Saving the Bay: From Rescue to Restoration

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What’s that stinky creek out there,
Down behind the slum’s back stair,
Sludgy puddle, sad and gray?
Why man, that’s San Francisco Bay!
– “Seventy Miles” by Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger, 1965

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Looking out on the majestic beauty of San Francisco Bay in 2015, it’s hard for many younger and newer residents of the Bay Area to believe that just fifty years ago, Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger were shocked enough by its condition that they memorialized it in song as a “Sludgy puddle, sad and gray.”

Yet, it’s true – half a century ago, the Bay was choked with raw sewage and industrial pollution, and plans were to fill in 60 percent of its remaining area, leaving only a narrow shipping channel in its place.

Fortunately, in 1961, Save The Bay’s founders set out to rescue the Bay from destruction, and helped give birth to our nation’s grassroots environmental movement. Mobilizing thousands of Bay Area residents into action over the course of the decade, these three remarkable women led landmark victories including a moratorium on Bay fill, the closure of more than 30 shoreline garbage dumps, an end to the release of raw sewage, and establishment of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to regulate shoreline development and increase public access to the Bay.

For 55 years, Save The Bay has been occupied primarily with successive versions of our founders’ initial mission to protect the Bay from damaging shoreline development. Along with dedicated local groups, we’ve defeated numerous, hugely destructive plans including: the Santa Fe Railroad Company’s Bay fill scheme to build Berkeley three miles out into the water; David Rockefeller’s surreal fantasy of building a new Manhattan in the Bay with fill from chopping off the top of San Bruno mountain; Mobil Oil’s blueprint for massive development on Bair Island; and SFO’s ill-conceived effort to pave the Bay for runway expansions.

Now, with Cargill’s Redwood City Saltworks proposal on the ropes, and plans to develop Newark Area 4 likely to be rejected by BCDC and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, these last threats to the largest remaining tracts of unprotected, restorable Bay wetlands may soon be overcome.

The next phase of saving the Bay

The first phase of our organization’s history, focused on rescuing the Bay, is now drawing to a close; the next phase of our history, focused on restoring the Bay to full health, is beginning in earnest; and the scale of our challenges and the importance of our work are as enormous as they have ever been.

While Bay restoration has always been integral to Save The Bay’s mission, only now, after many years’ effort, do we have a real opportunity to achieve it on scale and realize our founders’ ultimate vision.

In 1999, a consortium of estuary scientists published the Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals, which established that San Francisco Bay needed 100,000 acres of wetlands to restore and sustain its health. At the time, less than 40,000 acres of Bay wetlands remained, but thanks to the efforts of Save The Bay’s many partners, a similar number of restorable acres had been protected from any further development. Local efforts have managed to restore 5,000 acres of wetlands since then, but the vast majority of protected Bay wetlands are still awaiting restoration.

The biggest challenge has been the lack of sufficient, reliable funding to pursue large scale restoration. With scant annual federal funding – on the order of $5 million per year – and state support limited to one-time injections of bond funds, the price tag of $1.43 billion to restore the acres under protection has been too steep, and efforts to secure additional funding from existing sources have yielded little.

Faced with the quandary of having thousands of acres of restorable wetlands under public ownership without an appropriate source of funds to restore them, Save The Bay moved to change the equation.

Funding Bay restoration on scale

In 2007, we published Greening the Bay, a strategy for financing Bay restoration by establishing a regional special district that would allow the Bay Area to raise the local share of wetlands restoration costs, which could be used to leverage increased state and federal funding to cover the remainder.

That publication and the organizing around it led directly to creation of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, a regional public agency charged with raising the local funds and managing the grants necessary to implement the many restoration projects in the pipeline and begin the long overdue work of restoring the Bay’s wetlands.

Unfortunately, at its very start, the Authority was stalled out by the stark reality of the Great Recession. In the grips of that extraordinary economic downturn, the same Bay Area voters who had consistently and overwhelmingly supported the goal of improving the Bay for both people and wildlife proved unwilling to pay even a small amount in additional taxes to fund the local share of restoration efforts.

Today, the Authority is preparing to propose a small parcel tax to voters in all nine Bay Area counties, to enhance our environment and strengthen our economy at the same time.

  • The June 2016 ballot measure would generate $500 million in new funding for projects to restore thousands of acres of tidal marsh, making the Bay healthier for fish, birds, seals and other threatened marine life. Parcels would be assessed $12 each year for 20 years.
  • The funding would accelerate projects that prevent flooding of residential communities and economic infrastructure, reduce pollution in the Bay, and improve trails for public
  • An April 2015 survey found that a supermajority of Bay Area voters will make an investment to ensure the Bay is clean and healthy. After hearing arguments for and against, 70% would vote in favor of a $12 parcel tax to improve the Bay – more than the 2/3 necessary for passage.

