State of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary Conference 2015


To a greater extent than at any such gathering before, panel after panel at this year’s State of the Estuary Conference focused on the impacts that climate change will have on our Bay. Photo: Jill Clardy
To a greater extent than at any such gathering before, panel after panel at this year’s State of the Estuary Conference focused on the impacts that climate change will have on our Bay. Photo: Jill Clardy

Our planet’s climate is changing, the number of species on this planet is decreasing, sea level is rising as Earth’s ice continues to melt, and coastal communities throughout the world are already incurring devastating impacts from these changes. What does this mean for us in the Bay Area? That’s the exact question addressed in the 2015 State of the San Francisco Estuary Conference recently held in Oakland, CA.

Historical and modern extent of tidal Marsh in the Bay-Delta Estuary. Source: State of the Estuary, 2015
Historical and modern extent of tidal Marsh in the Bay-Delta Estuary. Source: State of the Estuary, 2015

The Bay-Delta Estuary has lost 90 percent of its’ historical wetlands due to diking, mining, bayfill, development, and freshwater diversions. We’ve made improvements to policies and practices in the Bay Area in the past fifty-five years to regain some of those lost tidal marshes, but now climate change is threatening what we have worked so hard to conserve and restore.

Climate change hazards to the Bay Delta Estuary and coastal communities drove the conference themes this year including: shoreline erosion, accommodation space for shoreline migration, sea level rise adaptation, resilient landscapes, ideas to combine green and grey protective infrastructures, and managed retreat of humans from the coast. This conference also addressed issues related to the drought in California, such as the need to restore freshwater flows to the Bay Area watershed, water quality concerns, and competition for water rights among agriculture, fisheries, industrial needs, and human consumption as the drought continues.

Climate change is a looming threat and solutions are needed for both the short and long term. This conference emphasized the need to experiment while we implement and find solutions that also serve multiple purposes to both address short term impacts and to help plan for long term impacts. We need effective plans, policies that support those plans, and funding to make it all happen.

These conversations have been building on each other for decades and have intensified in the past several years as researchers, policymakers, environmental managers, and urban planners have learned how to collaborate more effectively (although there is still a ways to go). Before climate scientists had the kind of information they now have, they had predictions with big holes in them. The wise knew that we couldn’t let those holes slow us down in our planning for the future, rather we needed to find smart ways to move forward with the best available information. We needed plans that could adapt as we leaned new things.

The data is in, Climate Change is no longer a problem of the future

Multipurpose options for more resilient levees, habitats, and shoreline protection. Source: Oro Loma Demonstration Project, 2015
Multipurpose options for more resilient levees, habitats, and shoreline protection. Source: Oro Loma Demonstration Project, 2015

Three important reports that reveal our latest understanding of climate predictions were presented at this conference, the Pulse of the Bay Report, the State of the Estuary 2015 report, and the update to the 1999 Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Report. The Pulse of the Bay Report covers the state of water quality in the San Francisco Bay as it stands today and provides predictions and possibilities for what the water quality might be in 50 years from now in 2065. The State of the Estuary 2015 report highlighted the current health of the Bay and Delta based on 28 indicators and indicates the need to manage the Bay-Delta estuary as a whole, rather than two complete separate entities. The Bay and the Delta are both part of the estuary and feedback into each other, yet they historically have been managed in very different ways and for very different purposes. This report discusses these stark differences in management of the lower estuary (San Francisco Bay) and the upper estuary (Suisun Bay and Delta). In short, the health of the lower estuary has greatly improved over the years due to tighter regulations on sewage and chemical waste inputs and continued restoration. In contrast, the health of the upper estuary is in steady decline and there are relatively few efforts to restore these areas.

