From Drought to Downpour


An artist’s rendition of California’s flooded State Capitol circa 1862
An artist’s rendition of California’s flooded State Capitol circa 1862

“Extreme river and creek flooding has broken many records, and swept away hundreds of homes”  -CNN, May 2014

“The frequent sight of houses floating, air-like, along the swift current was novel indeed, some of them being upright, some bottom up” -Union Democrat, December 1861

Two similar quotes that strangely tie events from today into our roots from the past. The first quote is from present day Texas, where millions of dollars in infrastructure damage has lead the President to declare the event a major disaster. The second is a piece from our own state’s history, an event not often mentioned in the textbooks or the classroom.

If you grew up in Northern California you’ll undoubtedly remember being given a small pan filled with rocks and soil to sift through in search of that infamous, luminous element known as gold. But how many of you remember being told the stories of our state capitol underwater just a decade after we discovered gold, our own governor having to be rowed from his house to the capitol building for his inauguration, or of the thousands that lost their possessions, property, or even their lives because of a torrential downpour that lasted 43 days straight?

History of a hundred year storm

The flood of 1861-1862 started off as a welcomed rain after a major drought throughout the state. While Native Americans of the Delta and Bay Area warned the post-gold rush era settlers of the floods that were about to ensue, many newly established citizens and towns were ill-prepared for such an event. What started as a quenching relief for many farmers soon turned into their worst nightmare, as the Central Valley turned into an inland lake and swelling rivers took down entire towns, a quarter of the state’s livestock, and thousands of lives.

The floods were so bad that, after attempting to run the state from underwater, legislatures decided to move the capitol from Sacramento to San Francisco until it could recover. While San Francisco was in better shape that the inundated Central Valley, most of the low lying areas around the Bay were covered in water. During the peak of the storm, so much water poured in from the Delta that our Bay shorelines didn’t experience low tide for a week.

Haven’t heard of the 1861-1862 flood before? It’s OK, neither had I until I caught one of Joel Pomerantz’s natural history lectures, but surely this is something we Bay Area residents should be aware of considering this was not some freak event but rather a natural occurrence.

Due for another downpour

Every 100-200 years we get a visit from the deceptively named “Pineapple Express”, or stream of warm air and moisture that starts at the equator and makes its way up the West Coast. What most meteorologists refer to as Atmospheric Rivers, these streams of warm air and moisture are important in the global water cycle and can bring up to four times the annual rainfall amount to areas of California.

A deluge of rain may sound like relief given our current dry state, but the reality would be overwhelmingly damaging. Today one of these great storms is estimated to wrack up $10.4 billion dollars in damages, almost the cost of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.  What’s worse is that many of these damages would likely be to our shoreline infrastructure and low lying cities on the Bay.

A recent study calls for large scale restoration of San Francisco Bay’s wetlands to help prepare our communities for the next big storm. You see, wetlands act as natural buffers for our communities. One acre of wetlands can hold a million gallons of water – water that would otherwise be in our streets and at our doorsteps if these wetlands didn’t exist. Save The Bay has been working on restoration projects that further help protect our cities from the negative impacts of flooding and support clean Bay water.

While we can’t stop these large storms from occurring, we can educate and better prepare ourselves for when they do arrive. To learn more about the flood of 1861-1862 and what you can do to help support the Bay join us for a restoration event.

A Little Bit of the Bay at Mountain Lake

Save The Bay Presidio Trust Mountain Lake Restoration Volunteer
Our Save The Bay team at one of Presidio Trust’s restoration events at Mountain Lake. Photo by Nissa Kriedler.

This fall, Save The Bay’s Restoration Team had the opportunity to participate in one of the Presidio Trust’s restoration events at Mountain Lake in San Francisco as part of a workday trade. There our team had a chance to learn about freshwater wetlands both through hands-on invasive species removal around Mountain Lake and through a special lecture on wetland soils from UC Berkeley professor Stephen Andrews. In the coming months it will be our Restoration Team’s turn to host the Presidio Trust restoration crew for a day on the Bay, teaching them about salt marshes, and getting them dirty at one of our restoration sites. Rumor has it there may even be a Save The Bay vs. Presidio Trust softball game (I think we all know who would win)! In the end we will all be winners as we learn from one another and strengthen friendships with others working to improve the environment around the San Francisco Bay.

To try and catch the Presidio Trust team out with Save The Bay sign up for one of our restoration events today.

A Glimpse Into the Life of a Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover pic
A Snowy Plover resting along the Bay. Photo taken by Davor Desancic.

“Just scan this area with the scope, “ Karine says as I try to stabilize myself with the highly expensive birding scope and look over a stretch of levee covered in small, black and grey rocks for a similarly-sized black and grey bird. I’m helping with a Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus) survey at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, where the federally threatened bird likes to nest in old salt ponds. Suddenly something moves. One of these small grey mounds has moved. In my first few moments of surveying I’ve spotted one of the small, camouflaged birds. “Karine,” I say sheepishly, “I think I found one.” Karine steps over to my scope which is locked in place and peers through. “Nope, that’s just a rock.” I laugh nervously and step back to my spotting scope, more skeptical of each greyish-black mound I see in the distance.