A recent op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News by Save The Bay’s Executive Director, David Lewis, and prominent business leader Andy Ball made the case and the call: Act now to protect San Francisco Bay!

We can make this breakthrough, and restore San Francisco Bay for all the generations to come, but only if Save The Bay’s supporters lead the way, as we have throughout our organization’s history.

We know our supporters are up to the challenge, and in the weeks ahead we’ll be letting you know exactly what you can do to help. Thank you, as always, for all you do to Save The Bay!

Benicia: What Could Have Been

 A modern Benicia map with the original 1847 layout of streets superimposed.
The Benicia that might of have been: a modern Benicia map with the original 1847 layout of streets superimposed, extending far up into its hills and out into the waters of the Carquinez Strait. Courtesy Steve McKee

Ever wondered how San Francisco looked with its fabled Yerba Buena Cove? Come visit the north side of the Carquinez Strait, to its pre-Gold Rush rival. In the now sleepy town of Benicia, you’ll find a 19th century street grid cutting abruptly into its naturally rocky shoreline. This is because most of the coves and inlets of Benicia were never filled in for urban development.

Growing up in historic Benicia, it was always evident to me what it could have been. Hard as it is to believe today, when conceived in the year 1847, Benicia’s founders envisioned the settlement to grow to be the alpha city of the American West. Despite its deep water port on the Carquinez Strait and easy access to California’s interior, San Francisco quickly usurped that role with the dawn of the Gold Rush.

Nonetheless, Benicia’s early optimism now presents itself as an interesting counter-example to San Francisco, which led the region with its amazing growth, but also the careless environmental degradation that came with reckless 19th and 20th century city planning.

A look at the history of each city’s name presents us a more telling tale of their early rivalry.

Benicia was originally slated to be called Francisca in honor of Doña “Francisca” Benicia Carrillo de Vallejo, the wife of Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, arguably the most powerful individual in the historic Mexican province of Alta California and one of the co-founders of the city. Perhaps, more importantly, the city of Francisca aimed to associate itself with something much larger: San Francisco Bay. A nod to the crown jewel of our region, already famous in an era when marine travel was king, the city was envisioned as the new metropolis of the West.

Fearful that the formation of Francisca would eclipse it, Yerba Buena, the small fishing village sitting on a cove of the same name, renamed itself “San Francisco,” effectively forcing the use of Señora Vallejo’s second name of “Benicia.” Indeed, the name San Francisco stuck in the minds of gold seekers around the world, who would always remember that city named after the Bay, rather than its rival Benicia.

In dramatic fashion, San Francisco erased not only its former name, but all traces of it. Yerba Buena Cove now sits underneath today’s Financial District, once a grid of carefully fought over “waterlots.”

It begs the question of how Benicia would have looked if built out as intended. The above map of Benicia as proposed in 1847 would certainly have it looking much more like its former rival. In accordance to the 1847 street grid, the rolling hills near and above Benicia’s Interstate 780 freeway would have developed like San Francisco’s Nob and Russian Hills. The thought of a majestic hill city before the Carquinez Strait sounds glamorous, but that urban development would have come at a great cost to its waterfront.

Indeed, after the Gold Rush, rampant filling of shallow areas reduced San Francisco Bay’s size by one-third and destroyed 90 percent of the Bay’s tidal marsh. For Benicia to have largely escaped this is a powerful testament to what could have been.

So perhaps, in an parallel world, Benicia would have stuck to its original name of Francisca. The gold prospectors that would have gathered in Benicia would have helped to secure its hold as a major world city. The natural contours that so define its shoreline today could have been transformed into a zigzag of rectangular geometry. High-rise buildings mounted on bayfill and plans to construct a “clean cut” shoreline like San Francisco’s Embarcadero could have taken place. Yet, for those wildlife and residents who enjoy a quiet life before the Carquinez and take pride in our town’s natural coves and inlets, this lack of development is a blessing in disguise.

Myself, having both grown up in Benicia and lived in San Francisco for two years, it comes as more of a mixed blessing. Like many Bay Area residents, I long for the urban amenities provided by residing in a city like San Francisco, such as accessible public transit. At same time, I’ve written before how the Carquinez Strait has been my connection to the Bay. My hometown’s many shoreline parks were instrumental in fostering my sense of place at a young age and ultimately my future pursuits as a student and advocate of the environment.

