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Measure AA passage assures funding source for North Bay restoration projects

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Restoring wetlands  

On Tuesday, voters in the nine-county Bay Area passed Measure AA, a $12 annual parcel tax seeking to fund wetland recovery efforts for the region’s 1,600-square-mile estuary.
Purpose: Generate $25 million a year, and an estimated $500 million over its 20-year lifespan, for wetland restoration and related projects.
In the North Bay: Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties are guaranteed at least 9 percent of the tax revenue generated over 20 years, or about $45 million.

SEARS POINT— 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.

Bay opportunities

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.

Restoring wetlands  

On Tuesday, voters in the nine-county Bay Area passed Measure AA, a $12 annual parcel tax seeking to fund wetland recovery efforts for the region’s 1,600-square-mile estuary.
Purpose: Generate $25 million a year, and an estimated $500 million over its 20-year lifespan, for wetland restoration and related projects.
In the North Bay: Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties are guaranteed at least 9 percent of the tax revenue generated over 20 years, or about $45 million.

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.

Sizing up the tax measure

Roughly 35,000 acres of public or nonprofit-owned lands are targeted for restoration around the bay, at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. Measure AA is expected to finance work on about 15,000 acres over 20 years, officials said.

“That’s the equivalent of the island of Manhattan, so that’s a lot of land,” Pine said.

Administrators and advocates say the new tax funds can be used to secure additional state and federal matching grants for wetland restoration. But the need around the bay and the high cost of restoration means that even the new surge of funding won’t be enough to cover all projects.

Schuchat, who is the lead Restoration Authority staff member, said he also anticipates that some portion of the $450 million in state and federal funding that has funneled into the Bay Area over 20 or 25 years for wetland restoration may continue to flow, further extending the authority’s ability to fund projects.

The selection process for grants has not been fully developed, and it will be late 2017 before the first year of parcel tax revenue comes in.

The ballot measure says projects with the greatest long-term impact on water quality, wildlife habitat and infrastructure protection will take priority.

Grant applications will also be judged on their use of state and federal funding, their ability to spur job creation and promote economic development and their engagement of young people in natural resource protection.

Anne Morkill, who oversees the San Francisco Bay’s federal wildlife refuges, said she also expected projects with planning, environmental evaluations, permitting and design work done would have an advantage.

An example for the future

The Dickson Ranch restoration and another nearby $16 million restoration of 1,200 acres of former farmland on the Napa River Delta serve as examples of the most ambitious efforts undertaken on San Pablo Bay. The projects were costly because of levees built to protect a railroad and Highway 37 from flooding.

But there are lower-cost projects that are key to the overall system, such as a project at the mouth of Sonoma Creek to improve water flow and reduce standing water that is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. That effort, a partnership between public and private agencies, cost about $2 million.

Brubaker showed off a 20-year-old, 360-acre restoration project called Sonoma Baylands, located just across a levee and trail spur from the Dickson Ranch project, to illustrate the kind of success story he hopes to see more of in the years to come.

Diked, drained and used for decades as a hay field, the land had sunk 10 to 12 feet below sea level by the time it was targeted for restoration in the 1990s. It was brought partway back through deposits of bay sediment dredged from the Port of Oakland. Then the outer levee was breached and the property flooded in 1995.

In the time since, it has filled with additional sediment and reed-like cordgrass that has grown across the marsh. Tidal channels cut through the area, refreshing the marsh daily with salt water.

Glancing back at the adjacent Dickson Ranch wetland flooded in October, Brubaker said, “Within our lifetimes, we’ll be able to come out here and see that the same thing is happening here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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