Facing Down the Threat of Phytophthora


While Save The Bay is known primarily for policy and advocacy work, our restoration and education programs have grown immensely in the past twenty years. In addition to restoring the Bay’s wetland ecosystem by planting transition zone species, we also grow all of the plants ourselves in our native plant nurseries at the MLK Jr. Shoreline in Oakland and the Palo Alto Baylands in the Peninsula.

Each year we typically grow and install 35,000 plants into the ground. And last year we actually surpassed our annual totals by planting 100,000 native seedlings to complete several large-scale restoration projects, including the Horizontal Levee Project at the Oro Loma Sanitary District!

When I first joined the team as the Nursery and Habitat Restoration Fellow at the beginning of 2017, I knew planting native species and teaching students about Bay ecology would be a large part of my job. But, I never thought I’d learn as much as I did about plant disease.

One of the biggest threats native plant nurseries face today is the spread of plant pathogens, partially as a result of increased global trade and transportation. Right now in the Bay Area, the invasive pathogen that is on everyone’s radar is a genus called Phytophthora.

There are currently over 150 different documented species of Phytophthora worldwide, some of which are lethal to many native plant communities in our state. This water mold, or oomycete, causes a plant’s roots to rot which kills the entire organism.

One well-known example is Phytophthora ramorum, or more commonly referred to as Sudden Oak Death, has killed over three million oak trees in California. Another more recently identified species is Phytophthora tentaculata, which was first spotted in California in 2012 on a sticky monkey-flower (Diplacus aurantiacus). Although more research needs to be done, researchers don’t know all of the plants that P. tentaculata can live on, it is highly likely that many California native plants can act as its host.


Unfortunately, the cost of eradicating Phytophthora once it has spread into wildlands is very high and the process is extremely difficult. But, if left untreated and uncontrolled, Phytophthora activity could increase and cause even more harm to native plant communities throughout California. In other words, transmitting Phytophthora to a restoration site would be a worst case scenario. That’s why prevention is key.

In addition to following a set of best management practices recommended by plant pathologists, Save The Bay is now leading a movement to tackle Phytophthora prevention head-on, using innovative and scientific techniques including:

  • reconfiguring our nurseries and updating porous surfaces so everything can be sanitized
  • requiring all nursery visitors to spray the bottoms of their shoes with an isopropyl alcohol solution to avoid tracking in contaminated dirt
  • mobilizing volunteers to help clean the pots used to grow and transplant our native species during community restoration events.

To further reduce the risk of plant-killing pathogens from invading our nurseries, we searched for a clean, uncontaminated soil source to use (ideally before the start of the 2017 planting season). During our search, we quickly realized that a Phytophthora-free soil currently doesn’t exist in the market. So, we decided to start making our own!

Soil BBQ

Together alongside Save The Bay’s Nursery Manager Jessie Olson, we worked together to invent a solution that would allow us to heat large quantities of moist soil at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes with steam — an environment that would kill any present water mold.

33314422745_800736afbe_oUsing a design pioneered by The Watershed Nursery as a guideline, we rigged together parts from a propane barbecue, steel trash can, and other heavy duty materials to create a soil treatment system. You know the cooling process is complete when you smell that fresh and organic compost smell!

Constructing a closed heat treatment system like this, let alone three, is a huge milestone that many nurseries in the region have not yet reached. Although it required some trial and error to assemble and operate (who knew you could cut copper pipe with a PVC pipe cutter?), this was an exciting cutting-edge project for me to be part of.

Best of all, starting this season we will be able to propagate all of our new seedlings in our clean soil! Or put another way, in laymen terms, Save The Bay now has the cleanest dirt in the Bay Area!

Alleviate your wildflower FOMO by the Bay

Carrizo Plain National Monument! Anza Borrego Desert State Park! Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve State National Reserve! Even a Nursery Manager can lose hours in envy, glazing over thousands of seasonal wildflower photos shared on social media. Without the time or means, it can be easy to feel FOMO (fear of missing out) during this extraordinary drought-free year, but our Bay is also home to numerous show-stopping wildflower species that are benefiting from the rain as well.

At Save The Bay’s nurseries, we grow several native species whose flowers are worth seeking out on your exploratory hikes around the Bay. Here are some of my favorite native Bay flowers that are in full bloom now:

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

Eye-catching and charismatic, blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) is found in various plant communities all over California. This blue to purple-flowered perennial is yet another native species with a deceptive common name – it is actually not a grass, but is more closely related to the iris.

