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Sonoma Land Trust giving sneak peek of restored wetlands near Sears Point

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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.

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.

John Lepold of Sonoma made an impromptu stop Friday at the gravel parking lot on Reclamation Road to give his fussy 4-month-old daughter, Hazel Ray, a few soothing minutes in her daddy’s arms. An outdoorsman, Lepold said he’s pleased the site will one day offer recreational opportunities for visitors.

“I’m always looking for accessible outdoor activities that are near me,” he said. “I’ve driven past here and always thought it was private (property).”

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.

Project officials weren’t expecting dramatic change at the site until November of this year, when existing levees will be breached.

On Friday, a work crew continued clearing away coyote brush and pickleweed along a 200-foot section of the existing levee in preparation for the breaches, which eventually will bring in water from Tolay Creek and from the Petaluma River Navigation Channel.

However, December rain storms provided an early glimpse of what the finished project will look like.

Five pumps installed along the new levee to protect the railroad, farmland and Highway 37 from stormwater runoff brought 50,000 gallons of fresh water into the marshland area at the height of the storms, said Julian Meisler, a program manager with the Sonoma Land Trust, which is leading the restoration effort along with Ducks Unlimited.

He said the storms were an early test of the pumping system, and that it all worked according to plan, with the result that the restoration area essentially was turned into a 1,000-acre lake.

“I was overwhelmed by it,” Meisler said. “I spent New Year’s out there and looked at four or five thousand ducks. I was astounded.”

He said the water will have to be drained as summer approaches to complete restoration work.

More than 500 small islands have been constructed on the site to support marsh plants, act as wind breaks and filter 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 have instead relied 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.

The finished project will include a 4-mile extension of the San Francisco Bay Trail, enabling hikers and bikers to travel from the Petaluma River to Tolay Creek. The 2.5-mile section of the levee trail being unveiled Monday is expected to be opened for good sometime after November. It still needs work and makes for uneven walking. Cardo advised visitors to use caution Monday.

The site is accessed from Reclamation Road, which is off Highway 37 at the intersection with Lakeville Highway.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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