Breuner Marsh restoration will turn old dumping ground into ecological gem
By Denis Cuff
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 01/19/2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Updated: 01/19/2011 09:56:15 AM PST
RICHMOND -- As a child in the 1950s, Whitney Dotson and his friends would scramble across the railroad tracks near his home to catch tadpoles and take dips in the waters of the Breuner Marsh, a slice of nature amid the refineries and industrial plants along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.
"It was amazing to us kids that we could get into the channels, and try to swim and catch tadpoles," Dotson said. "It was one of the our attractions."
As years went by, the marsh area remained undeveloped, despite hotly debated plans to build an airport, housing and high-tech center there. It wasn't untouched, however: Various property owners dumped rocks, soil and waste there as development plans languished.
Now Breuner Marsh is in for big changes with plans for an ambitious environmental restoration -- another chapter in the greening of the East Bay shoreline.
The East Bay Regional Park District has just spent $6.85 million to buy 217 acres of the marsh to expand Point Pinole Regional Park, and district officials are considering four alternatives to restore the area's ecology.
The district's $7 million plan would return 23 acres of diked lands to Bay tidal flows, make other habitat improvements for endangered birds and wildlife, and build a new segment of the San Francisco Bay Trail.
Regional park planners will hold the first public meeting on marsh restoration alternatives from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Parchester Village Community Center, 900 Williams Drive, Richmond.
Park planners also want to add basic amenities such as park entrances, parking spaces, trails and picnic tables, providing the first sanctioned public access to the marsh.
The park district's purchase of the marsh -- following a four-year court battle that lasted through last week -- ended a long-standing tug-of-war for the property, which had long been eyed for development. Some Richmond officials had argued against turning Breuner Marsh into a park because they yearned to develop the land to bring jobs and tax revenues in a city that has struggled with elevated crime and jobless rates.
Property owners Don and Lonnie Carr purchased the property in 2000 from members of the Breuner family, who once operated a large chain of now-closed furniture stores in Northern California. During the Carr's ownership, plans for a technology park at the site never won approval from the city of Richmond.
The park district acquired the land in 2006 through eminent domain proceedings that dragged on until Thursday, when the California Supreme Court upheld the $6.85 million purchase price, plus interest and court costs, for the 217 acres, about half of which are under water. The Carrs had been seeking more.
Dotson, elected to the regional park board in 2008, said jobs can be developed elsewhere in Richmond without losing a marsh that is part of a bigger story about restoring Bay wetlands.
"More than 90 percent of the wetlands around the Bay have been lost or degraded," he said. "The Breuner Marsh is a last vestige of shoreline wetlands. It's important ecologically to everybody in the region, and the wildlife."
Parts of the Breuner Marsh were filled with dirt and construction debris before the Save the Bay political movement in the 1960s restricted Bay filling and made public access a condition of shoreline development.
The new wetlands will grow to 40 acres over the next four of five decades because park district designs account for rising sea levels, an expected result of global warming.
As the Bay rises, water will move further inland and fan out into slightly elevated areas that will become wetlands, the shallow areas rich in food and habitat for fish and wildlife, said Brad Olson, the park district's environmental programs manager.
"If we didn't do this project, much of the habitat here would be lost as the sea level rose," Olson said. "This is one of the rare places where we have upland areas that can serve as a backstop to the rising water. This is a rare opportunity for us."
Many species, including the endangered saltwater harvest mouse and California clapper rail, will benefit, he said.
The marsh also can provide scenic views of the Bay and three counties.
Those views were limited by fog on Olson's and Dotson's recent visit to the marsh on a chilly winter day earlier this month.
Shore birds let out piercing cries as they swooped and darted over the mosaic of mud flats, channels and land covered by brush. Trains rumbled on the railroad tracks. Ducks paddled by in the Bay.
"The views here can be spectacular when it's not fogged in," Dotson said as he walked along a jetty built decades ago out of earth and rubble piled into the Bay.
Park planners propose one trail to the jetty, and nearly a mile of new Bay Trail -- much of it on a boardwalk -- along the eastern edge of the marsh to minimize disruption to wildlife.
To pay for the restoration, the park district has lined up a $1 million federal grant and another $1 million from an environmental fund the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond set up to mitigate past pollution. The district expects to use district funds and other grants to pay the rest, officials said.
Bruce Beyeart, a Richmond trail advocate, said the project is worth it, giving the public access to a big stretch of Bay shoreline that has been closed for decades. The project also links the 2,315-acre Point Pinole Regional Park, site of an old dynamite-making plant, to the Bay Trail.
"This project is important for bringing people closer to the Bay," Beyeart said.
Contact Denis Cuff at
925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.
IF YOU GO
The East Bay Regional Park District will hold a public meeting on the Breuner Marsh restoration plans at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Parchester Village Community Center, 900 Williams Drive, Richmond.