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.
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
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 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.