Several presentations at the State of the Estuary Conference covered the recommendations provided in this Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Update, which will be released later this month (Oct. 2015). The original report provided recommendations for restoration and conservation of tidal wetlands, managed ponds, and wildlife species in the Bay. A major goal identified in this report was to restore and conserve 100,000 acres of healthy wetland habitat. The 1999 report provided the structure and common goals needed to secure funding for large restoration projects and prompted the largest restoration project on the west coast, the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. At the time, climate predictions were too uncertain for the Goals reporting group to provide specific recommendations based on them but the holes in climate predictions are now much smaller than before and with new information, the collaborative effort that produce the 1999 Habitat Goals report regrouped to provide an update with recommended goals for the Bay Area considering climate change. Also included in this update is an entire chapter co-authored by Save The Bay’s very own Habitat Restoration Director, Donna Ball. This chapter is dedicated to highlighting the benefits and services provided by the estuarine-terrestrial transition zone, which are an important focus when developing sea level rise adaptation strategies for the Bay Area.

3 Keys to Addressing Climate Change: Innovation, intellect, and funding:

Also discussed in great length was the Oro Loma Sanitary District Horizontal Levee project, which is an innovative, experimental project in collaboration with an industrial stakeholder, researchers, practitioners, managers, and engineers and it’s also the kind of collaborative, multi-purpose thinking we need in order to make progress in time to help the Bay Area adapt to sea level rise. The term horizontal levee is used to describe a more natural version of an earthen levee. A horizontal levee has a broad, low-gradient slope with native vegetation that can provide a holding place for storm water runoff that might otherwise flood coastal communities, slow down and hold tidal surges and provide a buffer between storms and people. In short, this project provides an opportunity for the sanitary district to address the issue of aging wastewater infrastructure and the threats that rising sea level will have on the wastewater system altogether. Other potential benefits of this project include providing native habitat at the treatment site where it would otherwise not exist and providing an opportunity for groundwater recharge. If successful, this experimental project could inform the 41 other coastal wastewater treatment plants in the Bay Area.

Continuing to focus on what more can be done, Letitia Grenier, SFEI’s Resilient Landscape’s Program Director, pointed out that less than 20 percent of undeveloped space in the Bay Area is protected from five feet of sea level rise. We currently have about 50,000 acres of healthy conserved and restored wetlands, but we need to restore 50,000 acres more to reach the goal identified in the Goals report. Several restoration plans are in place for these undeveloped areas, but in most cases, the limiting factor is funding. The Bay Area receives approximately $5 million annually from the federal government, but we need an estimated $1.43 billion to complete the restoration of the areas waiting to be restored. To address this problem, the Bay Restoration Authority is preparing to propose a small parcel tax to voters in all nine Bay Area counties to raise the funding needed to meet Bay Area restoration goals. Jim Levine of the Bay Area Council Water Committee, John Bourgeois of the California Coastal Conservancy’s South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, and several others announced the plans for  this June 2016 ballot measure. If the ballot measure passes in 2016, that funding can then be leveraged for much needed federal funding.

In 1969 California Governor Ronald Reagan made the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission a permanent state agency to regulate development in and around the Bay.
In 1969 California Governor Ronald Reagan made the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission a permanent state agency to regulate development in and around the Bay.

In addition to the lack of funding, outdated policies have complicated some large-scale restoration work. In the years leading up to 1969, Save The Bay played an instrumental role in creating the first coastal zone management agency ever, The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). This agency continues to protect and manage the Bay with vigor, but some policies don’t consider current restoration needs, which were unforeseen when they were written. BCDC brought a large presence to this conference as they discussed their strategies for the Bay Area in this climate, including their efforts to update their policies to facilitate the restoration needed as determined by the top scientists, managers, planners, and stakeholders in the Bay Area.

With Restoration Scientists, Climate Scientists, Engineers, Environmental Managers, Economists, and Policymakers all under the same roof providing their various perspectives in concert to the theme of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary’s future in light of climate change, the fuzzy map forward is becoming more defined.

“5 Ways to Save Water in a Drought”

CLEAResult is a leading provider of energy efficiency programs and services. Through proven strategies tailored to clients’ unique needs and market dynamics, the combined strength of experienced energy experts and technology-enabled service offerings help CLEAResult change the way people use energy for hundreds of utility and business partners around the globe. For more information, visit


During one of California’s most severe droughts on record, we are all trying to look for ways to conserve water. From simple changes in behavior to large landscape projects, there are many ways to do your part to save water. Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind and ways to contribute to the cause.

