Measure AA passage assures funding source for North Bay restoration projects
On this spread of flooded former hayfield edging San Pablo Bay, clumps of native pickleweed are sprouting, seabirds and raptors soar overhead and fish forage on the incoming tide.
It’s a scene wetland experts hope to replicate along the North Bay shoreline and on nearby creeks as part of an ambitious effort to improve water quality, enhance wildlife habitat and bolster natural defenses against sea-level rise.
Here, on 960 acres of land where a century-old levee was breached last fall and bay waters rushed in, some of that transformation is already under way. It is part of a decades-long, patchwork effort to reverse degradation of San Francisco Bay’s once-vast complex of tidal and freshwater wetlands.
And soon there will be more public money to expand the restoration. It will come from a $12 annual parcel tax passed last week by voters in the nine-county Bay Area, a turning point, conservationists say, in the regionwide quest to recover the fringe of wetlands that historically rimmed the region’s 1,600-square-mile estuary.
Measure AA, the Clean and Healthy Bay Ballot Measure, is expected to generate $25 million a year for wetland restoration and related projects, providing a reliable funding source for environmental projects for the bay and its watersheds, conservationists said.
“For every one of us that does this type of work, this is just incredible news,” said Julian Meisler, baylands program manager for the Sonoma Land Trust, which led the $18 million restoration of diked farmland at Sears Point, dubbed the Dickson Ranch Restoration Area and now part of the 31-square-mile San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Though Sonoma County voters came up short of the two-thirds threshold - one of four North and East Bay counties to do so - the ballot measure nevertheless passed, with more than 69 percent of the vote regionwide.
It will bring in an estimated $500 million over its 20-year lifespan to be distributed as grants to government and nonprofit entities around the region.
Based on population, the North Bay counties of Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano are guaranteed at least 9 percent of the tax revenue generated over two decades, or about $45 million, with grants to be awarded through a public hearing process. The money is aimed primarily at funding restoration of tidal marshes and wetlands, but it may also go toward wetland monitoring and management, related flood protection, trails and other visitor amenities.
More than a dozen potential eligible projects already have been identified around the rim of San Pablo Bay, which catches the Petaluma and Napa rivers, as well as Sonoma and Tolay creeks, and has long been the focus of wetland restoration and enhancement efforts.
High-profile restoration proposals include the 3,300-acre Skaggs Island military base and the adjacent 1,100-acre Haire Ranch; a 1,400-acre strip of marshland between Sonoma Creek and the Napa River; the Bel Marin Keys Wetlands near Novato; and continued wetland enhancement on former salt ponds along the Napa River near Mare Island.
The San Pablo Bay tidal zone offers a variety of opportunities for conservation in part because, while it has been changed by human activity like farming and salt production, it is still largely undeveloped, unlike the bay shoreline elsewhere, said Don Brubaker, manager of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which stretches from the Petaluma River to Vallejo.
The protected landscape faces a dramatic threat in the face of sea level rise related to climate change. Projections show that a wide swath of the San Pablo Bay shoreline could be under water within a generation even with extreme cuts in carbon emissions.
“We’re in a bit of a race against time now,” said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the California Coastal Conservancy, the state agency that helps oversee restoration funding for bay and coastal waters.
Wetlands can absorb some of that incoming water, functioning like natural sponges and diffusing energy from tidal surges, while also storing carbon, filtering and trapping pollutants and providing vital wildlife habitat.
Save the Bay, a leading environmental nonprofit, describes the estuary’s wetlands as its “heart and lungs.”
But scientists estimate 80 to 95 percent of the region’s wetlands have been lost since the mid-19th century, destroyed by landfill, salt production, diking and conversion to farmland, and other modern development.
Between what remained and what has been restored in the past few decades, about 40,000 acres now exist - less than half of the 100,000 acres deemed necessary to sustain the health of the bay, according to San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, chairman of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, which put Measure AA on the ballot and will administer the funds.