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Construction Begins on Largest Restoration in San Pablo Bay Refuge

Cullinan Ranch Marsh 20 Years in the Making

by on October 25, 2011

Don Brubaker, manager of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, explains plans for restoration at Cullinan Ranch.Photo by Juliet Grable.

Don Brubaker, manager of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, explains plans for restoration at Cullinan Ranch.

Photo by Juliet Grable.

At first glance, Cullinan Ranch isn’t much to look at.

Bound by Dutchman Slough to the north and Highway 37 to the south, the Solano County property consists of 1,500 acres of low-lying fields, dotted with clumps of cattails and coyote brush. Only some earthmoving equipment parked on the site hints that this former farmland is about to become the largest restored marsh in the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

“The Cullinan Ranch project is the greatest effort for the refuge so far,” says Don Brubaker, refuge manager. Even more significant, this project is adjacent to the North Bay Salt Pond Complex, a series of evaporation ponds formerly owned by Cargill Salt Company that have already been restored.

“The largest restoration in the San Francisco Estuary to date has taken place in the North Bay, but it’s been done without the pomp and circumstance of the South Bay projects,” says Marc Holmes of the Bay Institute.

So far, nearly 5,000 acres in the Napa River estuary have been converted back to marsh. (Bay Nature detailed the big vision in a 2007 special section, Highway to the Flyway.)

Each new chunk helps turn back the clock.

Traffic and marsh at Highway 37
Cars and trucks speed by the marshes along Highway 37. Photo by Juliet Grable.

The San Francisco Estuary once supported 200,000 acres of tidal marsh, not including the Delta. “It’s hard to conceive of the vastness of the marshes, to imagine what the Spanish sailor standing in the crow’s nest saw,” says Brubaker.

Ninety-two percent of these marshes were drained and destroyed, mostly between 1850 and 1930. But the majority of these 180,000 acres lost were not actually filled; instead, earthen dikes cut off tidal flow, and water was pumped out to “reclaim” the land for farmland and pasture.

Cougar Mountain
Cougar Mountain looms over the wetlands and farm fields along Highway 37 between Napa and Solano counties. Photo by Juliet Grable.

“It wrought havoc with the ecology,” says Homes. “Species that lived only in the San Francisco Estuary were driven to extinction or to the brink.”

After World War II, a growing awareness of the value of marshes checked large-scale fill projects, expressed most clearly in the movement that led to the founding of Save the Bay, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall.

“Organizations began suing to stop development,” says Holmes. “Many cases went all the way to the Supreme Court, and it became very expensive for developers to get their projects approved.” Next came the push to acquire wetlands with public funds.

Bridge to Vallejo
The bridge to Vallejo in the fog, on the eastern end of Highway 37. Photo by Juliet Grable.

The history of Cullinan Ranch typifies the shifting attitudes toward land use and wetlands over the last 150 years. Some of its marshes were diked and drained at the turn of the 20th century, others in the 1940s. For decades farmers grew hay and oats here, but in the 1980s the ranch almost became “Egret Bay,” a housing development in the same vein as Bel Marin Keys in Novato. After that project was denied, the US Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the property.

The pace of change here is also typical. Though the land was acquired more than 20 years ago, funding for restoration lagged behind. Construction finally began in October 2011. Westbound commuters stuck in traffic may have already taken note of the growing berm alongside Highway 37.

“The most expensive aspect of the project is to protect the highway from flooding once tidal flow is restored,” says Brubaker.

That won’t happen right away. Work on the protection levee will continue into next year, when construction of acceleration and deceleration lanes will also begin.

Then there’s the issue of land subsidence. “A marsh is like a sponge,” says Brubaker. “Take away the water and the land contracts.” After decades of exposure, parts of Cullinan Ranch are six to eight feet below sea level.

As a result, it has functioned as a seasonal wetland for years. “It has wildlife value right now,” says Brubaker. The ranch attracts dabbling ducks like gadwall, pintail and mallards, along with assorted shorebirds–avocets, black-necked stilts and greater yellowlegs–in winter. A “host of raptors”–including red-tailed hawks, harriers and white-tailed kites– use the area year-round.

At its simplest, marsh restoration involves punching holes in a dike and letting the tides do the work. In many cases, marsh vegetation returns on its own. But sites with subsidence, like Cullinan Ranch, require a more hands-on approach.

