Biodiversity: More Is Not Always Better

Happy Biodiversity Day! Most of us have heard the word biodiversity being tossed around as an important subject that requires our attention, but why is biodiversity so important? This topic is much more difficult to address than you might think. Biodiversity refers to the level of variation of life within an ecosystem. Plants and animals have everything they need to live sustainably together in an ecosystem that has healthy biodiversity. Although biodiversity is a crucial subject in restoration science, there can be a misunderstanding that more biodiversity is always better. Researchers are finding that the types of species in an ecosystem are just as important as the number of species and more isn’t always better. Save The Bay confronts this issue of biodiversity every time we design a habitat restoration plan for tidal wetland transition zones within the San Francisco Bay.

Biodiverse restored transition zone habitat at Eden Landing with invasive monoculture of mustard on the other side of the fence.

To better understand this idea that more biodiversity isn’t always better when designing habitat restoration plans, let’s first consider what habitat restoration means and what’s being restored. Effective environmental restoration will restore ecosystem function. Ecosystem function involves biological, geochemical, and physical processes that vary between systems, but maintain a specific balance within each ecosystem, and that balance is delicate. Plants, animals, water, and earth all contribute to how ecosystems function, and when one of those contributions change, so do the others. Those changes not only displace the effectiveness and sustainability of food webs (Zedler and Kercher, 2004) but they also affect ecosystem services that humans rely on, such as food, water, medicine, transportation, employment, inspiration, shelter, and protection… to name a few. For example, an important ecosystem service that wetlands offer humans is their role as breeding and nursery grounds for economically important fish species, including the Pacific anchovy, California halibut, rainbow trout, and Chinook salmon. Tidal wetlands also provide important feeding and stopping grounds for migrating birds, which not only contribute to maintaining healthy populations of those economically important fish species, but also help to maintain healthy native insect and rodent populations.

Once researchers learned the importance of biodiversity and discovered it was diminishing, so began the mission to determine the cause for this great loss. Many factors have contributed to our worldwide decrease in biodiversity, and tidal wetlands are among the greatest victims. 90% of the San Francisco Bay wetlands have been destroyed due to bayfill, contamination, industrial use, and fragmentation. This hardship makes life difficult (if not impossible) for the San Francisco native species that depend on a healthy wetland habitat, and therefore, the wetlands have developed a decreased immunity to invasions by non-native species. Invasive non-native species thrive when conditions are difficult for the natives and they often completely take over entire ecosystems if left unchecked. Not all non-native species are invasive, just the ones that demolish the native diversity. And San Francisco Bay has the greatest number of invasive species anywhere in the western hemisphere.

As environmental scientists learned more about the intricacies of biodiversity, it became apparent that diversity should reflect the needs of the resident flora and fauna, since both are so interconnected. This observation may indicate that, while biodiversity offers the benefit of ecosystem stability, restoring an ecosystem to a sustainable functioning state should be the ultimate goal. So, rather than focusing on the blanket idea of increasing biodiversity across the board, researchers and practitioners have begun to implement the idea of restoring the biodiversity that has been lost in a particular area. That means that if a particular ecosystem historically was home to only a few species, practitioners are better off trying to restore the functions that those few species provided to that area, which is the entire point of restoration. Save The Bay works hard to understand and recognize the specific ecosystem functions at each of our sites and the specific native plant species that are capable of supporting those functions. Join us on one of our community-based restoration programs to ensure that the flowers have bees for pollination, the birds have a place to perch and nest, and the salt marsh harvest mouse has sufficient refugia during high tide.

Zedler, JB and Kercher S. (2004). Causes and consequences of invasive plants in wetlands: Opportunities,
opportunists, and outcomes. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences. 23(5):431-452.

Climate Report Supports Wetland Restoration As Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy

Healthy wetlands protect our communities from flooding by slowing down and soaking up runoff and tidal inflow.
Photo credit: Dan Sullivan

A scientific report released just weeks ago confirms that people, societies, and ecosystems around the world are vulnerable to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up in 1988 by the U.N. and the World Meteorological Organization to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessment of climate change and options for adaptation and mitigation. The IPCC recently met in Yokohama, Japan to approve the report, titled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.

The report details the impacts of climate change, the future risks, and the opportunities to reduce risk. It concludes that both our atmosphere and our oceans have warmed, which has diminished ice and snow, causing the sea level to rise.

Sea level rise is a serious threat to the Bay area. According to the Pacific Institute, over $50 billion in property and infrastructure is at risk in the Bay area alone, with estimates of $100 trillion worldwide. In the Bay area, nearly 100 schools and healthcare facilities, 1,780 miles of roads and highways, 270,000 homes, and major infrastructure like our airports, bridges, power plants, and sewage treatment plants are at risk.

