On a recent cold and overcast day, B. and I set out with a dear friend to hike at the Napa Sonoma Marshes. This wide-open and flat space of thousands of acres is of prime importance to migratory birds. Coots, avocets, a falcon or two, common gulls, least terns, ducks and geese were just some of the birds we saw. A cold wind coming up off of San Pablo Bay blew against us, and a chilly drizzle warned that more rain was coming on its heels. But weather like this often seems to lure out the shyer species.
Just a little over an hour north of San Francisco, the marshes are a massive wetland-restoration project of former Cargill salt ponds through the cooperation of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the California Coastal Conservancy. They provide habitat for endangered species, migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, and fish and other aquatic species, as well as a beneficial use for recycled water. Current challenges include increasing salinity, deteriorating levees and water control structures, and rising maintenance and energy costs associated with pumping the water. But part of the success story is restoring vulnerable species of mammals and water birds, such as the salt marsh harvest mouse and California clapper rail; endangered fish, like the Delta smelt, Sacramento splittail, steelhead trout, and Chinook salmon; and aquatic animals like Dungeness Crab and others. The goal is to manage the remaining ponds’ water depths to increase wildlife habitat diversity, with shallow-water areas for migratory and resident shorebirds and deep-water areas for diving ducks. The project’s benefits are myriad: improved water quality and productivity in the Napa River and San Francisco Bay, and public open space and recreational opportunities such as birdwatching and environmental education. This is a great example of cooperation between agencies, smart use of recycled resources, and the great luck we have to live in the Bay Area, where we can so easily access such wild places.