The Entire Bay-Delta System Under One Roof

Tucked away in an out-of-the-way spot in Sausalito sits an unlikely tourist attraction. A recent rainy weekend provided just the opportunity I was looking for to visit the Bay Model, a 1.5 acre hydraulic scale model of San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Funny thing: It wasn’t built as a tourist attraction. It was built by the Army Corps of Engineers as a simulator to study the effects of massive engineering projects on the Bay.


Now it’s something of a below-the-radar destination for water geeks, engineering history buffs, and random tourists from around the world–around 200,000 of them a year. Housed in a squat 1950s utilitarian building, the place has the no-frills vibe of a mess hall. In today’s era of museums that have to showcase a blingy plethora of multi-media displays to be relevant, the place is a bit of a weird throwback—in a good way.

Even more surprising is the project the model was built to study in the first place: The Corps built the Bay Model in1957 to study an audacious plan by amateur hydraulic engineer, John Reber (who also worked as an actor, theatrical producer, and schoolteacher) to construct two massive dams in the San Francisco Bay roughly where the Richmond-San Rafael and Bay Bridges sit. The dams were supposed to divert and store water from the Delta to create two freshwater lakes that would serve as a drinking supply for the area’s burgeoning population. Atop the dams would be highways and railroad lines and surrounding the lakes would be land that would be developed for industrial uses.

The plan was killed after the model showed it wasn’t workable and would have destroyed the Bay. But, before the model was decommissioned in 2000 to be repurposed as an educational resource, the Corps used it to study many other potential human impacts on the Bay. The model can simulate 24 hours of tides and currents on the Bay in a 14 minute cycle, as well as the mixing of fresh and salt water and the migration of sediment. All of this allowed the Corps to assess the impact of dredging, bay fill, water diversions, and how hazardous spills would potentially travel throughout the system.

It struck me as ironic that a model that was built to study a project that would have destroyed the Bay, could actually play a role in saving it. This is because the Bay Model is one of the few places the public can learn that the Delta and Bay are an integrated and interdependent ecosystem. A poll in late 2012 showed that 78 percent of Californians don’t know what the Delta is, where it is, or what it does.  Actually, the water the Delta carries to farms and cities and out into the Bay is critical to the state’s agriculture and economy, supplies the drinking water for many Californians, and is vitally important to the Bay’s health.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is essentially a network of canals separated by levees and islands that were created by draining native marshlands to grow crops. The Delta network carries fresh water from mountain rivers and streams and diverts it to cities and farms on its way out into San Francisco Bay and the ocean. Fresh water flow from the Delta is critical to the health of the Bay ecosystem. Understanding the watershed as a system is especially important right now, when California is in a severe drought and policymakers are grappling with the problem of providing water for an ever-thirsty state, without destroying the ecosystem that sustains all of us.

If you go, admission is free but you should definitely spring for the $3 audio tour. Without it you’ll be missing the context that makes the Bay Model a fascinating place to spend an afternoon.

A History of Bay Area Water Usage

Ohlone people using tule boats to navigate the waters of the San Francisco Bay.

Despite recent rainstorms, California is experiencing a severe drought. With the abundance of photos on social media, news articles, and nightly news coverage on the subject, the drought has been on my mind for quite some time. As someone who enjoys thinking about how humans interact with our environment, this drought got me thinking about how Bay Area residents have used water throughout time.

Over 8,000 years ago, the Ohlone people became the first human inhabitants of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Ohlone people lived in Northern California from the most northern point of the San Francisco Bay down to Big Sur in Monterey County. Since the Ohlone people lived a semi-nomadic life, they typically built their community villages near reliable sources of fresh water and moved when the seasons changed. Water was primarily used for drinking, bathing, and fishing.

In order to efficiently travel, the Ohlone people used a series of innovative boats made of bundled tule reeds to navigate the waters of the San Francisco Bay. When the seasons changed, the Ohlone people moved to smaller villages and camps to be near newly available plant and animal resources. Using functional land management practices, the Ohlone people would burn the brushy hillsides each year to encourage new plants to grow and have animals that fed on them. Today, Ohlone descendants are reclaiming the customs and traditions of their ancestors.

