Bulldozers ripped into a hayfield Friday, beginning a project to transform nearly 1,000 acres south of Sonoma into a tidal marsh and levee system that organizers say will support wildlife, provide flood control and offer new recreational opportunities for visitors.
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. Upon completion, the site could become the premier access point into San Pablo Bay from within Sonoma County, organizers say.
"This project will actually require that we rewrite the map of San Francisco Bay. That's a major, major accomplishment," said Julian Meisler, a program manager with the Sonoma Land Trust, which is leading the restoration effort along with Ducks Unlimited.
Sears Point Ranch spans 2,327 acres from San Pablo Bay across Highway 37 and up the hillside on the east side of Lakeville Highway near Sonoma Raceway. The land was used for cattle grazing and as the location of a hunting club, but over the years was the proposed site for developments ranging from an airport to a casino, which ultimately was built next to Rohnert Park.
The Land Trust raised $20 million to acquire the property in 2005 and has raised about $14 million of the $18 million needed to complete the restoration work.
Sears Point is the largest restoration and preservation project along the shores of San Francisco Bay since the purchase of 16,596 acres of Cargill Salt production facilities in the South Bay in 2002.
Officials with several nonprofit and government agencies gathered at the wind-swept site Friday to celebrate the start of construction.
Among the people Meisler acknowledged was Greg Sarris, tribal leader of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. The tribe had an option on the property worth $4 million that it gave to the Land Trust in 2003 after deciding not to pursue a casino on the site. The tribe also donated $75,000 to the Land Trust.
Sarris was not present for Friday's groundbreaking ceremony. His assistant said he was unavailable for comment.
Friday's groundbreaking was eagerly anticipated by Rosalie Webb, who more than a decade ago contacted about 1,000 of her friends and asked them to donate money to purchase the Sears Point site, which she can see from the deck of her Novato home. She ultimately raised about $90,000.
On Friday, Webb was in an ebullient mood, saying wetlands are "so important" to the natural ecosystem.
"We've lost so much of it," she said.
Construction work is expected to last 18 months. However, Meisler said it could take up to 30 years before the site reaches its full potential as a marshland supporting wildlife, including 20 species threatened with extinction.
To speed up the process, as well as to contain costs, project managers plan to breach existing levees to allow tidal waters and sediment to enter the marsh area, with water flowing in from Tolay Creek and from the Petaluma River Navigation Channel.
The group plans to build a new levee to protect the railroad, highway and adjacent private property. The finished project also will include a four-mile extension of the San Francisco Bay Trail, enabling hikers and bikers to travel from the Petaluma River to Tolay Creek.
Crews on Friday constructed the first of what will be more than 500small islands to support marsh plants, act as wind breaks and filter out sediment from the incoming tides. The goal is to elevate the existing farmland by about 7 feet. Rather than spend money to truck dirt in, project managers will instead rely on the more natural process of allowing tides to carry sediment into the area — an approach that never has been tried before on a project of this size.