Wetlands on the Move

Wetlands on the Move 1
Tidal marsh wetlands, like those at Eden Landing in Hayward, are one solution to mitigate the effects of Sea Level Rise.

Under current conservative projections, sea level will rise  1.0 to 1.4 meters by the year 2100, which will inundate 200 square miles of low-lying shoreline areas of San Francisco Bay, impacting wildlife, habitat, and millions of Bay Area residents who rely on at-risk infrastructure. The cost of replacing property at risk of coastal flooding with a 1.4 meter rise in sea levels is $62 billion. We already get a glimpse of what this might look like during extreme high tides, commonly called King Tides, which happen a few times a year. The next ones are next week, on December 21-23, 2014.

Tidal marsh wetlands are both part of the solution, and at risk of disappearing. They capture carbon to lessen global warming, and mitigate the effects of sea level rise by buffering us from floods and storms. But thousands of acres of Bay wetlands are at risk of drowning as sea level rises. Wetlands have evolved with sea level rise, and can resist and adapt to it by building up their elevation or moving upland. However humans have interfered with these natural responses, by changing the climate, obstructing sediment delivery and creating obstacles to migration. It is projected that 95% of San Francisco Bay tidal marsh habitat may be drowned by 2100.

Photo by heidi.nutters
The cost of replacing property at risk of coastal flooding with a 1.4 meter ride in sea levels is $62 billion. Photo by heidi.nutters

When marshes flood during high tide, plant roots trap mineral sediment from the water, adding new soil to the ground. As sea level rise accelerates and flooding occurs more often, marshes can react by building soil faster. Below ground, the growth and decay of plant roots adds organic matter as well. Given access to sediment rich waters, wetlands can gain elevation, keeping pace with sea level rise. If sediment delivery to a wetland is cut off or reduced due to upstream restrictions, tidal wetlands can no longer build soil to outpace rising seas, and will drown.  Sediment flow has been disrupted by development, landfills, and levees around the bay, while upstream dams and reservoirs reduce sediment load by 20%. 

Another natural response to sea level rise is migration. As sea levels rise, current wetlands can go underwater, while new mudflats are constructed and new tidal zones grow upland. This is possible if there are no obstacles impeding the wetlands migration. Examples of obstacles are roads, railroads, levees and buildings. Ironically, conventional ways of protecting coastal properties, such as dikes and seawalls, impede wetland migration, and in some cases increasing vulnerability to floods and storms. It is estimated that the San Francisco Bay wetlands require approximately 93 square miles (60,000 acres) of land into which they must migrate to survive a sea level rise of 1.4 m.  (See Map of SF Bay county viable accommodation areas for wetland migration.)

Whether wetlands continue to survive rising seas depends largely on us.  In order to ensure the long term viability of our wetlands, we need to protect their sediment delivery, as well as preserve the inland areas to ensure their viability as wetland habitat in the future. This means halting development adjacent and directly inland to wetlands, planning our cities with an eye towards sea level rise and wetlands survival, and building smarter flood controls using horizonal levees fronted by wetlands.

Scientists agree that the Bay needs 100,000 acres of tidal marsh to thrive. Less than half that exists.  Save The Bay is working to double the amount of Bay tidal marsh over the next ten years, while continuing to battle development that not only threatens current and restorable wetlands,  but also the future viability of those wetlands as we and they adapt to sea level rise.

Notes from the Front Lines of the New War on Smoking

East Bay Express Smoking Cigarette Butts Save The Bay Pollution Prevention Awareness
A shot of the cover of the East Bay Express’s “New Warn On Smoking” article.

Last month, the East Bay Express published an enlightening and comprehensive article summarizing the impact tobacco waste has on the Bay Area’s residents and wildlife. A little over a year ago, Save the Bay launched the Butt Free Bay campaign to reduce cigarette butt pollution in the Bay.  Allison Chan, Save The Bay’s Clean Bay Campaign Manager, states in the article “Cigarette butts are not like every other type of litter. They are toxic.” This short and sweet statement speaks volumes about just how bad tobacco and its byproducts are.

As the article notes, “They [Save the Bay] face an uphill fight. The plastic bag industry spent millions on its failed effort to defeat a state ban, and Big Tobacco can be expected to unleash an even larger torrent of money to combat those who would limit its profits.” That’s why Save The Bay will keep working to enact local outdoor smoking ordinances, as well as educate local residents about the importance of where we put our butts (no pun intended).

What #Stormageddon Means for the Bay

Stormwater pollution storm drains rain water drought
As much as recent rainstorms have been a boon for parched landscapes across California, there is a dark side to all the wet stuff – trash and other pollution that collects in gutters, and in many cases, ends up flowing directly to creeks, rivers, and the Bay. Photo by Patrick Band

Although last week’s storm wasn’t quite all it was hyped up to be, it was still an impressive showing from Mother Nature. Some of the worst flooding occurred in the North Bay town of Healdsburg, where the Russian River jumped from a bucolic 700 cubic feet per second to a raging 40,000 cubic feet per second. Nevertheless, the flooding – which inundated downtown businesses – wasn’t caused by the river jumping its banks (it didn’t), but rather by smaller creeks and detention ponds becoming inundated so quickly. With over 6 inches of rain falling within 12-14 hours, there simply wasn’t anywhere for the water to go.

With forecasts calling for a series of smaller storms in coming days, it’s worth recapping what all the wet stuff means for California and the Bay in particular.


You’ve probably heard of First Flush – just as early season storms make roads treacherous because of all the accumulated oil and grime, big rains wash all of the plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, and random trash that accumulate in our urban environment and carry them in to the storm water system. With an estimated 3 billion cigarette butts littered around the Bay each year, that’s a whole lot of toxic trash!