“In time, sediment will naturally fill in a little bit,” says Brubaker. “But we’ll still need to bring in several hundred thousand cubic yards of material.” Otherwise, the area would likely become shallow, open water, too deep for marsh vegetation to get established.

Dredged mud from the nearby Napa River will most likely serve as the source of the fill. “But you can’t just dump the material on the site,” says Brubaker. “You have to account for sedimentation rates and other factors.”

That’s where the engineers come in. Engineers from Ducks Unlimited will guide the tides by recreating original channels, which are still evident even after years of farming. Once the prep work is completed, the most dramatic part of the restoration will happen: letting in the water.

“If you ever get to watch a breach, do it!” Holmes says. “The birds are immediately there, and they just go crazy.” The birds are attracted to a bonanza of invertebrates, some of which are already present in the mud before the breach occurs. “As soon as you reconnect the land with the tides, that just explodes.”

The vegetation will come later. The restoration team hopes that cordgrass and pickleweed will colonize naturally, providing habitat for two endangered species: the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse.

The restored marsh will serve as a buffet for migratory birds making a pit stop along the Pacific Flyway, and a nursery for resident and migratory fish.

But marshes provide more than ecological benefits; they also improve water quality by filtering sediment and pollutants and helping control flooding.

The benefits far outweigh the cost of restoration projects, says Holmes, but lack of funding is often the only thing standing in the way of actually doing them. “There’s been an absurd failure of government to do something of very significant benefit,” he adds.

“The funding for Cullinan Ranch has been cobbled together,” says Brubaker. Sources include National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and $6 million from the California Wildlife Conservation Fund. The total cost of the project will be $16 million.

Other restoration projects are on hold, waiting for the money to come in. One potential solution to the budget shortfall may lie in a piece of federal legislation called The San Francisco Bay Restoration Act. San Francisco Bay is currently part of the National Estuary Program (NEP), the objective of which is to protect and restore “estuaries of national significance,” as designated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Money for restoration projects for these estuaries comes from a common funding pool. Under the new legislation, San Francisco Bay would be authorized as a separate project and qualify for $20 million over five years. The bill has been introduced in both the House and the Senate (follow its progress).

“We get up every day and try to find money,” says Holmes, who also worked with the original team on the Cullinan Ranch acquisition two decades ago. “Right now, the Bay Institute is focused on getting this federal legislation passed.”

Meanwhile, back at Cullinan Ranch, the earthmovers will continue piling up material, each dumpload taking the land one step closer to its pre-Gold Rush abundance.

Brubaker hopes the restored marshes will attract both avian and human visitors. Though they may be a few years away, new facilities will include parking, trails, fishing piers, and even a boat ramp for kayaks.

“We’re putting several million dollars into this project; we want people to come enjoy it,” says Brubaker.

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Paul on September 24th, 2012 at 9:37 am

Could not the trucks be put on and off of Hiway 37 at a different location than forcing 37 to a stop and even on the weekens. Could they not be put on and off at the Mare Island overpass on the west side of the Napa river?

Danny on December 8th, 2012 at 3:01 pm

I know this area very well.I grew up in Vallejo and Napa.And spent many years around this area and the Napa River.The duck clubs in the South Slough.I learned how to swim in the Napa River.I thought developement was going to bury these marshes.To be gone forever.I’m retired now and so glad to know there are people who understand what A natural resourse these marshes are.The thought of kyaking or walking and birdwatching.Anybody who likes nature is going to love this jewel when completed.

Hwy 37 Commuter on April 28th, 2014 at 4:52 pm

This entire project is nothing but a headache and a waste of money. HYW 37 is one of the most traveled highways in this area. Traffic sucks, every single day. Why, because we only have one lane going in each direction. So, we get stuck behind the campers, the truckers, the lazy slow drivers, so the rest of us, with someplace important to go, LIKE WORK, can’t get there in a reasonable time. It’s only 8 miles long, yet you can’t get off that road in under 20 minutes or more. Why couldn’t you have built extra lanes, before you decided to save some stupid duck or marsh mouse!!!!

Worker Bee on May 28th, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Here’s an idea for Hwy37 Commuter. Why don’t you get a cot for work and stay there during the week?