Sticky Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus)

In showy bloom all over our restoration sites is sticky monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus), a native shrub species beloved by pollinators and human wildflower enthusiasts alike. Though I like to joke that their blooms are a shade of orange alarmingly close in color to Mac & Cheese, I always appreciate its joyful presence. Sticky monkey flower is extremely drought tolerant, but seems to be appreciating the deep-root watering it received this year. It’s also popular with local pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

California Melic Grass (Melica Californica)

Let us not forget the unassuming inflorescences of some of our native grass species – I know that I am not alone in my love for a remnant coastal prairie. My personal favorite is California melic grass (Melica californica) with its jewel-like, burgundy striped florets.

Purple Needle Grass (Stipa pulchra)

Another beloved species grown in Save The Bay’s nurseries is purple needle grass (Stipa pulchra). This common perennial bunchgrass is not only stunning when viewed in its native plant communities, but it was also crowned our official State grass in 2004. You can spot this grassland species at beautiful Bayfront parks like Coyote Hills Regional Park in Hayward and the Presidio Coastal Bluffs in San Francisco.

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

It wouldn’t be a wildflower report without a shout out to the ubiquitous California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) – our state flower. The genus of this species was named after the German botanist Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz. I recommend spending a minute longer closely studying the poppy this year – it is a remarkably beautiful flower.

But wait, there’s more!

Marsh gumplantEarly spring wildflowers aren’t the only celebrities of our restoration sites! Many species bloom in the summer and fall, providing color to the transition zone and a food source for our animal and insect neighbors during the drier months. I particularly look forward to the cotton candy tufts of our native buckwheat species (Eriogonium nudum and E. fasciculatum) throughout the summer in upland plant communities. 

Last year we were also treated to a stunning floral display from marsh gumplant (Grindelia stricta). This deep yellow, sunflower relative can be seen in the tidal marsh and transition zone, lending cover for protected animal species during high tides.

Sign up for one of our restoration work events to see some of these species in their full glory. You can also catch them earlier in the restoration cycle by aiding our propagation efforts in the nursery in the next few months. We are entering into transplanting season for plants that will be outplanted next winter.


Our Fight for the Bay Continues

Before last Tuesday, I was preparing to send a letter to our Save The Bay community about all of our remarkable accomplishments in 2016.

But I had to rewrite it.

It’s difficult to celebrate local and state successes when we know the environment is about to be under assault here and throughout the nation. I am gravely concerned that the Trump Administration and Congress will attack the Clean Water Act that protects our Bay, deny climate change instead of combating it and adapting to it, and defund the Environmental Protection Agency.

But I’ve faced scary situations like this before and persevered.  So have other experienced leaders on Save The Bay’s staff and board.  So did the brave women who started our movement, by being tenacious and smart and strategic, by enlisting allies and speaking truth to power.  We’re already gathering our colleagues and the partners we’ve gained in business, labor, and local government to continue to fight for the Bay.

What we’ve accomplished this year shows we can succeed by growing our local efforts to have regional and statewide impact. Our work to ban plastic bags spread from one city in 2008 to most cities in the region in just four years, creating the political momentum to pass Proposition 67 banning these bags throughout the state. Because we overcame millions of dollars in plastic industry campaign spending, billions of bags won’t trash our ocean and harm wildlife here, and other states and countries can copy our model.

Our unprecedented nine-county victory on Measure AA in June – $500 million in local taxes to restore thousands of acres of Bay wetlands – took a decade of work by Save The Bay. Again, our leadership can have national impact, as communities around the country ask us how they can apply our model for accelerating climate adaptation with natural infrastructure, without relying solely on the federal government.

Save The Bay isn’t satisfied with these wins, because the Bay faces big threats from climate change and pollution. We’ve set an ambitious Strategic Plan to secure a clean and health Bay for future generations, and added to our political muscle with new methods, broader public outreach, and new partnerships this year. We launched the Save The Bay Action Fund to endorse and pass crucial ballot measures. We started an annual Bay Day celebration that reached more than 2 million Bay Area residents. And we recruited new businesses, elected leaders, and community allies to support our ambitious agenda for the Bay.

We should all be very proud of these accomplishments – they position us to fight and win more progress for the Bay, even though the national election makes our work harder.