The population of the San Francisco Bay Area has changed dramatically since the Ohlone first settled along the shores of our beloved estuary. During the Gold Rush, San Francisco grew from a small settlement of 200 residents to a booming city of 36,000 residents in just 6 years. In order to supply enough fresh water for Bay Area residents, the state of California issued a series of dam building projects to provide fresh drinking water to the growing population. Today, there are approximately 1,400 dams in the state of California, with the majority of them located in the Northern and Central Coast.

Over the past 150 years, we have dramatically engineered our natural resources to accommodate a society whose members remain in one place. Unlike the original Bay Area residents, we can’t move with the seasons to find new sources of water. We have established a permanent society here, so it is in our best interest to protect and conserve these unique natural resources for as long as possible.

News of the Bay: March 14, 2014

Check out this edition of News of the Bay for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay

National Wildlife 1/27/14

Harbor Porpoises’ Remarkable Return
On a blustery California August day, researchers are studying some of San Francisco’s least-known residents from an unlikely laboratory: the Golden Gate Bridge. Below in the bay glides a parade of boats—fishing vessels, a tall ship, a slow container barge packed with colorful boxes like giant Legos. Behind the scientists, tourists pause to snap pictures, unaware of the ongoing hunt. Through binoculars, Bill Keener suddenly spots his quarry: a harbor porpoise, its dark gray dorsal fin appearing briefly before resubmerging. Keener predicts the porpoise’s course and, just as it surfaces again, photographs the animal before it disappears. “Got it,” he declares triumphantly.
Read more>>

News of the Bay

Daily Camera 3/8/14
Boulder: Disposable bag use down 68 percent in wake of 10-cent fee
Six months after Boulder instituted a 10-cent fee on disposable grocery bags, use of plastic and paper bags has fallen 68 percent, city officials said.
That figure is based on a comparison of estimated bag use before the fee was implemented in July and the number of bags paid for by shoppers in the last six months, said Jamie Harkins, business sustainability specialist for the city.
Read more>>

Sacramento Bee 3/10/14
E-cigarettes face restrictions as cities update smoking ordinances
The electronic cigarettes flooding the U.S. market don’t technically emit smoke, but many cities have decided they’re not much different from ordinary cigarettes.
Last week, Rancho Cordova became the latest local government to pursue restrictions on e-cigarettes; the City Council directed staff members to treat them like regular smokes when they draft amendments to city code sections governing smoking. The Los Angeles City Council also voted last week to restrict e-cigarette use where tobacco smoking is restricted, including restaurants, parks, bars, nightclubs, beaches and workplaces. Similar measures have been approved in a number of Bay Area cities, along with New York and Chicago.
Read more>>

Reuters 3/13/14
In drought-stricken California court rules smelt fish get water
A California appeals court sided with environmentalists over growers on Thursday and upheld federal guidelines that limit water diversions to protect Delta smelt, in a battle over how the state will cope with its worst drought in a century.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court should not have overturned recommendations that the state reduce exports of water from north to south California. The plan leaves more water in the Sacramento Delta for the finger-sized fish and have been blamed for exacerbating the effects of drought for humans.
Read more>>

Drought: Rain fell, but where did the water go?

Rain fell, but where did it go?  Photo Credit: Brandon Doran
Rain fell, but where did it go?
Photo Credit: Brandon Doran

The past week or so brought much needed rain to Northern California. But where did all that water go? Unfortunately, here in the Bay area most of it ran out to the Bay through the storm drain system, carrying trash and pollution with it.

There is a disconnect between how we manage water for flood control, quality, and supply. The goal of flood control systems is to remove water from our roads and urban areas as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this water is carrying a significant amount of pollution with it, degrading water quality in local waterways and the Bay. We are also experiencing a drought, and yet we are allowing runoff from our city streets to flow through our storm drains and out to the Bay rather than putting that water to beneficial use.


Before we urbanized the landscape of Northern California, rain water soaked into the ground where it fell, recharging groundwater. Now that the land is covered in impervious surfaces like asphalt and buildings, our cities have created a network of storm drains to carry water from our urban streets to nearby creeks that flow out to the Bay. However, flooding still occurs when trash, leaves and other debris clog storm drains, or when the local waterways become overwhelmed by the sudden and drastic increase in water flowing in from storm drains.


