How Compost Captures Carbon and Helps Heal Rangelands and Wetlands

Carbon Capture Carbon Emissions Greenhouse Gases Compost Restoration Wetlands Rangelands California
Marin rangeland and wetland, Inverness, CA. credit: Philippe Vieux-Jeanton

Scientists are in agreement: Global warming is the result of human-caused emission of greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide as the biggest contributor. We all know that burning fossil fuels is the major source of human-produced carbon dioxide emissions; however oceans, land and vegetation all emit carbon. Carbon has been increasing in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, largely due to the burning of fossil fuels, but also due to changes in land use.

Due to the demands of population growth, much of California’s rangelands (vast landscapes that grow native vegetation) and wetlands have been converted to cropland and development. Both rangelands and wetlands emit significant amounts of carbon when degraded, but can be restored relatively easily, turning back decades of mismanagement, and regaining their carbon capturing capabilities. We can use plants’ natural appetite for carbon to safely store it while improving the health of our water and soils at the same time.

Save the Bay is working towards the goal of restoring 100,000 acres of tidal marsh habitat around the San Francisco Bay, in order to regain a healthy bay and all its ecosystem services. The Bay has lost 90% of its original tidal wetlands, releasing over 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Save the Bay has previously blogged about the carbon capture qualities of wetlands. Research shows that restored rangelands have the ability to capture carbon as well, and it doesn’t take much to restore them.

In the last quarter of a century, over 1950km2 of California rangeland habitats were lost. Rangelands emit carbon not only when converted to other uses, but also when mismanaged, such as through plowing, overgrazing or poor agricultural practices. Native grasslands, primarily through the plants’ extensive and deep root system, are an effective carbon sink, but plowing and converting that land to annual row crops leads to the emission of 20 to 75 metric tons of carbon dioxide per acre.

The Power of Compost

A one-time dusting of compost can make a big difference in restoring degraded rangeland. A study by Rebecca Ryals and Whendee L. Silver concluded that if a thin layer of compost was spread on a quarter of California’s rangeland, the soil could absorb three-quarters of California’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. The compost fertilizes the soil and improves the soil’s moisture holding capacity, leading to increased plant growth. Through photosynthesis, the plants transfer carbon dioxide from the air into the soil through their roots and decomposing plant material. More carbon in the soil brings greater fertility and water retaining qualities, leading again to greater plant growth, thus sparking an ongoing cycle of regeneration.

From a single application of compost, they found a 50% increase in plant production, leading to an average increase of 1 ton of carbon sequestration per hectare over 30 years. Not only does this provide a relatively easy, low-tech way to launch a positive feedback loop that could play a role in mitigating the effect we’re having on this planet, but you also get increased soil fertility, improved water absorption and retention, and an increase in native plants which provide food for wildlife. Plus, compost can be used to help restore both grasslands and tidal wetlands.

Tidal wetlands have a similar effect. In fact, wetlands store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem. Researchers estimate that while grasslands can sink up to 2,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year, wetlands can store up to 5,100 pounds of carbon per acre per year. Similar to the numerous benefits of restoring grasslands, by restoring wetlands we not only sequester carbon, but also absorb floodwaters, reduce storm damage, preserve open space, provide habitat and feeding grounds for a wide variety of species and improve water quality. What’s not to love?

On dry land and wetland, offsetting carbon while increasing biodiversity, improving water quality, providing habitat and improving the environment’s ability to react to climate change is a win-win solution. Clearly, it’s worth our while to conserve and restore rangelands and wetlands, not only to for long-term carbon storage, but also for the numerous additional services they provide. There’s a speck of hope in a sprinkle of compost.

You can get up close and personal with the magic powers of compost through Save The Bay! We use compost to help our native seedlings to grow at our restoration sites around the San Francisco Bay. Learn how you can volunteer with us here.

Mercury and the San Francisco Bay

Caution sign found along the San Francisco Bay showing fish to eat and not to eat.
Caution sign found along the San Francisco Bay showing fish to eat and not to eat.

The San Francisco Bay has an extensive history of mercury contamination dating back to the Gold Rush era.  During the Gold Rush, miners extracted gold ores from the earth using mercury. These deserted gold mines were never properly cleaned up, causing current contamination in the major tributaries (American, Yuba, Bear, and Feather River) of the Sacramento Delta, which flows into the San Francisco Bay.

