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Petaluma students to tackle tax-funded $2.6 million wetlands restoration

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The first payoff from a novel Bay Area voter-approved wetland restoration tax will put Petaluma students to work this fall planting native vegetation in a riverfront park within walking distance of their schools.

Students from La Tercera Elementary School will plant grasses and shrubs at Shollenberger Park, while Casa Grande High students will grow the plants specially selected to survive as climate change brings more intense storms and floods.

The student efforts over the next five years will be supported by a $2.6 million grant awarded this week to Point Blue Conservation Science, a Petaluma-based nonprofit research organization which happens to be located next to the 165-acre park.

Their undertaking is a small slice of the $18 million in wetland restoration projects funded by the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority using proceeds from Measure AA, approved by 70 percent of voters in the nine Bay Area counties in 2016.

The measure established a $12 annual parcel tax that is generating about $25 million a year, and the eight grants announced Wednesday marked the first spending to sustain Bay Area wetlands in an era of climate change.

At least 100,000 acres of tidal wetlands are needed “to maintain our ecological diversity,” with only 44,000 acres now, said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the restoration authority, in a press release.

“Our changing climate is already impacting California and we must accelerate this restoration work now,” said Schuchat, who also is executive director of the California Coastal Conservancy.

Measure AA was the first time a region voted to tax itself for wetland restoration, he said.

Point Blue’s project will also send Petaluma students to work at McNear Landing Park on the south side of D Street, along with similar student-involved restoration efforts at San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties and Pickleweed Park in San Rafael.

In less than 100 years, climate change could drastically reduce 77 percent of bay wetlands, according to Point Blue’s research.

Healthy wetlands buffer adjacent roads and buildings from storm surges and flooding, filter pollutants from runoff and provide crucial wildlife habitat, according to a summary of Point Blue’s project.

Sonoma Land Trust, a private nonprofit dedicated to preserving open space, received a $150,00 grant to begin developing a strategy to restore wetlands in a 34,000-acre area, most of it used to grow hay, flanking the south end of Sonoma Creek, which flows into San Pablo Bay. “It gets the ball rolling,” said Wendy Eliot, the organization’s conservation director. “There’s a high level of urgency to get started.”

The ultimate goal is to restore marshlands by 2030 in a flood-prone area that lies about 5 feet below sea level and was part of the bay until it was diked and converted to agriculture long ago.

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