Tide turns at Point Reyes wetlands (Point Reyes Light, 10.30.2008)

Wetlands, restored

Tides flowed into the new wetlands at the base of Tomales Bay this weekend for the first time in over 60 years.

“It’s the end of the Giacomini Project, but the beginning of the Giacomini Wetlands,” said Lorraine Parsons, who managed the eight-year restoration project for the Point Reyes National Seashore.

The 550-acre restoration removed the levees and berms that have hindered natural processes since the 1940s, when half of the marshlands in Tomales Bay were diked to create pastureland for a dairy ranch.

Just before 1:10 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, a bright orange Hitachi excavator was poised atop the last remaining dirt levee, ready to take out the final plug of soil that separated Tomasini Slough from Lagunitas Creek at the northern end of the project area. Dozens of spectators gathered on Tomales Bay Trail.

“It’s one scoop away,” guessed John Dell’Osso, spokesman for the seashore. “I’ll bet you one scoop, and the water will start to trickle in.”

The excavator began to scrape away at the levee, which was about five feet deep and 50 feet wide. It reached its arm over the dirt, curled the bucket inward to scoop it up, and then rotated 180 degrees to drop a dark brown load onto the bank.

No water flowed through. The excavator operator, Dan Rogers, turned the arm around to continue scooping. “Oh, I see. He’s shaving off thin layers,” Dell’Osso said, readjusting his estimate. “He’s like a surgeon.”

The excavator continued to shave layers off the top and southern side of the levee. All the while, a yellow Komatsu bulldozer pushed the fresh dirt into a big hole that was previously dug out.

Fifteen minutes and nearly 30 scoops later, water rushed through the loosened dirt and flowed into the slough. The levee was breached, and a tidal channel was created.

A crowd cheered in the distance and the wind picked up, blowing away the smell of old bay mud that hadn’t been exposed for decades.

In the field

The breach celebration began Saturday morning with a walk led by wildlife biologist Jules Evens, who had conducted a comprehensive survey for the project.

With a telescope over his shoulder and binoculars hanging from his neck, Evens led over a hundred people from the corner of Fifth and C Streets to Lagunitas Creek. During the field seminar, he shared his knowledge on the dynamics and changes in bird use prior to and after restoration.

“We wanted to know what’s been here before and how things have changed,” Parsons said, referring to Evens’ research on the site. “Just last year, there was no more irrigation and no more cows.”

During his survey, Evens found the endangered tidewater goby, red-legged frogs, and many rare or threatened birds. Tidal and transitional marshland is important for the goby and the frog, which cannot survive in a completely saline environment. A red-legged frog habitat was created adjacent to Tomasini Creek, where the tidewater goby was found.

Enhancing the natural hydrology through the restoration increases the habitat and the diversity of animal species, according to Evens. “Nature has a way of doing what it wants.”

This was seen when a seasonal dam was removed, and the reach of Lagunitas Creek became larger. There was an increase in rarer animals—yellowlegs, black crowned night herons, wood ducks, Western pond turtles. Grasslands that were usually mowed in March or April weren’t mowed until May and an increase in grassland songbirds was apparent.

Rails also use these marsh plains. “We left some areas as high tide refugia for black rails, and potentially, clapper rails. At the highest tides they need some where to go,” said Brannon Ketcham, a hydrologist for the park. “So we left those areas above the tidal influence.”

“With the increased amount of forage there was a vole explosion,” Evens said. Although not a literal one, Parsons added. With more to eat, voles were having more young, attracting raptors and predatory mammals. Evens pointed out coyotes in the distance and voles being eaten by white tailed kites—nomadic birds that travel around looking specifically for voles. According to Evens, there are a couple dozen here, preying on the rodent boom.

“Even coyotes are cued in,” Parsons said. “There was a couple sitting next to the equipment. They were later chased off by deer.”

The vegetation has already changed within the last year. “The system performed more as a tidal system than we thought,” Ketcham said. “A lot of grasslands that were here traditionally have transitioned into salt marsh plants. It’s already happening.”

Salt has infiltrated and salt grass and pickleweed have already come in. “We thought the vegetation communities would take about ten or 20 years to convert. Now it’s more like three to five years for a full transition. Eventually, we’ll have a manageable, self-sustaining ecosystem.”

Watching the water

Bucketfuls of native pickleweed plants were handed out to some of the 500 visitors, who tossed them like confetti as they watched the high tide flood the ranch on Sunday. Hundreds of people walked to the edge of a newly created tidal channel off Lagunitas Creek to wait for the tide to rise.

“Watch your feet!” people shouted as the water crept in.

Handfuls of voles and gophers came out of their burrows. Some managed to stay dry and scurried past people’s feet; others swam for their lives. “The animals are having to redistribute themselves and find high ground,” Ketcham said.

Sage Rossman, 7, stood on a narrowing strip of land and scooped up a vole from the water to let it dry in the grass. Nine-year-old Bear Sheff and his cousin Daisy Sheff, 12, warmed it up in their hands and took it away from the waterside.

Egrets, kestrels, and Northern harriers gorged on the animals coming out. A man with binoculars said he saw a seal up the channel, where leopard sharks and rays were spotted earlier this summer.

“I think it’s so cool! Having all the wildlife reoccupying this,” said Russell Meeks of Mill Valley.

“Having wetlands in California is so important for our heritage,” said Bernie Stephan of Point Reyes Station. “It was fun watching the tide come in. It’s usually more subtle.”

The water began to recede shortly after 11:15 a.m., and people started heading back to town.

“For most people, if you say ‘I had a lot of fun watching water find its place,’ they would think ‘This is someone who needs a life,’” said Sarah Wright of Woodacre. “But this is a great life.”

“Joyous,” said Sally Bolger, a board member of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

On Sunday afternoon, during an open house at seashore headquarters, Superintendent Don Neubacher toasted a large group of celebrants.

“It’s remarkable we could give something to nature,” he said. “When you think about the scale of this project, it really was a dream. Twelve million dollars is a phenomenal feat. I’m thankful for all of you who believed in the dream. There are lots of negatives in the world. This gives a lot of hope.”

Dennis Rodoni, chair of the seashore association, was next to speak. “Don likes to say people walk on water. I say Don walks on tidal water,” he said, going on to thank the entire community. “We planted the seed, fought the fight, and nourished the idea this could be a wetland.”

~ by Janet Fang on October 30, 2008.

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