Let it flow, let it flow

Cart is a Times staff writer.

Conservationists often speak of restoring landscapes as erasing the “hand of man.” But sometimes the job of undoing decades of human manipulation requires wielding an even heavier hand.

It took eight years of planning, of which two were spent bulldozing and excavating to knock down levees and redirect creeks, to re-create the “naturalness” of the Giacomini Wetlands, one of the most extensive restoration projects of its kind undertaken by the National Park Service.

The project comes more than 60 years after one of the largest estuary systems on the Central Coast was obliterated to make way for dairy cattle providing milk and butter during World War II.


Today, after the last levee is breached and high high tide is restored to most of the 560 acres of former pasture, the Giacomini Wetlands at Point Reyes National Seashore will begin to perform their natural function: restoring the health of Tomales Bay.

The new estuary system is integral to a 200-square-mile watershed, where it filters pollutants. It also serves as a habitat and nursery for a menagerie of marine life and birds.

As some water has seeped in during the last months, park rangers have reported rare sightings: rays and leopard sharks gliding into the shallows of the former pasture.

“We couldn’t get it back to what it looked like in 1860, and that’s OK,” said park service hydrologist Brannon Ketcham, standing atop an 8-foot-high berm that was about to be scraped away. “The idea is to return the natural hydraulics, and the habitat will come back. In a year, no one will know we did anything.”

The new wetlands are at the south end of Tomales Bay, a shallow 12-mile-long finger slicing inland from the Pacific, much of it over the San Andreas fault. The wetlands were first squeezed at the turn of the century when a levee was built at the south end to allow a road. Then the system was blocked off from the bay and drained in 1946 to accommodate west Marin County’s burgeoning dairy industry.

Over the years, farmers created a network of channels and ditches that redirected and managed the freshwater flow. Without the flushing action from the exchange of freshwater and saltwater, the bay stagnated, became heavy with sediment and ran afoul of the federal Clean Water Act. Much of the wildlife abandoned the site.

After the restoration began in 2000, cattle were gradually phased out of the property. By the beginning of last year, they were mostly gone.

Park biologists were amazed to discover an immediate bounty of rare species: Tidewater goby, small fish thought to be eliminated from the area, were found in Tomasini Creek, on the property’s east side. Elsewhere, biologists found western pond turtles and California red-legged frogs.

To accommodate the protected species, project planners created separate refuges.

Birds already throng to Point Reyes, which is on the Pacific Flyway. Roughly 45% of North American bird species can be found in the area. But now in the wetlands, rarely seen shorebirds such as greater yellowlegs and the red-necked phalarope have made themselves at home, as have clapper rails, California black rails and northern harriers, also known as marsh hawks.

Otters and seals are becoming more common in Lagunitas Creek, a popular destination for kayakers. White sturgeon, steelhead, chinook and coho salmon thrive in the waters. In fact, the state’s largest recorded coho, 22 pounds, was pulled from Lagunitas Creek in 1959. About 15% of California’s coho are found in this watershed.

Restoring the wetlands will do more than help fish, said Lorraine Parsons, a wetlands ecologist with the park service. The project should help protect a small group of homes at the south end of the property that are regularly flooded.

“When they leveed this, they took out about 50% of the Tomales Bay watershed,” she said. “It no longer served as a filtering tool for the water here; it didn’t help in flood control.”

The project was jump-started by $4 million from a California Department of Transportation mitigation fund that allowed the park service to acquire the land from the Giacomini family in 2000. After that, the Point Reyes National Seashore Assn., a nonprofit group that funds park projects, scrounged to find $6 million to finance the complicated restoration.

“It’s funny. You’d think that it would be easy to take down levees,” Parsons said. “Just come in and mow them down. But actually it has to be given a lot of thought.”

After barns, fences and irrigation material were removed, heavy-equipment operators followed precisely drawn plans to shave and reshape the berms over months. Lighter equipment with special treads was used in boggy areas, and many of the trucks removing soil operated on bio-diesel fuel.

Most federal projects of this size can be expected to draw opposition, but the Giacomini Wetlands effort has garnered surprisingly wide approval, in part because the public will have access to much of the site once it’s fully restored.

The park, established in 1962, draws about 2.2 million visitors a year, many from the San Francisco Bay Area 40 miles to the south.

“Park service restoration projects often take place in wilderness or in backcountry,” Parsons said. “No one sees them. This is a project that is happening in front of everyone.

“People are excited. A local woman called me and we talked about the project. She said her whole family was following it. Her 3-year-old was beginning to identify the yellow excavator and the orange one, and the bulldozers. Meanwhile, her 17-year-old was outside with a spotting scope identifying different birds. That’s pretty cool.”