Inside the breach: 1,000 acres of new bay.
Outside the breach: Beware the tide.
Story David Bolling
Photos: Steven Krause
I am sitting in a tiny plastic boat on a thousand acres of new bay, at the edge of a vast urban population—some 7 million people live in close proximity to this calm sheet of water—and I am completely alone.
As I float, I’m thinking of edges. The edges of San Francisco and San Pablo Bay were once fringed with 500 square miles of tidal wetlands. Today only about 50 square miles remain. Ambitious efforts to restore and expand those wetlands have drawn me and my little kayak to this newly created body of water, soon to open for public exploration. A ballot measure to fund further protection will appear on the June ballot, and I am eager to see how those funds could be invested.
But my thoughts are not just on San Francisco Bay. Roughly 9,000 miles to the southwest, as the Arctic tern flies, there is a massive sheet of ice larger than Mexico that may have a troubling impact on not just this bay, but on every bay and every country on every seacoast in the world.
That’s because scientists recently concluded that disintegration of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is showing signs of accelerating. One computer model created at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has concluded that the immense sheet of ice is already doomed and that full disintegration would raise global sea levels by as much as 12 feet. How soon the worst-case scenario could occur is the subject of much debate—estimates range from a few centuries to millennia. It’s not going to happen overnight. But, a growing body of climate scientists agree, there’s a good chance it’s going to happen and the process may have already passed the point of no return.
Most of the city of Sonoma lies at elevations of between 85 and 95 feet, so from the perspective of our own long-term security, we’re fairly safe from the sea. But Wingo and Schellville would slip beneath the waves, and we might need a ferry to reach Vallejo, Petaluma or San Rafael. The San Francisco waterfront would begin somewhere in North Beach, and Miami, New York, New Orleans—in fact, most of the Eastern Seaboard—would be inundated. Worldwide, more than 150 million people live within one meter of the ocean. That’s just 3 feet. Imagine the impact of 12 feet.
That’s what I’m trying to do from the seat of my kayak, which puts my line of sight below the top of a levee that used to fence off the thousand acres I’m now floating on. That levee was breached by a giant excavator last October as the Sonoma Land Trust hosted a “Sea Change” ceremony to restore former farmland to its original state of saltwater marsh.
The transformation is part of a long-term process to create protective marshes along the periphery of the bay to buffer storm surge and sea level rise, while simultaneously providing habitat for endangered and native species, filtering pollutants and sequestering carbon in the marsh environment. It’s also creating a new recreation resource for hikers and paddlers who can now enjoy a vast expanse of tranquil (if frequently wind-blown) water, and a new 2.5 mile trail along the top of a protective levee that keeps the newly freed bay waters off adjacent railroad tracks and Highway 37.
The $18 million project represents the kind of multi-agency collaboration necessary for any restoration project of these dimensions. Partnering with the Sonoma Land Trust on the Sea Change were Ducks Unlimited; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the United States EPA; the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (who donated the $4 million option they held on the land after dropping plans for a casino on the site); the San Francisco National Wildlife Refuge; U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, and numerous other local, state and federal agencies and individuals.
Julian Meisler, the Land Trust’s Baylands program manager, described the partnership as “a united community all working toward the common goal of a functioning tidal ecosystem.”
Added Meisler, “We are literally changing the map of the bay with this project. That’s important not because we are trying to go back in time, but rather because we all depend on a functioning bay. It is vital to our safety, our economy, and for all the wildlife who call it home.”
Early in April, two high-level officials got a brief powerboat tour of the project area thanks to Ducks Unlimited and the Wildlife Refuge, who loaded on board Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and John Laird, the California Secretary for Natural Resources. Sullivan, a former NASA astronaut and the first woman to walk in space, conversed with Meisler about sea level rise and its impact on the bay. Laird, who grew up in Vallejo, has a more personal knowledge of the north bay shoreline and spoke admiringly of the effort to restore it.
