Building a Better Breuner Marsh

As with many of my Eco Watch stories, this one began somewhere familiar and led somewhere I never expected. The somewhere familiar would the East Bay Regional Park District. I've written about it and its parks on many, many occasions, and enjoyed them as a runner and hiker on many more. By learning about the newest shoreline-park-to-be, Richmond's Breuner Marsh, I was introduced to not only a potential waterfront wonderland (once the cleanup is complete in five years and the shoreline permanently protected, that is), but also a new favorite East Bay destination. I've known about Point Pinole Regional Park for years but have never visited; it's one the of the EBRPD's larger holdings, and sits on a spit in northwest Richmond with a fascinating history involving gunpowder and trains. Today it's a peaceful, almost majestic place that doesn't see the crowds of the parks in the hills but offers at least as much to enjoy: an accessible beach, miles of trails, open fields, a eucalyptus forest, and a massive marshland housing federally protected native species. Abutting its southern border is the future Breuner Marsh park, and I think East Bay residents would do well to look forward to the day when the two parks are connected via the Bay Trail, establishing one of the largest, most remote, most ecologically rich sections of waterfront parkland in the Bay Area.

"A Better Breuner"

East Bay Regional Park District to lead $7.5 million restoration of Richmond's Breuner Marsh.

By Nate Seltenrich

An embattled stretch of shoreline in northwest Richmond is finally on its way to becoming one of the Bay Area's most ecologically rich waterfront parks. Interest in restoring the wetland dates to at least 2002, and it was later purchased by the East Bay Regional Park District via eminent domain in 2008. The 218-acre site known as Breuner Marsh is a cornerstone of the North Richmond shoreline, featuring valuable saltwater marsh and coastal prairie habitat. Among its denizens are treasured native species such as the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse and clapper rail and the federally protected snowy plover. One of the region's most remote shoreline parks, it offers views from Mount Tamalpais to Mount St. Helena, eighty miles to the north.

There's just one problem: The formerly private property abutting Point Pinole Regional Park's southern border has seen a century of dumping, landfill, hunting and fishing, horse grazing, squatting, small-scale development, and other behavior not exactly designed with ecology in mind. It has also been the proposed site of an airport, a transit village, and a business park. Its current condition is a testament to nature's resiliency, yet in the interest of continuing to undo man's legacy and preparing Breuner Marsh for public access, the park district has hashed out an ambitious $7.5 million, five-year restoration plan that received a significant shot in the arm from a $1 million US Fish and Wildlife Service grant in late-December.

"We were very pleased the get the money; they typically don't have a large amount of funding," said project manager Brad Olson. The park district has received grants from the agency before, he said, but rarely this large. The money was awarded to the park district through a "very competitive" funding cycle that doled out $19 million nationwide, and will be applied to both restoration work and public access improvements. "This is a pretty expensive project for the park district," he said. "But we have a very good start."

Together with another $1 million from the Castro Cove Trustees, an entity established by public agencies to receive money from Chevron for mitigation at nearby Castro Cove, as well as funds from the park district's $500 million Measure WW bond, the new grant will be applied toward the project's $2.35 million first phase, expected to be complete in 2013. It includes planning for the restoration of a total of fifty acres of pickleweed-rich saltmarsh, coastal scrub, and upland grasslands habitat, along with making a number of recreational improvements: a small staging area, a new bridge over Rheem Creek, a picnic area, boardwalks, and other improvements to existing trails. Ultimately, the San Francisco Bay Trail will be extended from one end of the property to the other, filling an important gap and providing continuous off-street access from the Point Richmond area all the way into Point Pinole Regional Park.

Phase Two will cost another $5.15 million, Olson said, and includes the remainder of the restoration work as well as some additional public access and educational components. No further grants are yet lined up, but Olson has also applied for funding with the Environmental Protection Agency. His hope is that existing grants can be used to leverage future funds, which makes the money from the Fish and Wildlife Service all the more valuable. However, whatever funds the district is unable to raise will be poured from the Measure WW bucket, which has already donated $600,000 to the cause for environmental impact studies, feasibility studies, and cultural resource assessment (the property includes a number of Ohlone Indian shellmounds).

Restoration work will include the removal of invasive flora such as anise and non-native grasses and the reconfiguration of Rheem Creek, which was previously channeled by the Army Corps of Engineers. But the biggest chunk of change will go toward moving approximately 100,000 cubic yards of fill. Most of it will be reused elsewhere on-site, but a portion is contaminated with high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals and will have to be trucked to a landfill capable of handling hazardous waste. The park district's ultimate goal, Olson said, is to restore the marsh to its condition at the beginning of the century while simultaneously planning for sea-level rise. Given that 90 percent of the wetlands once ringing the bay have already been lost to development, hopes are that the restoration will positively impact the ecology of the entire region.

East Bay Regional Park District board member Whitney Dotson, who has watched the property for decades from his home in nearby Parchester Village, is particularly invested in its pending cleanup. "All of this was the essence of the foundation for developing my interest in open space," he said while admiring the same view populated with egrets, osprey, herons, kites, and myriad other shorebirds that has captivated him since his family moved there in 1950. "From a habitat standpoint, we need this as much as any bird or harvest mouse. ... That's a part of what drives me to make sure we have open space."