I know there are many pressing needs with a Trump administration on the horizon, and I’m especially grateful to those in our community who continue to make Save The Bay a priority. I ask that you continue to support us by donating, volunteering, and answering the call-to-action by standing with us against prominent threats to our Bay. There is a real opportunity ahead of us to continue making progress for the environment, right here at home. We have a beautiful Bay, and together we have the opportunity to make it healthy and vibrant for future generations.


Election 2016: The good news you may have missed

Evening fog blankets the bay_Mike Oria_4.03.15 (800x533)
Sometimes the small victories at home can lead the way in making a big difference for the state and the nation. Photo by Mike Oria.


While the nation reckons with the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in last week’s presidential election, and we begin to make sense of the effects it may have on public policies and budgets in California and the Bay Area, San Francisco Bay supporters have a lot to celebrate in state and local election results.

This year, Save The Bay endorsed a full slate of statewide and local ballot measures to improve the environment and advance environmental justice by reducing major sources of trash that foul our Bay and by upgrading outmoded transportation, housing, and infrastructure.

Our endorsements of Prop 67 (the statewide single-use plastic bag ban), Prop 56 (the increase in the state’s tobacco tax), and 10 local Bay Smart Ballot Measures helped almost all of these measures to victory.

With nearly all the votes counted, Prop 67 passed with 52 percent of the vote (the plastic industry’s deceptive counter-measure, Prop 65 failed with 45 percent). Prop 56 passed with 63 percent support, and nine out of ten local Bay Smart Ballot Measures passed as well.

Building on our success in passing Bay restoration Measure AA in June, Save The Bay’s contribution to these victories is another big advance for our 2020 Strategic Plan.

We have extended our work upstream and upland to address sustainability issues facing our region in ways that benefit San Francisco Bay. Perhaps as important, we have positioned ourselves powerfully to protect our Bay in the uncertain period ahead.

In the next few months, we will be working hard to develop our 2017 state legislative agenda, as well as a focused approach to preserve federal funding and environmental protections for the Bay.

Thanks to you and Save The Bay’s thousands of supporters, we are confident that we will continue making progress to protect and enhance San Francisco Bay in these new and challenging circumstances.

Here are the complete results for the local Bay Smart Ballot Measures that Save The Bay endorsed:

Affordable Housing Measures

  • Measure A1 (Alameda County Bond): $580 million bond for down payment assistance, rental and housing development, preserving homes for low-income and other vulnerable people, preserving affordable rental housing, and preventing tenant displacement.

PASSED: 72.3%-27.7% (2/3 required)

  • Measure K (San Mateo County Tax): 20-year extension of a half-cent sales tax with commitments from the Board of Supervisors to increase investments in affordable housing, focused on seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and working

PASSED: 70%-30%  

  • Measure A (Santa Clara County Bond): $950 million bond to create and maintain affordable homes for the most vulnerable members of Santa Clara County communities, including veterans, seniors, homeless children, and low-income and working

PASSED: 67.3%-32.7% (2/3 required)

Transportation Measures

  • Measure C1 (Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District): 20-year extension of a $96 annual parcel tax necessary to continue providing nearly $30 million per year necessary for safe, reliable, affordable AC Transit bus service for the East Bay.

PASSED: 81.4%-18.6% (2/3 required)

  • Measure B (Santa Clara County Tax): half-cent, 30-year sales tax measure expected to generate $6 billion for transportation projects, including expanding and improving BART and CalTrain; increasing bus frequency; and bike and pedestrian programs to close gaps and improve

PASSED: 71%-29% (2/3 required)

  • Measure RR (BART Bond): $3.5 billion general obligation bond to repair and replace rails, upgrade the train control system to reduce congestion, and improve access to BART with more parking, disabled access, and bike

PASSED:  70.2%-29.8% (2/3 required)

Housing/Transportation Measures

  • Measures J & K (San Francisco): Measure K calls for a 0.75 percent general sales tax increase for 25 years, expected to generate between $150 and $155 million for the General Fund. Measure J establishes new funds and allocation requirements that will provide roughly $100 million for transportation programs (MUNI equity and affordability; transit maintenance and expansion) and $50 million for homelessness

Measure J PASSED: 66.4%-33.6%  

Measure K FAILED: 35%-65%  

Infrastructure Measures

  • Measure KK (Oakland Bond): invests up to $600 million in repaving and repairing streets and sidewalks, improving libraries and parks, and upgrading public safety buildings and fire

PASSED: 82%-18% (2/3 required)

  • Measure T1 (Berkeley Bond): $100 million general obligation bond for infrastructure improvements including streets and sidewalks, storm drains, green infrastructure, parks and recreation centers, and public  buildings.