Karine Tokatlian is the Plover Program Director at the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO) and conducts surveys at Eden Landing nearly every morning for the Western Snowy Plover. I was fortunate enough to ride along with Karine for one of these surveys and learn more about the work SFBBO does at Eden landing and around the San Francisco Bay. The SFBBO works at this site to monitor birds that use old salt ponds for nesting and foraging grounds and is part of a larger collaboration between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, East Bay Regional Parks, Save The Bay, and other organizations to promote the ecological health and recovery at Eden Landing.

Three Snowy Plover eggs spotted at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve. Photo taken by Nissa Kreidler

While I was unsuccessful at finding a Snowy Plover at our first location, Karine spotted a pair at our next site. We watched as the two plovers ran around the dried-up, barren former salt pond. At first glance this area looks like a wasteland — wood piles from old salt pond processing infrastructure sticks out of the crusted soil, there are some pieces of brick left from what I assume is the same structure, and no vegetation nearby. Not quite what most would picture as good habitat, but plovers love it. The plovers and their relatives find dry, sandy areas like this to be good nesting grounds as they are camouflaged from predators, or at least in theory. Despite their greyish plumage blending in with their sandy surroundings, these threatened birds are greatly impacted by predation during nesting season. Gulls, hawks, foxes, and even a species of sand piper have been shown to prey on snowy plover eggs and chicks at Eden Landing. That’s why it’s important that biologists like Karine monitor snowy plovers and their nests to track how many chicks fledge and determine if further measures are needed to support their population.

By the end of the day Karine and I had spotted three pairs of plovers and two nests, one of which was filled with three eggs. The eggs have since hatched and will hopefully make it to become breeding adults themselves. Having run restoration events at Eden Landing for over a year, and as a Bay Area resident, I feel so fortunate to have these wild areas right in my backyard that supporting rare, threatened, and endangered species that call the Bay home. Thanks to concerned citizens, scientists, and volunteers we’re working together to support our Bay for this wildlife as well as future generations.

To join us for one of our restoration events at Eden Landing or other sites around the Bay, click here to sign up!

Annie’s: Bringing Homegrown to the Marsh

Annie's granola bars
Coby enjoys one of Annie’s organic granola bars while volunteering at our Palo Alto Baylands site.

Recently I had the pleasure of leading a volunteer event with Annie’s Homegrown, Inc. at our newest restoration site at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve. They showed up bright and early with positive attitudes and festive team shirts that displayed their iconic rabbit label (in case you were wondering, the rabbit’s name is Bernie).

As we drove out to our site through a maze of levees just south of the San Mateo Bridge we stopped to show them relics of the salt ponds that once covered the now ecological reserve and described future plans for the site, which will be open to the public in just a few years.

Once we arrived at our site we quickly got down to business. We worked hard as Willets searched for food in adjacent mud flats and flocks of sandpipers flew overhead in great numbers like a murmuration of Starlings. By the end of the day we were exhausted — and for a good reason. In total Annie’s installed over 100 native plants, including Marsh Baccharis (Baccharis glutinosa), Western Goldenrod (Euthamia occidentalis), and Creeping Wild Rye (Elymus triticoides). I am often impressed by how much gets done during our corporate volunteer programs.

After we cleaned up, we piled into our cars and drove back to the parking lot where we met. We said our thank yous and good byes and parted ways. My colleague and I reflected on the productive day and spoke longingly for next year’s program with Annie’s.

Little did we know we’d be hearing from them again much sooner than that. A little less than a month after our restoration event with them at Eden Landing, Annie’s sent us 2,500 organic granola bars to share with our volunteers! Now during our restoration programs we are proud to share these fantastic snacks made by a company that takes pride in sustainable, quality ingredients and cares as much about community as we do at Save the Bay. Our staff is so grateful for Annie’s contribution.

Come out and grab an Annie’s organic granola bar at one of our restoration events around the bay this spring!

Enraptured by Raptors

Back in the warmer days of our Indian Summer, I visited Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands to catch a glimpse of the great diversity of raptors (a collective term for hawks, vultures, owls and other birds of prey) along their southern migration. On a sunny October day I made it to the top of Hawk Hill where I found Red-tailed, Broad-wing, and Cooper’s Hawks soaring above me as I looked out over the Golden Gate Bridge. The San Francisco Bay shimmered as I watched what looked like tiny toy sail boats glide across it from the top of the nearly 1000 ft tall mountain.

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The Marin Headlands are the last stop for these birds before crossing over the Bay on their way south. Raptors that travel within the California coastal range are funneled into the Marin peninsula, where they catch up-drafts created by warm rising air that acts as an elevator for the raptors. After getting a free ride up, they drop down over the Bay and continue their long journey south.

Coincidentally these two factors make it a great place to see these birds of prey, as they become concentrated the further they move down the peninsula and are slowed while they catch the thermal up-drafts. Sadly most of these feathered travelers have passed through the Bay (September through November is the best time to view birds at Hawk Hill or join in one of their docent programs), but if you’re looking for a good hike consider heading up to catch a few resident hawks. Alternatively you can give these guys a helping hand by volunteering at your local wetland where you can find a few Turkey Vultures, Northern Harriers, or the ever-present smorgasbord of shore birds.