SAN PABLO BAY — Scientists say the San Francisco Bay Area needs 100,000 acres of wetlands to supply a healthy bay.
A project to restore the Napa Sonoma Salt Marsh, which sits on the edge of San Pablo Bay, will provide 10,000 acres toward meeting that need, and a newly completed recycled water pipeline to the area is a linchpin in reducing salinity in 640 acres, said Nadine Peterson, deputy executive officer of the California Coastal Conservancy.
Peterson joined U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, Napa County Supervisors Brad Wagenknecht and Keith Caldwell, grapegrower Jim Lincoln, and others at an event at the marsh honoring the completion of the pipeline Friday morning.
At a dead-end road off Buchli Station Road, the officials gathered with a sweeping view of San Pablo Bay as a backdrop — a view that included the 370-acre former salt pond known as Pond 7, which is filled with a salt residue called bittern.
Bittern, a toxic byproduct of solar salt production, was created when the land was owned by Cargill, which operated solar ponds to produce industrial salt until the 1990s. Recycled water from the 3.4-mile pipeline will be able to dilute the bittern and reduce salinity, eventually allowing the area to be restored and become a suitable habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife.
The Sonoma County Water Agency built the $10 million pipeline, which connects to the Sonoma Valley County Sanitation District plant. Besides diluting toxics in the old salt pond, the pipe will be able to supply irrigation water to growers in the Carneros area. The pipeline will provide 1,100 to 1,700 acre feet of recycled water annually.
Peterson said organizers of the project were flummoxed as to how to get rid of the bittern, as trucking it was far too expensive. The recycled water pipeline offered a solution, albeit a slow one — diluting and discharging the bittern could take as long as 10 years.
Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, said the pipeline is a tribute to partnerships between Napa and Sonoma counties, the state government, federal government, environmental groups and private land owners. It’s taken 20 years to get to this point, he said.
“This is a project that is going to bring back the bay,” Davis said. “A project like this doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens in partnership.”
Thompson said the area was once renowned as habitat for waterfowl, and supplied restaurants throughout the Bay Area.
“This was a remarkable area,” Thompson said. “It was a good, healthy wetland. It’s such an interesting and important part of our past — an area that turned into a vast wasteland. Now it has had life breathed back into it.”
Supervisor Keith Caldwell said that while portions of the marsh sit within Napa County’s boundaries, the restoration project goes far beyond county lines.
“This is not an accident,” Caldwell said. “This is what was envisioned 20 years ago. We do this without boundaries. This is what government’s all about.”
Lincoln said the project brings other benefits beyond restoration of the wetlands — it allows Carneros grapegrowers such as Beckstoffer Vineyards and Bouchaine Vineyards to hook up to the pipeline, reducing their use of groundwater in the process.
The Sonoma County pipeline is the first of two recycled water pipeline projects planned for the Carneros area.
Landowners in the Los Carneros Water District approved a property tax assessment earlier this year that will pay for designing a recycled water pipeline that would extend from the Napa Sanitation District plant, under the Napa River, and out to the Carneros area, delivering as much as 950 acre-feet of water annually.
“The soils in Carneros are by no means great,” Lincoln said. “But the water’s getting better. We can start to plan our operations instead of just hope. A stable source of water benefits not just ag, not just grapes, but a whole community.”