Wetlands Restoration Project at Golden Gate National Recreation Area is Well Worth the Cost

This NPS photo shows the Giacomini Wetlands project at high tide on October 31, 2008, nearly a week after the breaching celebration.

Large-scale tidal wetland restoration projects are very expensive. At Point Reyes National Seashore, it cost $12 million to re-flood 560 acres of former pasture land and create the new Giacomini Wetlands. This is not just an exercise in “feel good” environmental action. Though it will take many years, the benefits provided by the new wetlands will provide a handsome return on the investment.

On Saturday, October 25, personnel from Point Reyes National Seashore joined with Point Reyes National Seashore Association (PRNSA) staff and Hanford ARC contract workers to remove the last of the levee system that had held back the sea more than 60 years to protect 560 acres of former pasture land at the southern end of Tomales Bay. The day following the “breach celebration,” about 500 enthusiastic supporters looked on as high tide and stream flow filled the new Giacomini Wetlands. Within a year, the wetlands will have a very natural appearance.

For more detailed information about the Giacomini Wetlands project, see Giacomini Wetland Restoration Project: Draft Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report at this site and EIS-relevant information at this site. For a relevant map, see this site.

The need for the wetland restoration project was rooted in land use decisions made long ago. As the Seashore’s website explains:

Since the early 1900s, levees constructed at the southern end of Tomales Bay for roads and dairy farms have served to hydrologically disconnect Lagunitas Creek and its tributaries from their floodplains. As a result, wetland conditions within the Waldo Giacomini Ranch and Olema Marsh (Project Area) [were] degraded, and hydrologic and ecological functionality of what was once of the largest integrated tidal marsh complexes in Tomales Bay [was] substantially reduced.

Though wetlands were leveed in this vicinity at various times over the past century, the principal levees in the project area were constructed in the 1940s to create pasture land for dairy cattle. There was an urgent need for milk and butter during and after World War II, and at that time almost nobody understood or gave much thought to the negative impacts of draining estuarine wetlands and stream flood plains.

The passage of the decades brought new understanding and appreciation for the valuable benefits of healthy wetlands. Restoration of the wetlands at the head of Tomales Bay, a long-held dream of area environmentalists and park advocates, was finally made possible by a key land acquisition made less than a decade ago. In 2000, the Park Service used congressional appropriations and California Department of Transportation mitigation funds to acquire the Waldo Giacomini Ranch for the specific purpose of wetland restoration.

The project area is in the northern district of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in Marin County. Since this area of the GGNRA is administered by Point Reyes National Seashore, the Seashore assumed responsibility for management of the wetland restoration project and its friends organization, the PRNSA, agreed to raise most of the money.

Readying the project area for the re-flooding event that took place last month took years of planning and work on the ground, including two years for bulldozing levees and redirecting creeks. None of this was cheap. The Giacomini Wetlands project, a rare large-scale example of tidal estuary wetland restoration, cost a cool $12 million, or about $21,429 an acre.

Needless to say, it’s very difficult to put that kind of money together for a project of this sort. It took the PRNSA, which spearheaded the fundraising campaign, eight years to raise about half of the money ($6.2 million). Another $4.2 million of the cost was covered by California Department of Transportation mitigation funds. The rest of the funding came from miscellaneous sources, including the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the Watershed Council of the State of California Water Control Board (“Proposition 50”), the State of California Wildlife Conservation Board, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation – Northern California Restoration Grant, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Has this money been well spent? You bet. While it isn’t easy to measure all of the returns in dollars and cents, especially the environmental benefits, it’s very clear that this project will easily justify its cost in the long run. Recreational benefits aside, healthy natural systems like the new Giacomini Wetlands do a tremendous amount of “free work” that goes on year after year after year.

This “free work” is mostly in the form of pollution filtering, flood control, and wildlife habitat/nursery functions. The fundamentally most important fact here is that two-thirds of the freshwater inflow of Tomales Bay passes through the restoration project area. Now that the Giocamini Wetlands have replaced the levee-protected pasture lands, many of the pollutants that would have entering the bay will instead be filtered out by the salt, brackish, and freshwater marsh communities reestablished in the project area.

When storms strike, wetlands act as natural shock absorbers and flood control systems. Hydrologists expect that increased floodwater retention on the Giacomini Wetlands floodplains will reduce flooding of the county road and lower the risk of flood damage for private homes along the southern perimeter of the project area.

Perhaps the most dramatic and visible of the project benefits will come in the form of wildlife habitat improvements. Shorebirds, geese, harbor seals, egrets, herons, and other wildlife began using the newly restored wetlands almost immediately, and in the months and years to come the project will benefit an ever wider variety of marine, estuarine, and freshwater wildlife species. Among them are many endangered and threatened species or “species of concern” such as the “…. coho salmon, steelhead trout, green sturgeon, tidewater goby, California clapper rail, black rail, common yellowthroat, and southwestern river otter. The wetlands will also provide important habitat to migratory waterfowl and shorebirds and nursery and foraging habitat for species such as seals, sharks, and rays that are typically found in the outer portions of Tomales Bay.”

If somebody should tell you that the $12 million spent on the Giacomini Wetlands is money poured down the drain, ask them if they know what natural drain systems are good for.