VALLEJO — Don Brubaker drove along a levee and pointed out the flat expanse of pickleweed and water in front of him and the hills of Napa and Sonoma counties miles away.
“All the way to those foothills over there was an estuary,” said Brubaker, who manages the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Mile upon mile of rivers, sloughs, mudflats, floodplains and bogs. This vast area fanning out from the bay was before pioneer days fit for a duck and a lot of other creatures, though humans found it uninviting and turned much of it into dry land for farming.
Cullinan Ranch in westernmost Solano County in coming years will take a step backward in the name of environmental progress. This 1,500-acre area is poised to once again become tidal wetlands, as well as a public access centerpiece to the wildlife refuge for people driving by on Highway 37.
“Part of what we’re doing here is a natural wildlife refuge for farming two endangered species – the salt marsh harvest mouse and the California clapper rail,” Brubaker said.
The other part is creating a place where people can park and enjoy the refuge. They’ll ultimately be able to come to Cullinan Ranch to hike, bird-watch and kayak. Much of the 13,200-acre refuge can presently be reached only by boat, though there is hiking on Tubbs Island in Sonoma County near Sears Point.
“We’re going to spend $16 million on this project, on a wetlands,” Brubaker said. “We don’t want people not to come out and enjoy it.”
People some 150 years ago began constructing levees in the region to create dry land for farming. By 1999, the Bay Area had only about 21 percent of its historic tidal marsh acreage, according to the multiple-agency San Francisco Bay Area Wetlands Ecosystems Goals Project.
Cullinan Ranch near the Napa River got farmed for oats and hay into the early 1980s. A late-1980s plan to build the Egret Bay community with some 1,500 homes and a marina as part of Vallejo stalled amid opposition by environmental groups.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought the land in 1991. But turning Cullinan Ranch back to tidal wetlands has proven to be complicated. There’s been millions of dollars to find, public hearings to hold and an environmental impact report to complete before breaching levees.
“It is more than coming out here, setting a couple of dynamite charges and letting the water rip,” Brubaker said.
Plus, there’s been one new levee to build, the biggest one of all.
Highway 37 is a major link between Solano and Sonoma counties and carries about 33,000 vehicles daily. A 10-mile stretch runs through the marshlands between Vallejo and Sears Point, including past Cullinan Ranch.
The concern is that tides rushing through breached Cullinan Ranch levees could during storm surges spill over Highway 37. That 15-foot-tall, half-mile-long levee got built near the highway over the past few months to keep Highway 37 dry.
But this new levee does not look like those built long ago. One side tapers gradually down to the tidal-marsh-to-be. That will create a transition zone moving from upland vegetation to pickleweed to mudflats. Brubaker said it will also make the restored wetlands area more resilient to sea level rise.
Bulldozers will be busy at the Cullinan Ranch in coming months. They will contour and groom the former farmland to once again become tidal wetlands.
Brubaker said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should breach the final levee in 2014.
The tidal marshes won’t instantly appear in finished form. Nature in coming years will continue to mold the land, with the tidal waters washing in sediments.
Brubaker became the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge manager in 2010 after managing refuges in San Diego for eight years. He said he came at a time when years of Cullinan Ranch wetlands restoration planning is coming to fruition.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.