We’ll be keeping an eye out during this weekend’s King Tides to see what washes up on the shores, and share out any interesting finds.

Water Supply

Despite the estimated 10 trillion gallons of water that fell across the state last week, most major reservoirs are barely above the half-way mark for the year. The state’s three largest reservoirs – Shasta, Oroville, and Trinity – are all below 55% of average storage for the year, and at roughly 30% of total capacity.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California and well-regarded expert on climate and water issues put it well when speaking with KQED earlier in the week:

“Thursday it’ll rain, and people will say, ‘Oh, I’m very excited,’ and Saturday it’ll rain, and ‘Oh, drought’s over.’ Not even close. It’s going to take a lot of rain to break this drought.”


It goes by all sorts of names – mud, silt, sand, gunk, soil, dirt. It’s both a bane to water quality that can ultimately lead to massive die-offs of species, and a necessary element to systems like the Bay where sediment accumulates along the shoreline and helps wetlands keep up with rising tides.

While the short-term increase in sediment may not make news in the Bay Area, statewide, there are some surprising results. Just an hour or so away in the Bay Delta, sediment loads are forcing pumping reductions of water to Central Valley farmers and Southern California. Turns out, the endangered Delta Smelt really enjoy muddy water, because it provides them a level of protection against predators. So paradoxically, Delta pump operators are cutting back at the exact time when flows are higher than they’ve been for years.

That spells good news for the Delta Smelt, and for the Bay.

Volunteer Spotlight | Marivel Mendoza

Marivel Mendoza with her daughter and baby boy at Eden Landing.

The first time we met Marivel Mendoza, a student from Oakland, CA, she had her young son strapped to her back and her daughter at her side as she helped install native plants at Eden Landing. Since then she’s brought her two nephews out to a restoration program at Bair Island. It’s thanks to volunteers like Marivel that we are able to be so successful in our restoration efforts.

How many times have you volunteered at Save the Bay?

2 times

How did you get involved with Save the Bay?

Through professor Nelson’s Class at Berkeley City College (BCC). He’s the best!

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

Helping my community

What is your favorite thing about the San Francisco Bay Area?

Everything! The people, the scenery, awesome organizations like this that want to restore our original landscape.

What is your first fondest memory of San Francisco Bay?

Walking as a child at the San Leandro Marina with my mom. I have memories of going there since I was a baby with my whole family rain or shine and enjoying the breeze, seeing the wildlife (like the many types of birds).

Contaminants of Emerging Concern Are on Our Radar


San Francisco Estuary Institute Contaminants of Emerging Concern Household Cleaners
A graph showing CEC levels in Bay Area wildlife, courtesy of the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Household cleaners, insecticides, flame retardants, antimicrobial disinfectants. What do these products have in common?

First, they’re embedded in the daily lives of millions of Bay Area residents to keep our homes and bodies clean, to protect homes and pets from pesky bugs, and to guard fabrics from somehow bursting into flames. Second, they contain chemicals that wash into our urban creeks and Bay waters via urban runoff, storm drains, and treated wastewater effluent. Third, the chemicals in these products are being tracked in the Bay by the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s (SFEI) Regional Monitoring Program (RMP) to assess whether they pose a risk to water quality and therefore, ecological well-being.

I recently went to SFEI’s RMP update conference to learn about their work with contaminants of emerging concern (CECs). CECs are generally unregulated and unmonitored chemicals that have the potential to enter the environment and cause adverse ecological or human health impacts. Although they have complicated names like perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), fipronil, pyrethroids, and alkylphenol ethoxylate (APE), their uses are commonplace.

PFOS, a stain resistant chemical once used in 3M Scotch Guard products, is found in Bay wildlife in contamination levels that rival the highest concentrations in the world. Although 3M agreed to stop using the chemical, PFOS is still found in existing older products and is widely used in manufacturing in China. Cormorant eggs collected in the South Bay in 2006 and 2009 had above threshold PFOS concentrations—levels that can adversely impact embryo survival. Fortunately, PFOS levels in cormorant eggs declined in 2012. However, PFOS concentrations in South Bay harbor seals are consistently seven times higher than in Tomales Bay harbor seals. While few studies have evaluated how PFOS impacts seals, in humans PFOS is known to compromise immune systems and cause adverse reproductive and developmental effects.

Oftentimes, new chemicals replace older chemicals that were found to be detrimental to the environment. For example, organophosphates were replaced by pyrethroids, which were replaced by fipronil. All are insecticides with common applications such as termite, ant, and bed bug bait and flea shampoo for pets. Since these CECs are lethal to terrestrial insects, one can imagine the impact they have on marine life. In fact, fipronil was detected in 100% of samples from four Bay Area urban creeks, with 36% of samples exceeding EPA standards. Fipronil accumulates in sediments, which can be lethal to tiny organisms that live there which are part of the food web.

APE, a surfactant used in detergents, paper production, pesticides, and personal care products, has been detected in Bay waters, sediment, mussels, small fish, and cormorant eggs. This CEC and its associated compounds are bioaccumulative, persistent pollutants known as endocrine disruptors. Although APEs are found in low levels in Bay waters, they can combine with other chemicals, like pyrethroids, to form new endocrine disrupters.

The Regional Monitoring Program is currently awaiting results for a range of other CECs, such as microplastics and alternative flame retardants. As new data is published, Save the Bay’s Pollution Prevention Team will determine whether we should apply SFEI’s scientific findings to new strategies and policy targets. For now, contaminants of emerging concern are on our radar for future campaigns, but in the meantime, we can all take part in keeping our Bay clean by thinking twice about the products we purchase. Using natural and biodegradable household, personal, and pest control products is a first step in the creation of a contaminant-free Bay.