Big Sears Point marsh restoration gets $4.2 million boost

With $4.2 million in new funding, the Sonoma Land Trust is set next year to begin an ambitious project to restore wetlands and provide public access to nearly 1,000 acres of former farmland along San Pablo Bay.

The land trust has collected about $13 million for the project near Sears Point in southern Sonoma County. That includes recent awards of nearly $3.2 million from the California Coastal Conservancy and $940,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The land trust estimates it will spend about $18 million to return the former hay and wheat fields to marshes. To do that, it first must build a 2.5-mile levee to keep bay waters from intruding too far inland and flooding a railroad line and nearby Highway 37, portions of which are below sea level.

The public eventually will get the benefit of a trail built atop the levee.

"Part of this project is just going to be a really nice way to connect people to the bay," said Julian Meisler, the land trust's project manager. The trail will offer a good view of tidal marsh restoration, a process that Meisler said can take 20 to 50 years.

The land is part of the Sears Point Wetlands Restoration Project. It includes 2,327 acres from two former ranches that span both sides of Highway 37 from Lakeville Highway to the Sears Point Raceway.

In 2003, one of the two properties was considered for a casino site by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. But the tribe eventually selected Rohnert Park for its project after environmentalists argued that a casino near Sears Point would jeopardize the nation's largest coastal wetlands restoration effort.

The land trust was able to raise $20 million nearly eight years ago to acquire that property.

Some work already has been completed in the upland portion of the restoration area. The land trust this fall finished construction of three ponds to provide habitat for the threatened red-legged frog. Volunteers also recently built burrows that may serve as home for burrowing owls, which haven't been seen nesting in the county for more than a quarter century.

The levee and public trail should be completed in about two years, Meisler said.

The project won't involve importing dirt. Workers will cut channels for the future marsh and use that dirt to build the levees, Meisler said. Plans call for the marsh to be built up over time from sedimentation brought in by the bay waters.

The restored marsh can play an important role in tempering the damage done to levees and other land by the bay waters during big storms, Meisler said.

The wetlands project will provide key habitat to waterfowl and other wildlife, and will increase the amount of marshland around San Francisco Bay.

"We've lost 80 percent of it," Meisler said of the bay wetlands, "so everything we do is to try to get some of that back."

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