This report further reinforces the potential for wetland restoration to help prepare the Bay area for sea level rise. According to the report, “ecosystem-based adaptation is increasingly attracting attention.” The report states that “in coastal areas, the conservation or restoration of habitats (e.g. wetlands) can provide effective measures against storm surge, saline intrusion and coastal erosion by using their physical characteristics, biodiversity, and the ecosystem services they provide as a means for adaptation.”

Save The Bay has worked for years to restore Bay wetlands because we recognize the crucial role they play in the overall health of the Bay. Healthy wetlands filter toxins from polluted runoff, provide habitat for hundreds of species, and protect our communities from flooding and erosion by slowing down and soaking up runoff and tidal inflow. Wetland restoration is an important, multi-benefit, and cost-effective strategy for preparing the Bay area for sea level rise. The IPCC report identifies “the protection and restoration of relevant coastal natural systems…such as salt marshes” and “replacing armored with living shorelines” as two strategies for sea level rise mitigation and adaptation.

This study further confirms what we already knew about the importance of Bay wetlands. Join the thousands of volunteers who come out to the Bay every year to restore our wetlands, one native plant at a time.

Apollo’s Mission to the Bay

The first time Gerry Martinez, a 12th-grader at Apollo High School in East San Jose, came out to the Bay shoreline he was surprised by the number of insects and animals he saw. Before he got up close out on the marsh, he thought it was “so empty and dry, it didn’t look like anything lived there.”

Photo by Nate Bowen. Left to Right: Magally Leanos, Jude Bowen, Jonathan Cisneros, and Monik Sandoval

It’s common for people to be surprised by the teeming life of the tidal marsh. Birds twitter and fly overhead; lizards skitter around; in the mud, tiny hermit crabs dart and dig. Yet, these signs of life are not visible from the Bay Area’s freeways, which is as close as many people ever get to the Bay.

Another student at Apollo, Magally Leanos, said she was surprised by the “piles and piles of trash” out on the marsh, adding that she “didn’t know the Bay was at risk. From a distance it looks so clean.”

Both Gerry and Magally are participants in Save The Bay’s restoration education programs for schools, which teach ecological stewardship and community leadership, using the Bay as a classroom and laboratory. Both students attend Apollo, which helps at-risk students get back on track. Their history teacher, Nate Bowen, says that the science education they get out on their marsh visit is valuable, but what’s even more valuable is that the students come away from the experience with “a sense that they’re contributing.”

Nate said that for urban students like Gerry and Magally, being out in nature is a new experience. Because the students have come out numerous times, they’ve had the opportunity to engage in different restoration activities including planting, weeding, and picking up trash. Nate says, “It’s neat to see the work we’ve done when we come back to the same spot”. When asked what would keep him coming back on his own, Gerry says it’s both the feeling that he’s “part of the community” and the “sense of pride” he gets from helping out.

The students have helped out in very significant ways. During one particular planting event, they worked with a group of other volunteers to plant 827 native plants; they’ve removed bags and bags of invasive weeds; and they’ve picked up trash. Lots of it.

This certainly restores the shoreline, and it also restores the students. Seeing the Bay up close has changed how the students see their environment and their place in it.
Gerry said that although he expected to find some trash, “I realized trash goes through sewers and it surprised me how much garbage ends up in the Bay.”
“Before I didn’t really think about the Bay,” said Magally. “I used to litter. Now when I see trash, I think about the Bay. I think about how it would look if we didn’t do creek cleanups anywhere. I was not aware before. Now I would like to go and help and teach other kids.”

Learn more about our restoration education programs for schools.

Meet Local Hero Florence LaRiviere

Every section of the Bay shoreline has a story….A story of what could have been, a story of future potential, a story of conflict and inspiration. Behind many of these stories is a powerful 90-year-old Palo Alto woman named Florence LaRiviere.

California, Palo Alto, Florence and Phillip LaRiviere, Wildlife Refuge advocates

Florence and her late husband Philip first fell in love with the marshland as a young, married couple. They’d take a picnic down to the water’s edge to near the old Palo Alto Marina with their children to catch a breeze on hot days. They’d watch the tides wave in and out of the cord grass, and feel the gentle breezes. It was their special place, but it was in danger of being paved over and lost forever. Though they weren’t activists at the time, they would spend the next half-decade of their lives fighting for such places.

