Hope for an environmental future in the Sears Point Wetlands

It was years in the making, but last fall, an excavator punched through a levee at the Sears Point Wetland and allowed the Bay’s tidal waters to flow in for the first time in over 100 years. The wetlands restoration project required the coordinated efforts of multiple groups and millions of dollars even before breaking ground in summer 2014, and it will take another decade or more for the region to really repopulate. However, it represents an amazing victory for environmental conservation and a hope for a brighter future: It is possible to reclaim land once thought lost forever, and with coordination and motivation, perhaps it can be replicated elsewhere.

Much of the Bay Area’s critical tidal marshes were lost in the 1880s as a result of rapid expansion. Farmers and urban planners installed levies and dikes to keep the Bay out before infilling land so they could use it for farming or construction, shrinking the footprint of the Bay considerably and driving out many indigenous plants and animals. Over time, that infilled land became subject to subsidence, requiring constant maintenance, and of course the threat of rising sea levels posed its own risks, as land that was once underwater is often eager to return to that state.

Wetlands are important on multiple ecological levels. They’re strikingly beautiful, of course, which is a point in their favour, but they also provide unique and important habitat, in some cases for endangered or threatened species. They also help to control and mediate the flow of water. Tidal surges are less strong when the water has to move through a wetland first, as the marsh slows the flow of water, leaving it with less energy when it hits land. High seas in the wake of storms, along with tsunamis, aren’t as powerful with wetlands in the way, which is good for the environment but also for human activities, in an excellent two for one deal.

They’re a part of California’s cultural and ecological history. But at Sears Point Ranch, wetlands were buried under soil and used for a variety of purposes until they were designated for a casino and resort. The Sonoma Land Trust stepped in, along with Ducks Unlimited, to acquire the land and see if it would be turned to a better use as a restored natural resource. Such activities can be challenging, as commercial real estate sells at high value and environmental organisations may need to raise considerable funds and grant money to acquire it, even if sellers are willing to negotiate on the price in the interest of protecting natural resources. Next, they face a new round of costs as they evaluate the site to determine what they need to do in order to restore it — and then yet another set of expenses as they actually develop and implement a plan. All of this for a site that doesn’t generate revenue in traditional senses, though restored sites often attract tourists, which is one way they’re sold to authorities.

Restoring land like this requires dismantling existing dikes and levees, shifting soil, reseeding, in some cases installing berms to protect resources like railroad tracks, and ultimately breaking remaining levees to allow the Bay back in. Over the coming years, the site needs to become a source of monitoring and study as people determine how it responded to restoration and take steps to protect it and address ongoing issues. It will also become a case study for similar restoration projects elsewhere, becoming part of a larger hope for a future in which previously abused natural resources can be restored despite the fact that they have high value as potential commercial ventures.

Land in the Bay Area is at a premium, with a tightening real estate market. Even in a state filled with tree hugging environmentalists, the dollar speaks extremely loudly, and there aren’t always incentives to give up prime real estate opportunities to help the planet. Moreover, dense development near or in the urban areas that took over historic wetlands is sometimes a very sound environmental choice to prevent sprawl, requiring a balance of interests — leave wetlands buried and keep filling them to support development, or reclaim them and return them to the Bay? These are the kinds of considerations that weigh on people and organisations working on habitat restoration.

The progress in Sears Point is impressive and heartening, but it comes with cautionary notes. One reason it was possible was because of economic and social clout. In low-income regions of the country and those more squeezed for cash, it’s hard to resist development and present viable conservation alternatives, and it can be difficult to secure the funding to enact them in the event communities are able to advocate for themselves against the interests of developers and organisations that want to take advantage of their land. These issues can be an ongoing challenge, with many environmental groups focusing on the land that’s easier to save, with communities that can support it, leaving other lands as they are.

Considering that many low-income communities are located in rural areas and polluted ones alike, this is a consideration that needs to be brought to bear with conservation efforts. Outsiders cannot and should not descend upon communities to ‘rescue’ them without considering complicated socioeconomic factors, but by the same token, some sites that sorely need restoration aren’t going to benefit from campaigns like the Sears Point restoration simply by virtue of where they are, who lives there, and the resources they have available.

Environmental justice is a long road.

Image: Sears Point Restored Wetland, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Flickr