Saving the Bay: a movement started by women

 

Our founders’ legacy — one of courage, persistence, diligence, and success — has inspired today’s generation of Bay savers to carry on their mission to protect our greatest natural treasure for generations.

Before we celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970 and the first full-length issue of Ms. Magazine hit newsstands in 1972, major progress in the Bay Area was already underway thanks to a trio of East Bay women who dared to question environmental and social norms.

In the early 1960s going green wasn’t hip, nor was the idea of preserving the natural environment. During that time the Bay, often dredged for development, looked like a devastated wasteland flowing with raw, smelly sewage that also doubled as a dumping ground for toxic trash.

Four years after Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick founded Save San Francisco Bay Association (later renamed Save The Bay) in 1961, the McAteer-Petris Act placed a moratorium on additional filling of our Bay and established the first coastal protection agency in the United States called the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC).

The passing of this landmark legislation set the stage for the coming decades of environmental protections. Prior to 1965, few environmental organizations existed and even fewer environmental laws had been passed. But, these women led a grassroots environmental movement — during an age where a woman’s word was undervalued, especially in government.

This was the first of many milestones Save The Bay achieved. A few years after its establishment, the BCDC became a permanent regulatory agency empowered to permit Bayfill and require public access to the shoreline.

Senator Petris among others with Governor Reagan at the signing ceremony for the creation of BCDC.
Our founders and Senator Petris among others with Governor Reagan at the signing ceremony for the creation of BCDC.

Thanks to the courageous efforts led by Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick, this 1960s projection illustration published in the Oakland Tribune, won’t become a reality. However, we must remain vigilant to ensure that our natural environment does not give way to urbanization, industrialization, and big business at home and around the globe.

Bay or River Image
In 1961 the Bay was projected by the Army Corps of Engineers to become a river by the year 2020, as illustrated by this graphic published in the Oakland Tribune in 1960.

Over a half century later, Save The Bay has continued to fight the good fight, educate and inspire the next generation of environmentalists, and remains dedicated to keeping the Bay healthy for all to enjoy for generations.

As they’ve inspired today’s generation of bay savers, the women working to protect our environment today inspire the young environmentalists of the future. Donna Ball, Save The Bay’s Restoration and Habitat Director, is one of those women encouraging tomorrow’s environmental solution developers (both girls and boys) to follow their dreams.

Despite advancements in the American environmental and women’s movements, we have yet to achieve gender equality in the sciences both internationally and here at home. We know of a remedy that may help close that gap: it takes is at least one ordinary individual with extraordinary ideas, courage, belief, and vision.

Will it be you?

The Story of Cullinan Ranch

Update 1/6/15:

In a dramatic moment, on Jan. 6 work crews breached the levee that has kept Cullinan Ranch, 1,200 acres of diked wetlands in the Napa River Delta, unnaturally dry for more than a century. Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis, Habitat Restoration Director Donna Ball, and I joined representatives from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and other partners to celebrate the culmination of a decades-long effort to restore the site. What’s next? Project designers expect near-immediate resurgence of waterfowl and shorebirds, and with tidal waters already beginning to carry natural sediment to the site, native plants will eventually take root and re-establish habitat for our Bay’s wild creatures. Read the full story of Cullinan Ranch below. -Cyril Manning


The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via restorecullinan.info)
The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via restorecullinan.info)

Cullinan Ranch is a 1500-acre parcel of former tidal marsh at the top of San Pablo Bay, part of the Napa River Delta. As you can see from the map at right, it is an important puzzle piece in the sprawling restoration of the whole northern part of San Francisco Bay, work that has been described as an “aquatic renaissance… turning back the clock 150 years and transforming the area between Vallejo and Sonoma Raceway.”

Like nearly all the tidal marsh around San Francisco Bay, Cullinan was diked off in the 1880s to be farmland (see this nice timeline covering the history of the site). A proposed residential marina community nearly destroyed the area 25 years ago, but the proposal was defeated in 1987.

After the site was proposed for development, Save The Bay joined with local residents in Vallejo and hired Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger to sue over the “Egret Bay” development, which proposed thousands of homes on this restorable site, below sea level. Getting involved in the battle was a first for Save The Bay – actually advocating for restoration of a diked former wetland, not just against new fill and inappropriate shoreline development.

That successful lawsuit, along with the denial of construction permits by BCDC and the US Army Corps of Engineers, put a stop to Egret Bay, making possible Cullinan’s purchase by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1989, and protection as a wildlife refuge.  Now, this site — one and a half times the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park — is being returned to marsh as part of the West Coast’s largest wetland restoration effort.