  1. Identify problem areas.

If you are not sure where to start, some water districts have water assessments or calculators to see how much water you currently use and ways to reduce your water usage. They review your water usage, provide faucet aerators and high efficiency showerheads if needed, and suggest water efficiency improvements. Santa Clara Valley Water District provides free Water Wise House Calls to identify ways to save water. San Mateo County and San Francisco County also have free water evaluation programs for residential customers.  The City of Palo Alto offers a complimentary advisor service called Home Efficiency Genie that allows residents to schedule a no-cost phone consultation with a certified water and energy expert to discuss their efficiency concerns. Schedule your free house call today, or check with your local water company to determine what programs are available.

  1. Cut time from your morning routine.

An important strategy for conserving water is behavior change. Make sure to turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth or lathering your hands. Cut five minutes off your shower time and turn the water off while you soap up and shave. Installing faucet aerators and high efficiency showerheads in the kitchen and bathrooms is an inexpensive way to save water. Most local water companies will even provide these items at no charge.

  1. Wait for full washing loads.

Instead of running the dishwasher every night, wait until you have a full dishwasher to run it. The same goes for laundry. Always wash full loads of laundry even if your machine has an adjustable load size setting. Wash your clothes in cold water to save on energy usage. High efficiency clothes washers can save water and energy usage up to 40%. Rebates are available through PG&E and most Bay Area water agencies for new Energy Star high efficiency clothes washers.

  1. Check for leaks.

Leaks from water sources can be a silent way to waste gallons of water. If you turn off all of the water fixtures in your home and see a moving dial on your water meter, you have a leak. Check your sprinkler system and toilets for leaks to ensure you are not wasting water. For the toilets, drop a dye tablet in the tank. If you see any color in the bowl after 10 to 15 minutes, you have a silent leak. Change out the rubber flapper to stop the leak. Check with your local water district about rebates for high efficiency toilets. If your water district does not have any rebates, Save Our Water is a rebate program for residents across California and provides up to $100 for qualifying high efficiency toilets.

  1. Replace your lawn with drought resistant pants.

Drought resistant plants can be a beautiful and smart way to save on outdoor water usage. Several water districts including Solano, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Sonoma County provide rebates for replacing your lawn with landscapes that require much less water to maintain. The Bay Area Eco Gardens website has great resources, example photos, and plant lists for draught resistant landscaping.

Looking for other ways to save and be more efficient?

For Palo Alto residents, the Home Efficiency Genie is available to schedule customized energy and water assessments to reveal ways to improve your home’s overall efficiency.  Complimentary efficiency advisors are also available to analyze your utility bill and work with you to develop a customized roadmap for reducing your energy and water consumption. For more information about Home Efficiency Genie visit or call 650-713-3411 to speak with an advisor today.

For Bay Area homeowners looking to conserve energy and interested in receiving up to $6,500 in rebates, the Bay Area Regional Energy Network (BayREN) provides complimentary access to Home Upgrade Advisors. Your advisor will work with you to identify ways to make your home more energy efficient and provide assistance throughout your efficiency project. For more information, visit or call 866-878-6008 to talk with an advisor and learn more.


— Jeff Strauss, Program Manager at CLEAResult in San Mateo, California. 

From New York to the Bay Area—A Homecoming

City by the Bay. Photo: Mike Oria
City by the Bay. Photo: Mike Oria

Before moving back to San Francisco, I read a few articles to prepare me for a few changes I should be wary of after living away from the west coast for seven years. At the time, home was New York City, another urban landscape that is a bubble of overwhelming activity and a beacon for people trying their luck in a renowned metropolis with a faster gait and short fuses. Friends and family were surprised I would leave a city of over 8.4 million people for one of 837,000 (and growing, though not as quickly as you think), and argued that I would be disappointed to find the scale of diversions significantly diminished. I do not deny that New York outnumbers its smaller counterpart by tenfold, but I did not come back with the expectation that the City by the Bay would pit itself as a rival.