What is Mercury? 

Mercury (Hg) is an element that is considered a heavy metal. Mercury is the only metal that forms into a liquid at room temperature. It has a silver appearance, but can evaporate into a colorless and odorless vapor.  Although mercury occurs naturally it is toxic to humans and animals.

Today, sources of mercury are located in our household items including but not limited to thermometers and some batteries. Mercury also occurs from the burning of fossil fuel and refining natural gas.

How does Mercury affect wildlife and the San Francisco Bay?

Earth naturally contains small amounts of mercury, but when it is extracted and water resources are susceptible it becomes hazardous. Once mercury enters waterways, it transforms into toxic methylmercury. As it works its way up the food chain, methylmercury becomes increasingly concentrated in a process known as bioaccumulation. Bigger fish have more methylmercury, because they feed on more fish containing the harmful substance. This is why humans and wildlife whose diets consist of mostly fish are more likely to have adverse effects from mercury. Some of the ways mercury affects humans and wildlife are:

  • Birth defects that disrupt development of the brain and nervous system.
  • Impaired cognitive thinking and motor skills in humans.
  • Reduced reproductive success in wildlife (mainly fish and birds). Like humans, wildlife also experiences muscle weakness and loss of coordination. These symptoms reduce their chances of finding prey, a mate, and escape routes.

There are several ways you can reduce exposure to mercury and prevent accidental contamination of wildlife habitat.

  1. Avoid buying products with mercury and properly dispose of any mercury thermometers, batteries, fluorescent bulbs, and electronics by taking it to your local household hazardous waste facility.
  2. Educate yourself about the health of the San Francisco Bay to avoid contaminated water, and catch the right fish for your gender and age group.
  3. Educate yourself about the safest fish to eat. Use the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide. You can even download the app!
  4. Think green! Take public transportation, walk, or bike to reduce production of natural gas and fossil fuels, and support mercury reduction campaigns.


Guest Post | Monitoring Habitat Change with Smartphones

Change bracket sign installed at Mount Diablo.

As people become more and more tech savvy, we are discovering creative ways to use smart phones and social media to monitor restoration projects in the field. Dan Rademacher from Nerds for Nature tells how this small interactive sign can make a big difference. Check out our new photo timelapse project at the Palo Alto Baylands here.

In the fall of 2013, a fire burned over several thousand acres of Mount Diablo, and Ken-ichi Ueda, part of the Nerds for Nature group I helped found, approached me with an idea: Install simple signs with angle brackets on them to provide consistent camera locations for folks to use to track fire recovery on Mount Diablo.

The idea originated with Sam Droege of the U.S. Geological Survey’s field station in Beltsville, Maryland. He even made a website,, to help spread his idea.

We took it and ran with it: The key element we added was to use social media as the “database” in which the photos get stored. Then we pull from Twitter, Flickr and Instagram to assemble our timelapses. The beauty of that is that we didn’t need any complex infrastructure or photo storage methods, and the people on the trail used the services where they already share photos.

The California State Parks staff at Mount Diablo were enthusiastic about the idea, and they helped us manage the stringent requirements for installing any kind of signage in a public park. Volunteers from URS Corporation, who were conducting fire recovery research on the mountain already, took on our cause as well, helping us select locations for the signs that would provide the best data.

Signs in, then comes the internet

We put the signs in the ground in February 2014, and photos started trickling in. Word got out, more photos came through, and it even rained a bit after the driest winter on record. KQED reporter Lauren Sommer came out and did a story, which was fantastic. People started using the signs, and so far we’ve collected more than 400 relevant images (out of about 600 posted).

And then: Reddit! On May 17, a chance posting by a Twitter engineer of one of our signs suddenly spread like, well, wildfire online. The image of the sign, which contained the entire story in easy-to-read, high-contrast type, shot to the top of Reddit, a site where millions of people look for what’s cool on the web.

More than a million people saw that image, and we started getting contacted by people all over the country and the world—they wanted to make their own Change Brackets! So we developed a detailed Instructable and made our code open source, so anyone can do it.

