Who’s afraid of environmental impact?

A bag ban in Pittsburg, CA, makes the news (Contra Costa Times)
A bag ban in Pittsburg, CA, makes the news (Contra Costa Times)

Few communities around the Bay Area have escaped the wave of blustery threats from Stephen Joseph’s “Save the Plastic Bag” group (sorry, but I’m not going to link to it).

As Save The Bay has worked to overcome strong plastic industry opposition to municipal bans on single use disposable plastics that pollute the Bay, that industry and its allies have stopped or delayed restrictions on plastic bags and Styrofoam, including by suing and threatening to sue cities to force lengthy environmental reviews of the policy decision.

Joseph has led most of these threats of litigation. And many communities have spent considerable public resources doing full environmental impact reports under the California Environmental Quality Act. The City of San Jose’s report ran to almost 200 pages.

This kind of review is not cheap. So this tactic isn’t just buying the plastic industry time to keep selling billions of bags in the Bay Area and around the state. It is also costing all of us Bay Area taxpayers many hundreds of thousands of dollars across dozens of communities.

Joseph is much better at getting ink for himself than at winning in court. If you read the decisions in these cases, you’ll routinely find judicial head scratching and even outright mockery of his legal positions. But for some reason, reporters love him. This is a guy who once contacted Save The Bay directly and demanded that we correct public statements that he’s basically repeatedly made himself: that his anti-bag ban work is at the behest of the plastic industry. It’s right here in this absurdly flattering profile of him.

But Marin County rejected Joseph’s threats and rested on the position that there’s no need to deeply analyze any environmental impact here under CEQA. And now the state Supreme Court has upheld the county’s victory over the plastic industry in court.

Although the plastic industry keeps losing these lawsuits, some cities and counties around the state continue to be bullied by this tactic today. So, while Joseph may not be the first to realize it, this blog post isn’t even about him (and yes, the link is to Carly Simon). It’s about spreading this information and hoping to save some of the public’s money, because these expensive reviews are often not needed for municipalities to take action and reduce Bay trash at the source.

With the bag ban trend now reaching as far as Pittsburg in Contra Costa County, time seems to now be on our side.


Reshaping the Bay

Beautiful restored wetlands, coming to a part of the SF Bay near you? (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Beautiful restored wetlands, coming to a part of the SF Bay near you? (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

At our 50th Anniversary celebration in 2011, I was struck and impressed on hearing former Environmental Protection Agency head William Reilly describe the saving of San Francisco Bay as one of the signature environmental achievements of the 20th Century. He was standing in a small crowd in front of Sylvia McLaughlin, one of Save The Bay’s famous founders.

We are still building on and learning from our founders’ work. In fact, when I introduce Save The Bay’s current policy efforts around pollution prevention and stopping Bay fill, I invariably refer back to our founders achieving what they did without much of a template for grassroots environmental activism and without many of the laws or government agencies – including the EPA – that we all take for granted today.

But there’s a third area of Save The Bay’s work that our founders likely dreamed of but were not able to address on any scale: the restoration of the Bay.

Our science-based tidal marsh restoration programs are models for other projects around the Bay and around the country. Through these programs, we give community volunteers and local schools the opportunity to directly restore the shoreline alongside our restoration and education experts. We back up this on-the-ground restoration work with policy and advocacy efforts like our recently-launched For The Bay initiative to mobilize thousands of Bay Area residents who care about the Bay in support of the bold goal of re-establishing 100,000 acres of tidal marsh around the Bay. 100,000 acres is the minimum number scientists say we need for the Bay to thrive.

Recently, Paul Rogers wrote a terrific piece in the Mercury News about the modern reshaping of San Francisco Bay. We are so focused here on juggling the many details, large and small, involved in advancing this work that we sometimes fail to properly capture the scale and significance of this for the general public. That is not a weakness that we share with Paul Rogers:

The aquatic renaissance is already the largest wetlands restoration project ever completed in the Bay Area, turning back the clock 150 years and transforming the area between Vallejo and Sonoma Raceway, despite little public awareness because of the distance from the Bay Area’s large cities.

“It’s a stunning achievement,” said Marc Holmes, program director with the Bay Institute, an environmental group in San Francisco. “It’s a phenomenal ecological restoration, one of the most important coastal wetlands projects ever done in the United States.”

The restoration — encompassing an area as big as 8,500 football fields — is also offering a road map for similar projects now underway in the East Bay and Silicon Valley, particularly the massive restoration of 15,100 acres of former Cargill Salt ponds that extend from Hayward to San Jose to Redwood City.

It’s a great article. I hope you will read it, including the great visuals, and share it widely. Because this work is of vital importance for the Bay and brings such a broad array of public benefits: habitat restoration for threatened species; jobs for workers and flood protection for businesses; public recreation for people who love to walk, jog and bike by our beautiful Bay. I only hope that we are living up to the vision and daring of Save The Bay’s founders in working to ensure that this restoration project is finished as soon as possible.