But in the year since being back, I’ve learned that significant attention concerning the Bay Area has spawned comparisons ranging from food to housing situations, almost short of saying, “Who Wore It Better?” which would generate a fair amount of search results on Google. Sometimes I get questions that try to establish my loyalties, especially after revealing particular mannerisms (jay-walking, folding a pizza slice in half), when in reality some major differences between the cities factor little in determining who has the upper hand, if at all. But where New York City maintains an individualism separate from its waterways, San Francisco is only part of a larger question in relation to the Bay, which has been a point of collaboration and action between its communities.

If there is common ground they share that is rarely pointed out, it would be that both offer accessibility for pedestrians. However, the Bay Area boasts more immediate open spaces and access to public land, which would be a luxury and a trek for New York residents without a car or patience. As an urban denizen my entire life, I find no better way to rediscover home than through its parks and trails less than a couple hours and a bridge away. Their close proximity is both a benefit and testament to the close relationship with our Bay, how its counties are reliant on its health and access to maintain an identity of inclusion among its residents, now felt more strongly in light of the current drought.

What I hope to learn more at Save the Bay is not only the urgency of maintaining and restoring its natural habitats, but also to take stock of what our goals as a community are in preserving a region that now is sharing the spotlight with one of the largest cities in the world. There may be consequences in attempting to match its inimitability, but the Bay has always held its unique personality, and I hope to continue advocating its merits.

Restoring the Bay: Ecology + Advocacy

Jon and Beckie _03-min
Climate Change Policy Campaign Manager Beckie Zisser (left) works with partners and policymakers to secure large-scale, sustainable funding for Bay restoration projects. Jon Backus (right) manages Save The Bay’s field specialists and community volunteers, who turn shoreline and man-made levee sites around the Bay into healthy tidal marsh habitat.

“Restoration” means creating healthy, vibrant ecosystems that provide important services to both wildlife and people. Save The Bay’s restoration work is powerful because we integrate on-the-ground habitat work with political advocacy for large-scale change.

Our Climate Change Campaign manager Beckie Zisser and Habitat Restoration Manager Jon Backus share what restoration means from both of these perspectives:

Jon: Save The Bay’s Habitat Restoration Team works with community volunteers to restore crucial transition zone habitat around the San Francisco Bay. Due to rampant filling of the shallow Bay edge, and conversion of marshes into salt ponds and agricultural land, the San Francisco Bay has lost 90% of the historic marsh habitat. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Now that people are aware of the critical importance of marshes for wildlife habitat, filtration of Bay water, and flood protection in the face of rising seas, there are large scale efforts to restore marsh habitat around the Bay.  Our volunteers, comprised of students, companies, and the public, help us to remove invasive species and plant California native plants that historically grew along the Bay shoreline.

Beckie: On the advocacy side, our team promotes sound policies that protect and enhance the health of the Bay so that it’s preserved for future generations. I reach out to elected officials, their staff members, and other decision-makers to share why restoring Bay wetlands is so important: protecting wildlife, enhancing water quality, and public access are some of the biggest reasons. It’s my goal to spread the message about how important this restoration work is for our region and to help secure new local, state, and federal funding for those activities.

Both on the shoreline and in the policy world, the key to success is applying the restoration expertise of Save The Bay and its partners on a scale where we can truly make a difference:

Jon: In addition to maintaining and continuing our work at our six restoration sites around the Bay, we are preparing to plant 70,000 native plants at the Oro Loma Sanitary district for a groundbreaking pilot project involving a constructed wetland and horizontal levee that will both store and treat wastewater while also providing native habitat. We are also planting 20,000 plants in sensitive habitat of former salt ponds at Eden Landing Ecological reserve, part of the South Bay Salt Pond Resotration Project.

Beckie: My most pressing and exciting work right now is in support of the Clean and Healthy Bay ballot measure that would fund long-term wetland restoration—not the great work Jon and his team are doing, but many large-scale projects around the Bay. I’m working to make sure this measure gets on the June 2016 ballot. It’s a $12 parcel tax in all nine Bay Area counties, and it would raise $500 million over 20 years. It would be the first real, region-wide commitment to protecting our Bay for future generations.

