2/2/11: Bay Restoration is a Reality: Cullinan Ranch Update

Bay Restoration Is a Reality: Cullinan Ranch Update

In 1989, Congress passed a bill authored by then Congresswoman Barbara Boxer, providing $7 million to purchase a 1,500-acre hay ranch near Mare Island. Cullinan Ranch, as it was known locally, was a former tidal marsh that had been drained and converted to farmland sometime around 1900, a common practice at the time. Well over 30,000 acres of the bay’s original tidal marshes had suffered a similar fate. As the new property owner, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service planned to restore tidal wetlands as part of a region-wide effort to repair the health of San Francisco Bay. After almost twenty-two years, construction is set to begin this summer.
Restoration of Cullinan Ranch is typical of many projects around the bay that together constitute the largest initiative in the nation to restore coastal wetlands. In 1989 it was almost inconceivable to expect that such a massive ecosystem repair project could occur in San Francisco Bay. Of the bay’s original 196,000 acres of tidal wetlands, more than 90% had been drained. Forty-two thousand acres had been developed and lost forever. In addition to 34,000 acres of farmlands like Cullinan Ranch, almost 40,000 acres had been converted to industrial salt evaporation complexes. In the boom years following World War II lagoon residential communities like Foster City and Bel Marin Keyes came in vogue, all of them constructed on top of the 2,000 year old tidal marshes.
That was to be the fate of Cullinan Ranch. In the early 1980s, Pan Pacific and Redwood Realty Association proposed to build Egret Bay there, an upscale residential community with 1,500 single-family homes fronting on a man-made lagoon. But a lawsuit by local citizens stymied the proposal and opened the door for the growing bay restoration movement to achieve one of its earliest victories. In 1987 The Bay Institute published the Citizens’ Report on the Diked Historic Baylands of San Francisco Bay, describing the treat posed by developments like Egret Bay and calling for protection and restoration of former tidal marshlands. We went on to work with agencies like the Dept. of Fish and Game and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to secure financing for numerous restoration projects.
By 1994, the California Department of Fish and Game purchased almost 9,000 acres of industrial salt ponds adjacent to Cullinan Ranch. Between 2006 and 2010 the Department restored 4,500 acres of tidal wetlands there. Once the Cullinan Ranch restoration is complete, most of the original Napa River estuary will have been revitalized and functioning fully for the first time in over eighty years. Bay wide, 25,000 acres of salt evaporation ponds have been acquired by government wildlife agencies and are in the process of being restored. Ultimately, the bay area environmental community proposes to restore more than 100,000 acres of San Francisco Bay’s historic wetlands ecosystem.
Today you commonly hear skeptics declare that, “…we can’t turn back the clock; we can’t restore what was here originally now that there are 7 million people living on the shores of the Bay.” In fact, because of the enormous quantity of restorable wetlands in the Bay, we can get pretty darn close. Thirty years ago when The Bay Institute was created, a dream inspired a vision. It was a vision shared by many others. Today, that vision is a reality.