Some of the protected places we take for granted wouldn’t exist without Florence. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is one such place. The refuge covers 25,902 acres and spans a large part of the South Bay from Redwood City to Fremont. It’s the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country in an area that could easily have become an ugly mass of parking lots, convention centers, and tract housing.
After over 50 years of working on behalf of San Francisco Bay, what advice would Florence give to ordinary citizens who want to make a difference in their communities?

“You need to know what goes on in City Hall. Everyone thinks decisions are made in Washington or California so we elect people to local councils and boards who have no sensitivity to the land. We don’t know how important their votes will be to us and the people who live here after us.”

Take a look at what Florence and fellow citizens have accomplished by acting locally:

• The old Palo Alto Marina and its destructive dredge were shut down, and now that area is the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, which covers approximately 1,940 acres in both Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. Hundreds of species of wildlife live there and it’s considered to be one of the best bird-watching sites on the West Coast.

• LaRiviere marsh near the Don Edwards Visitor Center in Fremont was once a series of crusty salt ponds. Today it’s lush with native marsh plants and home to endangered species like the California clapper rail and hundreds of other migratory birds.

• As the leader of the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, Florence was instrumental in expanding the Refuge boundaries to include Bair Island, the Redwood City salt ponds, and the remaining wetlands into the refuge. The recent restoration and reopening of Bair Island to public access is an inspiring example of what can be accomplished when people work together.

There’s still much more to accomplish. For the past two decades, the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge has been fighting to defeat the City of Newark’s plan to pave over a large section of restorable baylands in the South Bay for an 18-hole golf course and luxury houses. This area is within the expansion boundaries of the Refuge, home to crucial wildlife habitat, and adjacent to a harbor seal pupping site at Mowry Slough. You can help defeat the plan by signing onto our petition Florence asking the Water Board to deny permits for this development.

As Florence says, “If you see something that upsets you, you have to do something about it.”

Drought Puts Planting Season in Jeopardy

Habitat Restoration Volunteers Planting Native Seedlings
Volunteers plant native seedlings along the Bay shoreline.
Photo Credit: Dan Sullivan.

2013 was the driest year on record in California, leaving 87% of California in a severe drought. The drought we’re experiencing is caused by a massive high pressure ridge that has camped out over the eastern Pacific Ocean for 13 months. This ridge is pushing the jet stream that normally delivers our rainfall and snowpack up to Canada.

The State Department of Water Resources is likely to recommend that Governor Brown declare a drought emergency by February 1st. In a meeting with Central Valley farmers and water managers on Monday, Governor Brown responded to drought declaration questions with “not today, but we’re certainly getting ready.”  This declaration could loosen water quality regulations that are meant to protect endangered fish, allowing more water to be delivered throughout the state.

Major Bay Area water agencies are expected to make decisions in the next few months about whether to impose mandatory summer water restrictions. Meanwhile, local water utilities in Sonoma and Marin counties have launched a campaign to educate the public about conserving water. Lake Mendocino, which supplies water to Sonoma County is at 38% of capacity. Reservoirs in the Mokelumne River watershed, which supply most of the East Bay’s water, are still two-thirds full. The ten local reservoirs in Santa Clara County are at 33 percent capacity.

The lack of rainfall is also having a significant impact on Save The Bay’s planting season. Our on-the-ground wetland restoration projects re-establish native plants in the unique transition zone habitat located between Bay water and land. Our Habitat Restoration team and thousands of volunteers restore the wetlands by growing seedlings in our nurseries, sowing the plants along the shoreline, and maintaining the sites by removing invasive weed species and cleaning up trash.

Donna Ball, our Habitat Restoration Director, wrote last year about the difficulty of planting and maintaining 30,000 seedlings without adequate rainfall. We plant during the rainy season because newly installed plants require water to ensure their survival immediately after planting. With an even drier winter so far and an ambitious 40,000 plants to put in the ground by the end of March, this planting season has proven even more challenging. Donna says that “due to the lack of rain this winter, our staff and volunteers have spent more time on watering instead of planting, jeopardizing our ability to plant all 40,000 seedlings.” We need more volunteers to help us get these plants in the ground and keep them watered.

Help us get through this drought with 40,000 healthy plants in the ground and intact by volunteering at one of our habitat restoration events! Visit to sign-up!



UPDATE – January 17, 2014:

Governor Brown has declared a Drought State of Emergency.  In his press release, the Governor said “We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas.”  The Governor called on all Californians “to conserve water in every possible way.”  Please visit the Office of the Governor’s website to view the press release and the language of the Governor’s proclamation.  



UPDATE – January 21, 2014:

“State regulators can now relax water quality standards, allowing rivers and estuaries to be saltier and warmer, as they try to manage the state’s limited supplies.”  A KQED article explains how the drought declaration will loosen environmental regulations.