Location: San Francisco
|When it's complete, it will be one of the largest wetlands restorations in U.S. history, a sprawling complex of critical habitat in the North Bay that scientists believe will benefit threatened and endangered species, provide a nursery for fish and even help ease the effects of global warming.
Many within the San Francisco Bay's fishing industry and some environmentalists, however, see the ambitious plan as a potential threat to fisheries, bird species and the very health of the bay.
Work on the Hamilton Wetlands Restoration Project began in 2001 after receiving congressional approval. The goal is to rebuild nearly 2,600 acres of wetlands in Novato at the site of a former army airfield and an adjoining parcel of land at Bel Marin Keys.
To restore the wetlands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Coastal Conservancy are building up land using millions of cubic yards of sand and mud from dredging scheduled around the bay, with most of the initial material gathered from Port of Oakland deepening projects.
The agencies started to fill in the land with dredge material in 2006, but at the current build rate - with each barge of material towed in, tediously offloaded and pumped to Hamilton - project leaders estimate it will take another 18 years to complete the project.
Aquatic transfer facility
To speed things along, they have proposed an alternate way of storing the material and delivering it to the work sites. The agencies say the project time will be cut by eight to 10 years, saving as much as $300 million, if the changes are approved by a host of federal and state agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
"It would be a far, far more efficient way of getting the material to the Hamilton sites," said Peter Mull, an ocean engineer and project manager for what is being called the Aquatic Transfer Facility. "The way it works now, we only get a third of the amount of material that we are hoping for every year."
What the Army Corps of Engineers and Coastal Conservancy have proposed is to dig a 36-acre hole on the west side of San Pablo Bay just above China Camp, in a relatively shallow area prized for its sturgeon and striped-bass fishing.
Material from bay dredging projects would be delivered by barge on a steady basis, between June and November, and dumped directly over the massive ditch, where engineers believe the sediment quickly will settle. The collected material would then be pumped to the work sites, 24 hours a day.
Fishing industry opposition
Not everyone likes the plan. Bay Area fishermen say the increased turbidity - the suspension of sediment - in the bay is a sure way of ruining what's left of bay and regional fisheries.
"No one is opposed to restoring wetlands," said John Beuttler, conservation director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. "But the way we go about it is absolutely vital. We all remember the years where dredge spoils were wiping out the sportfishing on the bays. We simply cannot sustain that again."
In the 1980s, after a series of poor fishing seasons, anglers protested the wholesale dumping of dredge material around Alcatraz, where sediment mixed with the tide, clouded the bay and, fishermen believe, severely harmed fisheries and the entire food chain.
"Those were very bad years," said Jim Smith, a party-boat captain who has fished the bay since 1967. "You'd see them dump at Alcatraz, and there would be a brown cloud on the bay, going back and forth with the tide. There was mud all over the rocks. It ruined the fishing."
Mull agrees that turbidity represents a serious detriment to the bay's health. By studying computer models and working on the environmental impact report, he believes the Aquatic Transfer Facility project actually will reduce the amount of suspended sediment in the bay.
"I know it seems counterintuitive," he said about letting dredge spoils settle into a hole in the bay, "but we estimate that we'll lose less than 3 percent of the material this way."
Rebuilding wetlands faster
Mull said some 4 million cubic yards of dredge material is taken from the bay each year to reduce sediment deposits and deepen ports. Much of that material is dumped back into bay waters at Mare Island, at a site in the San Pablo Bay shipping channel and at Alcatraz, with some taken out past the Farallon Islands, to the edge of the continental shelf.
Only about 1.2 million cubic yards annually has been gathered for the wetlands restoration project at Hamilton using the current method, which has been limited by the slow process of working with off-loader equipment and further hampered by scheduling conflicts and mechanical breakdowns.
"With the transfer facility, potentially we can more than double the amount of material that can be used for wetlands creation," Mull said, "bringing the amount of material available closer to 3 million cubic yards. We can speed the restoration along that much quicker."
Mull also stressed that the dredge material used in the restoration project is clean and rigorously tested to ensure that it is safe to use.
David Lewis, executive director of the conservation group Save the Bay, supports the proposed transfer facility. "We're waiting to see the final environmental impact report, but there will be some big advantages to this facility," he said.
"Looking at whether there would be enough turbidity to affect the fish, studies seem to show that there would not be a big impact from that," Lewis said. "The place they want to put this doesn't have a very fast current, and it's a little bit sheltered."
1980s problem revisited
Keith Fraser, who has been selling bait from his shop at Loch Lomond Marina in San Rafael for 39 years and regularly fishes the waters off China Camp, strongly disagrees with talk that the project would not harm fish populations.
"The pit plan has the potential to be an even bigger problem for the ecosystem of the bay than the problems we faced in the early 1980s," Fraser said. "Like we found out with the Alcatraz fiasco, most marine life will vacate any area where the turbidity is high. We're talking about drastic effects to striped bass, sturgeon, halibut, salmon - all of our fish."
The Marin Audubon Society also sees potential problems with the project.
"We don't have a position; we have a lot of concerns," said Barbara Salzman, the group's president. The proposed site "is pretty close to Gallinas and Miller creeks, and they have endangered species. That was not even addressed" in the environmental impact report.
"It also didn't properly address impacts on the middle of the bay, where there are diving ducks and other birds. I would say they have a lot of homework to do."
Lewis sees the restoration projects at Hamilton Field and Redwood City's Bair Island, where another 2,600 acres are being restored, as a net gain for the overall health of the bay, which has lost 90 percent of its original wetlands to farming and urbanization.
In addition to habitat and water-quality benefits, Lewis said the wetlands help to lessen global warming by sequestering carbon emissions. The wetlands also soak up tidal events and release them slowly.
"They really are one of the best assets in the fight against global warming and the coastal impact of rising sea levels," he said.
But to attain the beneficial aspects of the wetlands at Hamilton Field, the area first needs to be restored, which means figuring out a way to safely and effectively bring in dredge material.
Mull maintains that the Aquatic Transfer Facility is the answer.
"There will be less suspended material in the bay, and the wetlands will be completed faster," he said. "The idea here is simply to accelerate the process."
If approved, Mull said, the Aquatic Transfer Facility could be in operation in early 2010.
-- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be taking public comments on the project through today at spnetpa@ usace.army.mil.
-- Additional information: hamiltonwet lands.org.