Cargill threatens regional agencies over SF Bay salt pond map

Redwood City Salt Ponds
Does this site look ‘urbanized’ to you?

You may not have heard about Cargill’s controversial plan to build a new city on restorable salt ponds in San Francisco Bay for a while. But the company recently threatened and misled Bay Area regional planners into incorrectly designating Redwood City salt pond properties as “urbanized” areas. Clearly, Cargill was after yet another way to justify developing this important open space.

Fortunately, Save The Bay beat back this underhanded effort by the largest privately held US company.

Here’s what happened:

For years, Bay Area cities and agencies have been shaping an ambitious project called Plan Bay Area, intended to address growth and transportation at a regional level. The plan included maps of the Bay that correctly showed salt ponds in Redwood City and Newark as open space.

Before the plan was adopted, however, Cargill submitted a letter threatening public agencies with legal action over those maps. Cargill brazenly claimed there are no “significant restrictions [that] exist on the current and future use of these properties.” That isn’t true, but soon a new draft of the plan was released, and it included maps depicting the salt ponds as “urbanized.”

Contrary to Cargill’s claim, there are many significant protections on the Redwood City salt ponds. They are designated as open space in Redwood City’s general plan and in Cargill’s contract with the state of California under the Williamson Act; and many state and federal laws protect the Bay.

Thanks to vigilant Save The Bay supporters like you, we caught wind of Cargill’s sneaky move – and we reached out to our allies and supporters to ensure the maps were fixed, just days before the final plan was approved. It was a close call, but swift action by our Save The Bay policy team prevented this important open space from coming one step closer to development. We know that Cargill will stop at nothing to clear their way to build homes on these below sea level, restorable ponds. And we need all the help we can get to continue to block their moves.

It is astonishing that, after benefiting from dramatically reduced taxes for decades in exchange for preserving the areas as open space, Cargill shamelessly bullied Bay Area public officials with false claims and threats of legal action.

Cargill is demonstrating yet again that they aren’t listening to the community in Redwood City and throughout the Bay Area.

Won’t you please stand with us again today with a special gift to help us block the Cargill threat? With your support we will remain vigilant against Cargill and work to ensure that San Francisco Bay salt ponds are restored—not paved over for development.

Want to learn more about why the Redwood City salt ponds are important to the Bay? See our slideshow profiling some of the more than 24,800 shorebirds that call the ponds home.

Is Bay restoration showing benefits? Just ask the sharks.

(Nick Buckmaster/San Jose Mercury News)
One big leopard shark (Nick Buckmaster/San Jose Mercury News)

As you might imagine, the restoration of San Francisco Bay is one of our favorite subjects here at Save The Bay. We are often blogging, posting and tweeting about levee breaks and salt ponds being turned back into wetlands. Frankly, for those who may not be regularly “mired” in excitement about Bay mud, what this is all about may seem a bit abstract and obscure.

For those of you still wondering why wetland restoration is important, this great article by Paul Rogers in the San Jose Mercury News last week really laid it out, with compelling photographs like this one and a powerful case for restoring the Bay. Because it turns out that bringing these former Cargill salt ponds back to wetlands is leading to a noticeable increase in sharks. Lots of them (and no, they won’t bite you).

“We’re starting to see a lot more leopard sharks and also bat rays in the ponds now,” said Eric Mruz, manager of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont.

As the article put it: “In any natural area, when large predators come back, that’s good news.”

With so many of the Bay’s former tidal wetlands lost to saltmaking for decades, leopard sharks were forced to retreat with the tide or they would end up being beached on the South Bay’s wide mudflats. The restored wetlands are now providing swimmable areas for them to stay and feed for days on end. And, the article explains, they are “fattening up.”

“This tells us the water quality is getting better,” Mruz explained. “And it shows that these former salt ponds are providing tremendous amounts of fish, worms, crabs and other species. It tells us the South Bay is getting healthier.” And that is music to our ears.


Bay restoration moves ahead in Sonoma County

Sears Point Ranch (Sonoma Land Trust)
Sears Point Ranch (Sonoma Land Trust)

There is some good news for the San Francisco Bay this month. Restoration of the Sears Point Ranch in Sonoma County, owned by Sonoma Land Trust, received a grant of $5 million from the Wildlife Conservation Board.

The Sears Point site is one of the largest tidal wetland restoration projects in the state of California at more than 2300 acres. It was once proposed to be developed for a casino. About 1000 acres of the ranch are planned to be restored to tidal marsh. The WCB grant will pay for construction of a flood protection levee. And the top of the levee will serve as a trail – 2.5 miles of new public access.

This is unambiguously good news, and it appears that the full restoration is now on track at Sears Point.

As our regular readers know, the Bay needs 100,000 acres of tidal marsh habitat to be healthy, and less than half that number exists. Progress on restoration projects large and small all around the Bay Area is urgently needed, and this work could proceed much more rapidly with steady access to needed funds. That is why Save The Bay is committed to identifying new sources of funding for Bay restoration.

You can help. Please take action today and urge the US Congress to support the San Francisco Bay Restoration Act.