With a swooping bite from the bucket of a large tractor, a portion of shoreline in Novato transformed back more than 130 years.
On Friday, the California Coastal Conservancy used heavy machinery to chew through an old levee, allowing bay waters to flood the plains of the former Hamilton Army Airfield for the first time in over a century.
“It’s hard to believe this is actually happening,” said Pat Eklund, a once-community activist turned Novato City Councilwoman. “We’ve been dreaming about this 40 years.”
The 650 acres were originally wetlands. But like most of the shores fronting the San Francisco Bay, it was levied off and used for farming. In the 1920s, the military bought the land and created the Hamilton Army Airfields, replacing the sprawling pea fields with bombers and fighter jets.
“That airfield was functional all through the Korean and Vietnam wars,” said Tom Gandesbery, project manager for the California Coastal Conservancy, “and then was slowly decommissioned.”
When the land was decommissioned in 1996, some in the community wanted it replaced with another airfield. But community members like Eklund pushed to have it restored to open space.
“We lost half of the bay,” said Eklund. “So we need wetlands to help improve the health of the bay, help the wildlife and the fish.”
The California Conservancy took over the land from the military and spent years preparing to restore it to tidal marshes. The Army Corps of Engineers piped in thousands of yards of dredging material, dug out of the Port of Oakland shipping channel, in order to bring the land up to sea level. With the bay waters flooding across the plains once again, project managers expected wildlife to follow.
“The water’s going to rush in an out of here on a daily basis,” Gandesbery said. “That’ll bring in all the wildlife and plenty of fish will be coming in here.”
The restored tidal marshes will provide vital habitat for wildlife, including ducks and endangered species like the salt marsh harvest mouse and the California clapper rail.
But Congressman Jared Huffman, (D) San Rafael, said the wetlands will have human benefits as well.
“Especially with sea level rise,” Huffman said, “we’re going to need more wetlands to provide a buffer against storms, against damage to our communities.”
The restoration of the 650 acres is part of an ongoing movement to restore vast swaths of wetlands ringing the San Francisco Bay following more than a century of development.
“This is part of a wetlands renaissance,” Huffman said. “We have to continue it because we lost 85 percent of the wetlands on the San Francisco Bay.”
Eklund said the Hamilton land will eventually have walking trails and places where visitors can watch critters like egrets and white pelicans foraging for fish.
As the large lumbering tractor set down its scoop and cut its engines, the sound of the rushing water filled the air.
Eklund paused to take it in.
“Imagine working on it that long and being able to see it today,” Eklund said. “You feel like you’re in a dream.”