The political and ecological opportunities we face today are enormous, but climate disruption and extreme weather make the situation on the Bay an urgent one.

Beckie: We know the climate is changing, and we have already seen its effects on the Bay: Warmer waters, more extreme weather that exacerbates our droughts and influences freshwater flow from the Delta, and rising water acidity. Long term, my goal is to elevate the conversation about how climate change impacts the Bay.

Jon: Our biggest challenge to restoring habitat around the Bay is the ongoing drought. Whenever a seedling is planted, even a native, drought tolerant plant, the seedling needs water to establish a healthy root system. It is impossible to hand-water the tens of thousands of plants we install, and we need winter rains to water our seedlings. We are all hoping this year’s predicted El Niño will bring much needed rain for plants and people alike. At the same time, an extreme El Niño—and a warming climate in the years ahead—will bring a different set of problems, including tidal surges that will have huge impacts on communities built at or near the Bay’s shoreline. The marshes we are working so hard to restore, if done on a large enough scale, would work similar to a giant sponge, providing a buffer and natural protection for our communities from the threat of rising sea levels.

Our work is about the future of the Bay—and the Bay Area.

Jon: What inspires me about Save The Bay’s habitat restoration program is the tangible results of our restoration efforts combined with engaging community members around the Bay. It gives me hope to see families, schools, and businesses working together to bring back lost habitat for the well-being of both wildlife and Bay Area residents.  To me that shows how much we care about this place we call home, and how dedicated our region is to saving it for generations to come.

Beckie: It’s so clear to me from my work that people want to do what it takes to protect the Bay. That should give us all hope. In the Bay Area, people are clearly concerned about climate change and its effects on our planet and our livelihoods. I just think many people are at a loss as to what they can do about it. In the face of the stalling and denial that comes from some of our elected leaders, that’s understandable. If residents of the Bay Area support the Clean and Healthy Bay ballot measure in June, our region will have a solid base of funding to work toward real, tangible solutions to the biggest ecological threat of our time.

The Plastic Trash You Don’t See

Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
San Francisco Bay is contaminated with pollution from billions of tiny plastic particles. These mirocplastics pose a serious threat to water quality, wildlife, and human health. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Coastal Cleanup Day was last weekend, reminding us that trash—plastic in particular—remains a very visible pollution problem in our local creeks and along the Bay shoreline. But it’s the plastic you don’t immediately see that’s the latest cause for concern. A recent study determined that billions of tiny pieces of plastic currently pollute the Bay, more than any other major water body in the country.

“Microplastic” refers to the tiny plastic particles that escape sewage treatment plants and are discharged into the Bay with treated wastewater. They also flow through city storm drains, which release untreated water into creeks and the Bay. According to the study, which analyzed treated wastewater and water taken directly from the Bay, over half of the plastic particles in these samples are microbeads from personal care products and cosmetics (marketed as skin exfoliants), as well as other tiny fragments of plastic trash. Twenty-seven percent of the microplastics were plastic fibers from synthetic clothing and fishing line. Plastic film and foam particles were also abundant, which come from plastic bags, Styrofoam food ware, cigarette butts, and other products. Not only are microplastics polluting the Bay, the study indicated that fish are consuming them. We also know plastic trash can absorb dangerous chemicals from the water, becoming even more toxic to wildlife.

The problem seems overwhelming, but steps are already being taken to address the sources of these microplastics. Save The Bay supported a bill recently passed by the state legislature to ban microbeads from personal care products in California by 2020, and we are encouraging the Governor to sign it. But you don’t have to wait until 2020—we can all stop using products with microbeads in them immediately. We have also worked hard over the past few years to advocate for plastic bag and Styrofoam food ware bans throughout the Bay Area, and we continue to encourage cities to adopt these policies. Moving forward, our Zero Trash, Zero Excuse campaign is focused on keeping trash out of our storm drain system, and holding our community leaders, agencies, and ourselves accountable for achieving zero stormwater trash by 2022. Keeping microplastic and other trash out of the Bay will require a regional commitment—show yours today by signing our pledge.