The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission celebrates its 50th anniversary by reflecting on the challenges that inspired the founding of Save The Bay and BCDC, while looking ahead to the future issues facing our region. Zack Wasserman is chairman of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and a real estate/land use attorney. Barry Nelson is a BCDC commissioner and the former executive director of Save The Bay. This commentary was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission is the world’s first coastal protection agency. It was created thanks to the efforts of three remarkable women who started a movement that swept across the nation and the world. This year marks the BCDC’s 50th year protecting the bay. The state commission is now taking on one of the biggest challenges the bay has ever faced — rising sea levels as a result of a changing climate.
In the early 1960s, Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick looked west from their East Bay homes and saw a shoreline and wetlands being defiled by garbage dumps and development. Together they founded Save the Bay and the successful public campaign to stop bay fill by creating the commission.
On this anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect on the remarkable legacy of those founders and to consider the new challenges that lie ahead.
Today, around the bay, we can see the commission’s accomplishments. Before BCDC was created, families didn’t stroll on bayside trails because none existed. The bay was shrinking by an astonishing 2,000 acres annually. The bay’s wetlands and wildlife were vanishing.
After 50 years of groundbreaking stewardship, the size of the bay has increased significantly. We have the nation’s largest urban wildlife refuge and thousands of acres of permanently protected diked former baylands. The bay shoreline is now fringed by hundreds of miles of trails, parks, beaches, promenades and restoration projects.
In addition, BCDC has approved billions of dollars of urban shoreline development. Restaurants, hotels and housing have been approved where appropriate. Fishing piers, kayak-launching facilities, marinas, a baseball park, museums and interpretive centers allow the public to enjoy the bay to an extent that was unthinkable 50 years ago. The bay has been woven into our families’ lives and our region’s economy in a manner that is envied globally.
Today we face a new challenge because of the rising sea levels that are resulting from our warming climate. State agencies such as BCDC expect no less than 3 feet and perhaps as much as 10 feet of sea-level rise by 2100. Absent regional planning, collaboration and action, those rising waters will inundate low-lying communities, businesses and natural habitats.
While we still need to minimize bay fill of wetlands and maximize public access to the bay shore and waters, our charge now includes protecting our natural and built environments from rising tides. Rising sea levels threaten our roads and highways, airports, transit systems, water treatment plants and power plants. Rising sea levels also threaten the wetlands and wildlife BCDC has worked so hard to protect and expand.
Meeting this challenge may seem as daunting a task as stopping bay fill in 1965. Inspired by the Save the Bay founders, we must begin with a shared vision for a healthy and accessible bay that is treasured by the communities that surround it. We must tap into the creative spirit for which our region is world-renowned. And, finally, we must work together — public agencies and communities of all types and located all around the bay — to ensure that all of us are protected from rising tides.
We can also work as individuals to protect ourselves and our neighbors from rising waters due to a likely El Niño, which could cause significant Bay Area flooding. Close to home, we can organize or volunteer for creek cleanups so our waterways can better direct water away from our homes.
On a larger scale, we can encourage our cities and counties to participate in BCDC’s groundbreaking community-based Adapting to Rising Tides program and to authorize new Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts to fund local climate change adaptation efforts. The districts, new community mechanisms that replace old redevelopment agencies, can fund local climate change adaptation efforts.
The three women who founded Save the Bay launched a movement that resonated across the nation and the globe. We have a new opportunity today. If we meet today’s challenge with a shared vision, the creativity that befits our region, and a spirit of public, private, and nonprofit sector collaboration, our children and grandchildren will be able to look out and see a vibrant bay transformed once again, thriving communities surrounding it, and a Bay Area that remains a global leader in meeting the challenges that face us all.
Zack Wasserman is chairman of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and a real estate/land use attorney. Barry Nelson is a BCDC commissioner and the former executive director of Save The Bay.