Huffman, other Bay Area lawmakers seek $250 million for bay restoration efforts

A delegation of Bay Area Democrats in Congress is supporting a new bill seeking federal funding to help restore tidal wetlands in San Francisco Bay — before it is too late.|

A delegation of Bay Area Democrats in Congress is supporting a new bill seeking $250 million in federal funding over the next five years primarily to help restore tidal wetlands in San Francisco Bay — before it is too late.

Citing the climate crisis and the imminent threat of rising seas, the coalition led by Rep. Jackie Speier of San Mateo hopes this may be the year the perennial San Francisco Bay Restoration Act finally becomes law.

The need is great and the window of time is narrow, experts and environmental advocates say. About 90% of the bay’s natural wetlands have been destroyed over the past century and a half, primarily through human activity. The accelerating fallout from climate change and weather extremes could be buffered if historic marshlands that once rimmed the bay are restored to sufficient degree, experts say.

“Scientists tell us we need to start revegetating tidal marshes in this decade, before sea level rise gets too high, too difficult,” David Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Bay said during a news conference about the bill Thursday.

Sonoma County’s two congressmen, Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, are among 10 co-sponsors of the bill introduced Thursday, the latest version of legislation introduced during every session of Congress since 2010.

But this year, with Democrats controlling both houses and the White House, Speier said she was confident the bill would make it across the finish line. Huffman agreed.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to get it done in this Congress, this year,” the San Rafael Democrat said during the news conference.

The legislation would establish a San Francisco Bay Program Office within the Environmental Protection Agency and authorize $50 million a year to expand the kinds of wetland and estuary projects already underway by nonprofit and government agencies working to create a more natural shoreline.

It would fund selected projects to a level of 75% , contingent on a 25% match.

Some of the local match could come from tax funds already being collected under Measure AA, a $12 annual parcel tax passed by voters in nine Bay Area counties in 2016. The measure is expected to raise an estimated $500 million over its 20-year lifespan and is a demonstration, Huffman said, of the region’s willingness to “put its own money on the table.”

Wetlands serve multiple ecological functions, provide wildlife habitat, trapping and filtering out pollutants and storing carbon. Importantly, they also serve as giant sponges, absorbing incoming water and diffusing energy from tidal surges that are expected to become increasingly pronounced as weather conditions become more extreme.

Though more easily restored in undeveloped areas of the bay than those with hardened, manmade fixtures, wetlands can also help protect infrastructure and communities already vulnerable due to socioeconomic disparities.

North Bay residents who travel Highway 37 with regularity already will have seen some restoration projects under way. Those include 1,000-acre tidal marsh basin near Sears Point at Lakeville Highway that was constructed by the Sonoma Land Trust several years ago from formerly drained and diked farmland, at a cost of about $18 million.

Huffman also pointed out that Highway 37 itself is vulnerable to sea level rise and could be shielded by wetland restoration.

Eamon O’Byrne, executive director of the land trust, said the organization and its partners have identified another 10,000 acres in the Sonoma Creek baylands and the Petaluma River that would provide important habitat but also help protect communities throughout the area from the combined effects of sea level rise, king tides and wave action from intense storms.

“We have about 10 years to get ahead of sea level rise and storm mitigation, before serious degradation, in terms of wetlands,” he said.

After years of heavy investment by the Environmental Protection Agency in Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay, it’s time, local lawmakers argued, for San Francisco Bay to get its fair share of support, given its critical environmental and economic importance.

“By almost any measure, in terms of ecological measures, in terms of what it means to the economy, outdoor recreations, recreational and commercial fishing, travel and tourism, there’s just nothing like San Francisco Bay,” Huffman said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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