Ducks and Marsh Mice on June 4th, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Highway 37 is nothing but a headache and waste of habitat. San Pablo Bay has some of the most vital flyway marshland in this area. Traffic sucks, every single day. Why? Because some mistaken engineers decided to build one lane in both directions through a wetland, instead of two or more lanes on hard, dry land. So, we get run-over, gassed, terrorized and maimed by campers, truckers, lazy slow drivers and self-important commuters with someplace irrelevant to go, LIKE CONSUMERIST PAY-PUMP JOBS, and can’t have a reliable, stable eco-system. It’s only 8 miles long, yet you can’t cross it except in a few places because of the concrete median. Why couldn’t you have torn out both these lanes before you decided to save another ill-positioned and poorly conceived commuter route for reactionary, anti-environmentalists.

Sol on July 27th, 2014 at 10:50 am

I am one of those commuters that gets stuck in that traffic everyday- yes, there are huge traffic jams, it’s ill-designed, etc etc, but I for one am very glad it is being restored. As frustrating as it is- we need MORE restoration and beautiful places for nature, NOT LESS.

HamCyclist on August 1st, 2014 at 4:18 pm

I do travel Highway 37 at least 5 days a week as well for the last 6 years now and I have to agree its pain in the ass. I do also love nature and love outdoor living and been to flyway in Mare Island few times already. On every project like this there should be a balanced between nature and infrastructure. I agree that there are some good history of the marshland few decades back (even before I came to earth) and I like that theres something being done to restore the marshland but you also need to consider that there are also less vehicles few decades ago than today. Theres a big cry for motorist who travels H37 everyday. Theres a lot of time wasted sitting on your car waiting for the car in front of you to move forward. Besides that how many cars and trucks on that 1 lane highway on idle for a long time or moving very slow… imagine those extra CO2 from exhaust of those cars and trucks. All the motorist needs, including me, is a 12 extra feet of road (24 ft for both direction) to ease up the commute on H37 so we get to work much faster and burn less CO2. Just imagine… it takes me 1hr to 1hr 15mins from home to work on weekdays but it only takes me 30 – 40mins (highway speed) to travel the same route on weekends (not race day weekend) or holidays.

Ron Jordan on August 26th, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Well and good I guess that it is being restored to it’s more natural state. So, how natural is Styrofoam and how is it going to be used in this project?

Gary 37 User on September 6th, 2014 at 9:14 am

The restoration is all well and good. I say that not because I completely agree with the project or even the spirit of it, but because as a society, compromise is essential. That being said, the traffic delays should be considered much more highly. 37 is no longer a trivial convenience for 1950’s era Sunday drivers to enjoy. It’s an extremely important traffic artery used daily by thousands of people on their way to, or in the process of conducting extremely important business that is essential to the betterment of our society. It is a complete failure that 37 is a two lane road with a time and energy wasting bottleneck at each end to begin with. 37 should be four lanes from beginning to end, period. Any “time reversing” restoration projects should be considered after the highway is made to be functional by the standards required by the needs of our society today and into the future.

Ken K on September 20th, 2014 at 8:28 am

I have been a HWY 37 commuter for 12 years and am happy to see the wetlands being restored. But we need a double lane highway to relieve the traffic congestion here. I was lucky enough to secure a job that allows me to commute in the early hours (5:30am) before congestion gets insanely crowded. If we just had a lane so that large trucks and slower traffic could move over to, a lot of this congestion could be eliminated. Reverse commuting from San Rafael and Novato could also be hugely relieved with a bypass at Sears Point that would allow East bound Hwy 37 traffic to flow past the signal at 121 without stopping. It’s nice to dream isn’t it?

armond scaccalosi on September 26th, 2014 at 9:16 pm

unbelievably short sighted. I cant believe no provisions were made to
increase the already bottle necked 37 to 4 lanes? what are you thinking? that the population will decrease and the traffic will lessen? think again tinker bell. After the wet lands are flooded on both sides their will be no turning back ?? what the …………

Highway 37 will come to a complete stand still one day soon but the irate gas guzzling commuters will have a wonderful view of the pre gold rush environment while emitting poisonous 21st century fumes . What a travesty. the well intentioned once again are void of common sense and reality. Most likely this project was politically engineered to bypass public approval or knowledge.

Rico on October 21st, 2014 at 2:44 pm

I saw large foam blocks being buried next to 37. What is that for?

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