Because of the risk of flooding, storm water policies have focused on removing water from city streets and urban areas as quickly as possible, which means water flows directly into the waterways without treatment. As a result, pollutants like heavy metals, oils, pet waste, and trash are carried by the storm water into our waterways. This is why Save The Bay has prioritized stopping trash pollution at the source, working with cities and counties throughout the Bay Area to ban plastic bags and Styrofoam. We have also turned our attention to cigarette butts which are commonly littered on streets and sidewalks near storm drains.

Beneficial Use

There are better ways to prevent our urban areas from flooding than sending all the water, and the pollutants picked up along the way, out to the Bay and ocean. We depend on the streams and rivers of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to deliver water to the entire state even though rain falls throughout the state. The state of California is facing both a drought and groundwater depletion; we should be thinking more comprehensively about water supply solutions.

As water simply soaks into soil, pollutants are filtered out. This clean water then soaks into our groundwater system, replenishing water that we remove through wells and pumps. Homes have gutter systems that remove rooftop water and direct it out of a single pipe. If this pipe drains onto an impervious surface like a sidewalk or driveway, the water will run into the storm drain. If the pipe drains onto dirt or grass, the water is soaked into the ground, replenishing groundwater. Better yet, this water can be captured in barrels to use for watering plants during dry days. On a larger scale, the same concepts can be used for larger buildings and structures, or larger pieces of land like city parks. Another option is to create more permeable space, including paving streets with porous asphalt, green roofs, and more open space like parks.

Luckily, California legislators and policy makers are currently working to address the many water related issues facing the state, and are taking a more comprehensive approach. For example, Senator Wolk’s water bond bill, SB 848, includes $500 million for storm water capture and reuse projects. These projects are essential to improving water quality and can increase water supply. We’ll have to wait and see what decision makers will agree upon to address the significant water issues facing the state, but one thing is for sure; doing nothing is no longer an option.


Save The Bay’s Habitat Restoration Team adapts to severe drought

The lack of rain has severely impacted our planting season.
The lack of rain has severely impacted our planting season.

Did anyone notice that wet stuff coming out of the sky over the weekend? That inch of rain brought all bay area residents some hope, but California will need much much more. So while the Midwest, east coast and even the south are experiencing polar vortices and freezing artic storms, out west we are baking under 80 degree weather.

The drought, now officially designated by Governor Brown, has become THE topic of conversation. From farmers in the central valley to ski resorts in the Sierra Nevada everyone seems to be feeling the effects of this drought.

The lack of rain has certainly affected Save The Bay’s community-based habitat restoration programs. If you have signed to volunteer with us recently, you may have noticed a disclaimer that reads: Attention volunteers! Please note that due to the drought, all restoration activities are subject to change. 

The winter marks the most exciting time of the year for the thousands of volunteers who have worked so hard to remove invasive species and grow native plants for our restoration sites. During this stage of the restoration cycle, volunteers and restoration staff work together to plant 40,000 native seedlings along the Bay shoreline. But after two months of negligible rain the planting season has ground to a screeching halt. Instead of spending my days planting with volunteers, the drought has forced me to focus on watering the plants that have already been planted.

Jon Backus, Save The Bay’s Restoration Project Manager explained the difficulties to a recent volunteer, “We depend on the winter rains for supplemental watering after the volunteers have planted. The lack of rain has created a daunting task. We have 6 restoration sites around the Bay and thousands of little seedlings that are struggling through this dry weather.

In order to reach our goals for the year and give the plants the best chance of survival Save The Bay’s Restoration team has become a mobile rain cloud, driving around to our various sites with hundreds of gallons of water in tow. Instead of having volunteers plant 1,000 plants during a program we stick with a more manageable goal. Quality over quantity is our mantra.

Many volunteers are surprised at the amount of water we are giving the seedlings. The common misconception is that because a plant is a California native or drought tolerant that the lack of rain will not be a problem. But, the reality is that even drought tolerant plants need water to become established. It can take up to 5 months for a little seedling to take root, especially in the degraded soils that we are trying to restore.

Even with some sprinkles in the forecast for this week, the only way to ensure the survival of our remaining plants is to hold them over for another year. Instead of planting, some volunteers will be giving the plants more room to grow by transplanting them into larger containers. With our nurseries already full I encourage any tetris or jigsaw puzzle champions to join in helping us fit these plants AND the new plants for next season! In the meantime let’s keep our fingers crossed and those rain dancin’ shoes on and maybe mother nature will surprise us.

We need your help more than ever during this dry winter. Sign up to volunteer with us this season.