Preserving wetlands as state dries

February 14, 2014

With a shovel and a 5-gallon bucket, Donna Nickle clears away handfuls of dried grass, digs a 6-inch hole and carefully puts in a creeping wild rye, a plant native to tidal marshes.

Nickle, who grew up in Redwood City, joined about 30 other Save the Bay volunteers to help restore the marshes at East Palo Alto's Faber Tract. But the late January planting was unusual this year as the temperatures soared and everyone was reminded to constantly reapply sunscreen and drink water.

"We're usually distributing ponchos and working with the cold and muddy conditions, but instead we're watering seedlings and worrying about getting them established," said Jack States, restoration project specialist for Save the Bay.

For more than 40 years, volunteers on the Peninsula and throughout the Bay Area have nurtured plants in an effort to restore tidal marshes, which are essential for a healthy bay. Their goal is to re-establish 100,000 acres and they rely on nearly 7,000 volunteers each year.

This year's efforts are more complicated than usual because many of these areas have received little rain in the last 13 months. Volunteers at Faber Tract hoisted 5-gallon buckets from a truck outfitted with a 275-gallon tank to water the tender seedlings.

Before California declared a drought state of emergency on Jan. 21, Save the Bay had set a goal of planting 40,000 seedlings at its sites, include Ravenswood Pond in Menlo Park, by the end of March.

Now, they've had to shift gears and direct some of their volunteer efforts toward watering and maintaining the seedlings that have already been planted, while continuing to nurture the rest of the plants in their Palo Alto and Oakland nurseries, States said. The seedlings that do not get planted this year will be transplanted into larger containers and saved for next year.

"There's a misconception that a drought-tolerant plant like a native can just be stuck in the ground. These plants need about five months of regular watering to establish themselves and become drought tolerant," States said.

Nickle, who now lives in Fremont, has spent her whole life crossing the bay and has watched it change over the years. Her father, who works for the Redwood City water department, always talked about the science of recycled water when she was younger. Now as a college student at Cupertino's De Anza College, she has become active in protesting projects, such as a recent Redwood City development project, which she said will pave over restorable salt ponds to build housing.

"I've learned how important marshes are for pollution filtration. On first glance these marshes just look like dead grass until you realize that this is a thriving habitat," Nickle said. She volunteers at least once a month and always tries to bring friends so she can introduce and educate them to the idea of marsh restoration.

At each of the organization's six restoration sites, the goal is to re-establish native plants in the marshes, which act as transition zones to protect habitat for wildlife during high tides and also as a human buffer zone between the marshes and the uplands.

Though the reintroduction and planting of natives takes place during the winter months, the organization's marsh restoration efforts occur year round. From removing invasive species and collecting seeds from reference sites around the bay to sowing and propagating them in their nurseries, each seedling takes the efforts of 10 volunteers, according to States.

Redwood City resident Steven W. Russell has volunteered with Save the Bay for eight years, partly because he grew up in East Palo Alto near Faber Tract.

"During the '50s, every winter many of the houses in our neighborhood would flood," Russell said.

This area of East Palo Alto is prone to flooding during particularly high tide events, often referred to as King Tides. Bringing back the land's biodiversity is just one step toward addressing the connection between rising sea levels and climate change, States said.

The group also offers educational programs that target students from elementary through high school, including San Mateo's Junipero Serra High School and Odyssey Middle School.

About half of their volunteers are the students looking to fulfill community service requirements for school and youth groups, States said.

"It's great that they come and help out, especially when they come back on their own and develop an interest in what we're doing," States said. "Many of these students will volunteer year-round so they can participate in the entire life cycle of these plants."

A quick survey of the empty plant plugs totals about 100 - not bad for three hours worth of work - but it's far fewer than a typical winter planting event.

"With a maximum volunteer capacity of 60, we could get 400 plants in the ground during the same time period," says States. "But we have to adapt to the variables."

The unplanted flats of natives will return to the nursery with the hope that it will rain soon and they'll get their chance again in the coming weeks. If not, hopefully they'll return next year bigger and stronger.

"Restoration is all about adaptively managing," States says.

Save the Bay

For more information on Save the Bay and to sign up to volunteer at one of their six restoration sites, visit

Sophia Markoulakis is a Peninsula freelance writer. This story appeared in the Peninsula Sunday Zone.