It is a cloudless morning a few days later when I slide my kayak down the muddy kayak ramp at the northwestern corner of the project area and start stroking for the levee breach a mile distant. It is too early for any significant wind and the water is glassy smooth as I pass some of the engineered hillocks that will help trap incoming sediment and nurture the native plants, like pickleweed, that will transform this flooded pond into the complex habitat of a healthy marsh. Already a pair of great egrets and one great blue heron have taken up watchful residence along the shore, their beady eyes scanning for the movement of prey in the water. Other species expected to further populate the evolving marshland include otters, seals, raptors, jackrabbits and deer.
As I approach the breach on an outgoing tide, what was previously a 7 or 8-foot drop through the levee gap is now a seamless path of flat water, and I let it carry me out into the open bay. The gap is close to 300 feet, and the dirt that used to be a bulwark against the bay has now been spread by incoming and outgoing water into a shallow delta. I find a small standing wave—indicating some part of the ripped open levee is deposited beneath the surface—and I park my boat there, surfing lazily in place as the morning sun warms me. When the wind picks up I decide to head back inside the levee, and that’s when I discover a potential hazard all paddlers should be alert to avoid. At full ebb, the tide flowing out of the flooded, thousand-acre tract can become a river. If you’re not an experienced paddler—and especially if you’re in a canoe—you could find yourself in trouble, trapped at the mouth of the breach and unable to buck the current back inside. I’m an expert paddler with decades of experience, and I still had to work to move my 10-foot downriver boat back into protected waters. Be forewarned, and check the tide tables before venturing outside the levee.
That warning aside, the bay extension is a peaceful place to paddle, bird watch and view the slow, incremental transformation of an oat field into a buffer against sea level rise.
Aiding further transformations (it is hoped) is Measure AA on the June ballot, which would levy a 20-year, $12 per parcel tax on the nine Bay Area counties to pay for further wetland restoration around San Francisco and San Pablo bays. Requiring a two-thirds majority to pass, the measure would produce about $500 million a year and be administered by the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority.
Critics, including the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, have argued the tax is unfair because it doesn’t specifically explain how the money will be spent each year and because it unfairly burdens low-income property owners, charging them the same rate as wealthy residents.
Supporters counter that specific plans for all restoration projects can’t be outlined in advance because many are still under development, but there is an urgent need for creating more restoration funds that must begin now. And they dismiss the income inequity argument as being specious given the modest $12 per year assessment.
Save the Bay, a leading supporter of the measure, makes this argument: “Bay tidal marsh is a transitional area between open water and dry land, constantly appearing and disappearing with the ebb and flow of tides. Healthy tidal marshes serve as the lungs of the bay, giving life to hundreds of fish and wildlife species and billions of small organisms that form the base of the food chain. Tidal marshes and other wetlands provide major benefits to the community…Save the Bay’s report, “Greening the Bay,” outlined the need for 100,000 acres of tidal marsh habitat around the bay and identified local funding as the key to creating a healthy bay for future generations.”
A clean and healthy bay aside, the specter of sea level rise—one of the most dangerous consequences of climate change—confronts all of us with the question of what to do in response. The first part of that question asks what, if anything, can be done to change the climate equation in time to avoid suffering the worst of its consequences. The second part of that question asks what we must do to mitigate the effects of sea level rise we haven’t acted in time to avoid.
It occurs to me as I point my boat back toward the kayak launch ramp that I am paddling across one small part of the answer. Hard to say how much difference reshaping this 3-mile stretch of the bay will make. It will be decades before we begin to know. But as I dip a blade into the cool bay water I feel an intimate connection with that solution, a feeling that for once we are working with nature, not against it.
For more information about paddling or hiking the new Baylands project, contact the Sonoma Land Trust at 707.526.3001, or go to sonomalandtrust.org. As this issue of Valley of the Moon magazine went to press, a public Bay Trail Opening and Celebration was scheduled for Sunday, May 15, from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Land Trust’s Baylands headquarters on Reclamation Road off Highway 37. Registration is required and can be made online.