PASSED: 86.5%-13.5% (2/3 required)

Sunnyvale residents advocating for a plastic-free California

Murphy Street Farmers Market
In Sunnyvale, using reusable bags has turned into a lifestyle rather than just a policy. Photo: Vivian Reed

Present-day Sunnyvale, California is known as “The Heart of Silicon Valley,” but if you walk into any grocery store or stroll through the downtown farmer’s market in this tech town you’ll notice another trend: people carry reusable bags when shopping.

Four years ago, my hometown hopped on the bag ban-wagon, joining our region’s largest cities including San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose in working to address the Bay’s pollution problem.

Before Sunnyvale’s plastic bag ban went into effect in early June 2012, storefronts around town posted signs that read “Did you bring your reusable bags?”

To me this message was more than a friendly reminder—it revealed the city’s commitment to sustainability and curbing urban pollution.

Jessica Aronson supports Prop. 67. because it is the next step to saving our beautiful state.
Jessica Aronson supports Prop. 67. because it is the next step to saving our beautiful state.

My friends and Sunnyvale natives Jessica Aronson and Justin Matsuura were also thrilled about the new change and viewed this ordinance as a natural next step in ensuring a plastic-free California.

Unfortunately, ridding our state of this toxic non-biodegradable trash has turned into a drawn-out multiyear dogfight between California and out-of-state polluters.

So why are Californians forced to decide on a statewide plastic bag ban, again? The answer is simple: the Plastic Bag Industry cares more about making green than going green. That’s why there are two propositions on the November 2016 ballot about the same issue: Proposition 65 and Proposition 67.

Big Plastic has spent millions to fool voters into supporting Prop 65—a very regressive and disingenuous measure that would repeal the state’s existing ban approved by Governor Jerry Brown in 2014.

“It’s so frustrating that we have to fight so hard to protect our planet,” says Aronson. Keeping the bag ban to prevent toxic waste from building up around our homes and in our waterways seems like common sense.”

Having lived in an area where bags are banned, my friends and I know firsthand that transitioning to life without plastic bags is a natural adjustment that also makes you feel good.

On occasion store clerks have thanked and complimented Justin Matsuura for bringing his reusable bags to the store.
Store clerks have thanked and complimented Justin Matsuura for bringing his reusable bags to the store.

“I do feel better about the environment and myself when I pull out my reusable bags instead of using plastic bags,” says Matsuura. “Sometimes it even turns into a conversation starter!”

The simple act of bringing a reusable bag to the store quickly becomes second nature, making the experience of going to a store in a community where disposable bags are still legally distributed feel jarring.

“Traveling to areas without the ban seem bizarre.” Aronson explains, “It reminds me of how much waste people are still creating with single-use bags.”

In the years following the Sunnyvale Bag Ban, hardly any signs reminding shoppers to bring their reusable bags remain. And honestly, there is no real need for them anymore.

More importantly, this local ban has turned plastic bag litter into a problem of the past. A recent study reveals a 100% reduction in the number of single use plastic bags found in municipal trash capture devices. This is good news because stormwater is the largest source of pollution in San Francisco Bay.

Proposition 67 would allow cities throughout California to achieve similar victories in reducing plastic bag pollution. Matsuura believes this initiative will “keep our state trending in renewable, recyclable, and sustainable practices for our future.”

As Californians, we all favor policies that protect the environment and inspire sustainable choices. We also believe that intentionally destroying our environment for financial gain is not okay. That’s why our state’s most credible editorial boards, elected officials, and environmental leaders and organizations including Save The Bay vehemently oppose Proposition 65 and support Prop 67.

Join Jessica, Justin, and me next week in voting for a plastic-free California. It’s time to put the Golden State back on the map as an environmental leader invested not in financial gain, but in preserving this place we call home.

Vote YES on Prop 67 and No on Prop 65 on Nov. 8.

Photo: Vivian Reed

Learn more about the California Bag Ban on Save The Bay’s blog:

Op-Ed: Prop 67 bag ban stakes are global

Bigger than the Bag: the true promise of a state bag ban

Don’t be fooled by Prop 65