After the site was first diked off for grazing and oat hay, the marshland dried out and compacted like a sponge, and now lies six to nine feet below sea level.  When the levees are opened later this year, the site will initially be open water and mud flats, then sediment from the Napa River and Bay will eventually build up, so that tidal marsh vegetation can begin to grow back.

Another key challenge is restoring the property while protecting the critical infrastructure that runs through and around it. A levee to protect Highway 37 from the new tidal action is the single most expensive element in the $16 million wetland restoration project. The SF Bay Don Edwards and San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuges are crisscrossed by much of the region’s critical transportation, electrical and water supply infrastructure, which add expensive urban complexities that are not usually a part of refuge restoration projects.

As local scientists, communities, and conservationists work together to bring us closer to the 100,000 acres of tidal marsh needed for a healthy Bay, sites like Cullinan Ranch serve as a valuable model and inspiration.  They show we can succeed in preventing projects like Cargill’s proposal to build homes in a Redwood City salt pond, and instead ensure that site is restored along with other ponds, together restoring the Bay for people and wildlife.

Guest Post | Share the Local Love for the South Bay

Carlsen Subaru Todd Parksinson San Francisco Bay
A vintage photo of Carlsen Subaru’s Todd Parkinson on the SF Bay

The “Share the Love” promotion is Subaru’s 7th annual holiday charity event where Subaru of America will donate $250 per new vehicle sold during the promotional period (November 20, 2014 to January 2, 2015) to one of the customer selected national or local charities. This year, individual dealerships, depending on their sales volume, had the option of also partnering with a local “hometown” organization that would then be added to the list. Carlsen Subaru in Redwood City chose Save The Bay as their local charity. General Manager Todd Parkinson talks about his connection to San Francisco Bay.

I approached Save The Bay to be Carlsen Subaru’s hometown charity for several reasons. First of all, Subaru owners in general tend to be environmentally conscious people who enjoy wildlife and the outdoors. I think that most of our local Subaru customers would agree that San Francisco Bay, its estuaries and the Delta, are all treasures that should be safeguarded and protected. Therefore, I felt confident that Save the Bay’s mission would resonate well with our present and future customers. In addition, I have a very personal connection with the bay as I have spent quite a bit of time exploring the waterways, marshes, and levees surrounding San Francisco Bay and the delta.

Forty years ago, I was introduced to the wonders of the South San Francisco Bay by my father George. Alviso, the ghost town known as Drawbridge, the miles of Leslie Salt levees, and the sloughs and marshlands of the surrounding south bay area was my playground growing up. Almost every weekend, I would accompany my father exploring these areas. In the early years, we would ride motorcycles out the salt pond levees to the end of Alviso slough and fish for sharks, sturgeon, striped bass and sting-rays.   Later we would launch our various trailer-able boats from Alviso, Redwood City, and San Mateo to fish and explore the bay. During my teenage years, my family had a large boat berthed in Alameda. Several weekends a month were spent motoring around San Francisco, Angel Island, Sausalito, and occasionally making the long trip to the fresh water of the Delta.

As far as my favorite memories or San Francisco Bay experiences, there are many. My father and I used to ride our motorcycles from Alviso down the railroad tracks (yes down the middle of the railroad tracks as it’s the smoothest place to ride) to the remnants of the town of Drawbridge. As a youngster, exploring the old abandoned buildings perched on the marshes made a lasting impression. This trip also made for many exciting close encounters with the trains, especially at high tide when there was very little room on either side of the tracks to escape the approaching train. More than once, we were forced to crouch just off the tracks while the train whizzed by at 50mph plus. Thankfully, my mother did not get the full details of these adventures until years later. Throughout the years, there were also countless successful fishing trips with my family and friends from the South Bay to outside the Golden Gate. Fleet Week on the water was always a special treat. Being able to get close to the war ships and watching the Blue Angels fly over the bay were true highlights that I will never forget.

As a father, I have retraced some of the same south bay levees with my children. Instead of motorcycles and fishing poles, we now set out with mountain bikes and energy bars. I am happy to say that the geography remains much the same as I remember it from years ago. The trail systems that now border the bay have increased public access. However, I don’t take this fact for granted. Without the efforts of multiple governmental and private partners who have worked together to safeguard this local treasure, the current state of the bay could have been a very sad story. Thankfully, this is not the case. It is my hope that the Carlsen Subaru/Save the Bay partnership will result in increased funding and local awareness for Save the Bay so the organization can continue to preserve and protect this wonderful local resource.

— Todd Parkinson, General Manager of Carlsen Subaru in Redwood City