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.