Bolinas Lagoon is the core of local human history, it is home to billions of organisms from microscopic to harbor seals, and an essential resource to countless generations of migrating birds. But before the arrival of Russians hunters, and Europeans and Yankee settlers, almost unimaginable numbers of animals, insects, birds and fish inhabited this primeval landscape. Native Americans lived at Bolinas for perhaps 2000 years, as equal members of a complex web of life centered around the lagoon.
Bolinas Lagoon is created by San Andreas Fault, the seam between continental North America and the geologic island of Point Reyes Peninsula. It is a remarkable confluence of unobstructed watershed, fertile land and the upwelling-enriched Pacific Ocean. Occasional earthquakes and the scouring of a robust tidal prism kept this lagoon/estuary vibrant for some 7000 years. Yet, in less than 180 years, since the introduction of agriculture and livestock about 1834, followed by logging, humans have radically impacted the lagoon’s health.
By 1852 human-caused erosion allowed winter rains to wash heavy loads of sediment into the lagoon, and began affecting boat traffic and the lagoon’s natural system. Since the 1870s, landfill for building and repairing a tide-resistant road around the lagoon, housing development, non-native plants, garbage dumps, pollution, and loss of habitat have further exacerbated the problems.
Marin County’s vigorous environmental preservation movement began in the 1930s. When a yacht harbor with hotels and casinos was proposed for the Lagoon in the 1960s, public activism saved it. Since then, concerned citizens and scientists have been intensely searching for how we can help the health of this important and complex ecosystem.
In the 1980s, citizen groups like Bolinas Lagoon Technical Advisory committee, the Bolinas Lagoon Foundation and its ad hoc Committee to Save Bolinas Lagoon, caught the attention of national and international entities that began to recognize its importance. In 1997 the lagoon was designated a State and National Treasure, and in 1998 it was recognized by the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.
These designations brought long awaited federal support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who studied the lagoon, and in 2002 released a draft study proposing removal of 1.4 million ft³ of sediment. Alarmed by the impacts dredging would cause to established habitat, and opposition to what many saw as a short-term fix, public outcry spawned a Marin County review of the study and a new process for developing science-based community supported initiatives to restore and manage the lagoon.
In 2008 the Locally Preferred Plan was released and today guides Marin County and its partners toward multi-beneficial efforts that encourage natural recovery from human-caused impacts, and facilitates adaptation to future changes. Climate change threatens impact from increased storms, flooding and erosion, so projects that instill resilience are crucial.
Today several initiatives from the Locally Preferred Plan are actively addressing invasive species removal, sediment and water movement, flooding, and water quality among other issues. Projects like the Kent Island Restoration Project, and the European Green Crab Removal Project implemented by local volunteers and school groups, embody the importance of human action, not just to remedy impacts but to prevent them. Other projects like the upcoming North End Restoration Project involving road redesign and enhanced wetland habitat will provide ecological benefits, sea level rise adaptation measures, and improve transportation and public safety.
Although the lagoon will never return to the ecological oasis it once was, residents are establishing stewardship of the environment they call home. Humans are partnering with nature and are committed to removing obstacles from the natural system that will contribute to aid the Bolinas Lagoon’s healthy future.
Article co-authored by
Resource Protection Specialist, Bolinas Lagoon
Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary
Curator of Coastal Marin Art & History