins the Petaluma River.
The agency last year spent $2.5 million on the land that is a key piece of the Petaluma Marsh ecosystem, supporting an array of bird, plant and animal species including the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse and California clapper rail. The habitat work is required by a slew of state and federal agencies that issued environmental permits to SMART as it builds the 43-mile commuter rail line from Santa Rosa to San Rafael. Service is expected to begin in late 2016.
Read more via SMART gives go-ahead to large wetland restoration | The Press Democrat.