And they have. Save the Bay in Palo Alto, the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains, wetland restoration folks in Florida and Georgia, and (coming soon) an array of a dozen signs in national forest lands around the Rim Fire, the largest fire in the history of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Got some change you want to monitor? Just ask the folks who walk by!


Don’t Want Mutant Fish in the Bay? Advocate for Tougher Drug Take-Back Programs in SF

Medication Pills Drug Take-back Programs Legislation Environment
Will San Francisco be the next county to pass sweeping drug take-back program legislation? Photo via Michael Chen on Flickr

As usual, Bay Area counties are ahead of the curve when it comes to making change. Back in 2012, Alameda County became the first in the nation to require pharmaceutical companies to pay for a drug take-back program, upping the ante for giant pharmaceutical companies to take responsibility for their products and raising awareness about the dangers of flushing unused medication into the Bay Area’s waterways.

It was a bold move, and now it looks like San Francisco County is eyeing similar legislation. Instead of taxpayers footing the bill, local Supervisor David Chiu recently began advocating for the funding of drug take-back programs to fall under the responsibility of pharmaceutical corporations. He told the San Francisco Chronicle this month that with this legislation, he seeks to prevent overdoses as well as to reduce contaminants in water – water that all eventually flows into our beloved Bay.

It turns out our wastewater treatment plants don’t have the technology to filter pharmaceutical chemicals ­ – they’re only designed to remove conventional pollutants such as solids and biodegradable materials. Yet for decades, drug companies and doctors told the public to flush unused and unwanted medications down the toilet. That sounds pretty gross in retrospect, but we all know hindsight is 20/20; recent studies have found traces of medications in surface water bodies across the country. The thought of seven-gill sharks and stingrays swimming around the Bay loaded with hormones, codeine and aspirin is pretty depressing, don’t you think?

You might be asking what all that medication does to aquatic life on a biological and physiological level. Scientists know for a fact that increased medications in surface water bodies have led to increased resistance to antibiotics, interference with growth and reproduction in sensitive organisms like fish and frogs – even at low levels of exposure. Effects of exposure can include off-kilter gender ratios (more females than males); the presence of both male and female reproductive organs on individual animals; plummeting birth rates; decreased fertility and growth; and lethargy and disorientation.

Let’s take a break from the icky details. Back in 2010, San Francisco County attempted to pass a law like Alameda County’s, but the plan buckled under industry pressure. The result was a slimmed-down, taxpayer-financed pilot program that consists of drop-off sites at nearly two dozen independent pharmacies and police stations. reports that the program has collected more than 37,000 pounds of medications over the last two years, and costs roughly $162,000 a year to operate – most of which is unreimbursed city staff time.

Fast forward to 2014, and San Francisco County is finally ready to take it a step further, inspired by Alameda County’s victory. If passed, Chiu’s law would establish drug drop-off sites at ALL retail and health care facilities that sell drugs. And, the cherry on top: the law would require drugmakers that make drugs sold in San Francisco to pay all administrative and operational costs of the program.

There are 7 million people living in the Bay Area. While not everyone is flushing medication down the toilet on the regular, our large population (which is booming, by the way), without any public awareness on the issue, still makes for a potentially huge amount of medication contaminants making their way into our waterways. That’s why successful legislation like this in San Francisco (which can lead to a domino effect around California, followed by statewide legislation – fingers crossed!) could be a boon to not only our drinking water supplies, but our streams, waterways, and the Bay – our crowned jewel.

In the meantime, check out our resource guide to Pharmaceutical Disposal Sites to responsibly discard your unwanted and unused medication.

Volunteer Spotlight| The Stanley/Brady Family


Stanley/Brady Family
The Stanley/Brady Family volunteered at the Palo Alto Baylands. They are dedicated to volunteering around the Bay this year!

How many times have you volunteered with Save the Bay?

This is the first time!

How did you get involved with Save the Bay?

Through the website

What is the best thing about volunteering with Save the Bay?

Strengthening the environment right here where we live.

What other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

Dancing, playing trivia, watching the Giants

Who is your environmental hero?

Chef Chloe Coscerelli

What is one thing you do each day to protect the environment?

Conserve water, recycle, and reuse

Anything else you want to tell us?

Our family decided that instead of showering each other with gifts this x-mas, we should give back! We each picked a volunteer opportunity and serve our community in various ways.