Giacomini Wetlands, 10 years in, sees quick rebirth

10/18/2018

Next Thursday marks the 10-year anniversary of the conversion of 550 acres of dairy pasture into what West Marin now knows as the Giacomini Wetlands. A short walk from downtown Point Reyes Station, native grasses flourish and indigenous ducks bob where cows once roamed.

Ecologists say nature made surprising headway in just one decade. “What has been really rewarding has been how quickly it’s reverted,” said Lorraine Parsons, a park ecologist and the restoration project manager. “We thought it was going to take 15 to 20 years for it to go from pasture to marsh—we anticipated a very long evolution—and it really seemed to happen very quickly.” 

Next Saturday, Oct. 27, the National Park Service and the Point Reyes National Seashore Association will celebrate the anniversary with birding and kayaking tours in the morning and a series of presentations in the afternoon. Talks will include an overview of the wetlands monitoring program and a look at how the project has affected winter shorebird populations. 

Each year since the restoration began, water bird populations have grown, park scientists say. In turn, this increase has allowed a growth in the number of larger birds like peregrine hawks and bald eagles that feed on smaller birds, like dabbling ducks. 

The project also improved water quality: within the first five years of the restoration, fecal coliform levels in water samples decreased by 23 percent. Tomales Bay remains a designated federally impaired water body, with a state-approved plan to control pathogens.

In fact, one of the restoration’s biggest goals was to create a natural water filter for Tomales Bay. Two-thirds of the bay’s freshwater comes from the Olema and Papermill Creeks, which flowed across the Waldo Giacomini ranch. When he built a dairy there in the 1940s, Mr. Giacomini constructed two and a half miles of levees to keep the bay from inundating his pastures at high tide. It was the only dairy in West Marin with irrigated pastures created through a system of levees and dikes. But in addition to water, the levees also funneled bacteria from the creeks straight into the bay.

By the end of the century, Mr. Giacomini was willing to sell the land to the park, which had eyed it for decades. Negotiations went on and off for 15 years. In 1994, a member of the family called one of the park’s proposed deals “totally unreasonable,” but indicated that the family would still consider selling for the price and under the right terms. 

Though the Giacominis originally sought a 20- to 25-year leaseback agreement, in 2000 they sold the land for $5.75 million with a seven-year leaseback deal. 

Ms. Parsons described the restoration as “the idea we can go out and repair the harm we did to the environment.” The park also hoped the project would create habitat for endangered species like the tidewater goby and the California red-legged frog.  

“There was substantial [evidence] that restoring this 500-acre property would restore hundreds of acres of habitat to Tomales Bay and the central coast,” said Brannon Ketcham, the park hydrologist who worked on the restoration. 

Yet a number of concerns were raised at the time. North Marin Water District worried that saltwater would back up to its wells at the Coast Guard station. Mr. Ketcham said the park worked with the district to understand the site’s hydraulics, and that models showed restoration methods would not aggravate salinity intrusion. (Though intrusion does occasionally occur at the wells, Mr. Ketcham said it is not caused by any changes at the wetlands).

Ranchers forecast a 4 percent drop in Marin County’s milk production with the loss of the Giacomini diary. Dairy is still considered Marin’s most valuable agricultural sector, though its value fluctuates yearly. 

Residents had other reservations, too. In a letter to the editor, author Philip Fradkin wrote, “I find it fascinating that progress is measured in going backwards to a past that we never knew and can never successfully recreate again.” 

Logistics around the project, including how much of the wetlands would be available to the community, also spawned debate. “What surprised us was the wide range of opinions about public access—everything from no public access, give it all back to wildlife, to, at one point, a draft plan showing a bridge from Point Reyes Station to Inverness Park,” Ms. Parsons said. “For a while it was pretty divisive, because people really had strong feelings.” Eventually, she said, “most people seemed to support more restoration and less public access.” 

After the ranch shut down, but before the levees were demolished, Ms. Parsons said the shifting vegetation and resurgence of native grasses was evident. “It’s amazing how much has reverted to looking like the salt marsh in the native marshes up north,” she said. “And with that there’s been such a cool increase in bird and wildlife use: egrets and shorebirds and river otters.” 

Mr. Ketcham said the best measure of a restoration project is its invisibility—“so anyone who comes here now might not know anything happened,” he said. 

Ms. Parsons agreed that the years of work paid off. “I feel like we went through a lot of work to get there, but everybody has really come to value the project and it’s created a beautiful vista for people to look at,” she said. 

 

For a full schedule of the park’s celebration, titled “An Ecological Success Story: A Celebration of the Giacomini Wetlands Restoration 10 Years Later,” visit go.nps.gov/giacomini10.