Top 5 Posts of 2013

As the blog editor for Save The Bay, I am continually interested in learning which stories most excite readers and inspire them to share with their friends. In 2013, readers loved positive stories about wildlife recovery, anything about Oakland (yay Oakland!), inspiring stories about Bay recovery, fascinating Bay history tales, and even stories about innovative policy solutions to pollution problems. Though these topics are incredibly varied,  one consistent theme runs through all of them:  a sense that a healthier Bay and healthier environment is always possible. As the New Year begins with this incredible sense of hope, and we look back on last year’s accomplishments and forward to next year’s, I’m pleased to share our most popular blog posts from 2013:

Sailing on SF Bay
Photo by Rick Lewis.

River Otter Sighting a Sign of Lake Merritt’s Recovery
“Keep Oakland Fresh” bumper stickers. “Great Lakes” T-shirts, comparing the outlines of Mono Lake, Lake Tahoe and Lake Merritt. Vintage color postcards showing flocks of birds wading in clear blue waters and flying above beautiful green hills. Nearly every candidate who runs for City Council in Oakland has a picture of themselves with Lake Merritt as the backdrop. There’s a reason why: Oaklanders love Lake Merritt.

We received a surprising indication that recent restoration work is making a difference. For the first time in living memory, a river otter was spotted on a dock along the lake’s shoreline. Read more…

After 143 years, Oakland’s Lake Merritt Reunites with the Bay
A gem at the heart of Oakland, Lake Merritt has been many things – the nation’s first wildlife refuge, beloved waterway, sewage-filled cesspool, and even the rumored home to a lake monster. There’s one thing that Lake Merritt has never been, however – and that’s a lake.

What we now call Lake Merritt has for most of the past ten thousand years been a tidal lagoon where the waters of several East Bay creeks met the brackish tides of the Bay. Read more…

Are Butts the New Bottles? NY Proposes Cigarette Butt Redemption Program
New York Assemblymember Michael DenDekker is not one to wait around for easy answers. As a retired NYC Sanitation Worker, DenDekker knows firsthand the scale of America’s tobacco litter problem. And, as a politician, he knows firsthand the impact this litter has on our economy. His solution? Create a redemption program (similar to the current CRV for bottles and cans) to incentivize smokers to properly dispose of their butts. Read more…

Explore the Newly-Opened Trail at Bair Island
Save The Bay was thrilled to join the Redwood City community in a celebration of an important milestone in the nearly-completed restoration of Bair Island. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge celebrated the opening of a new pedestrian bridge, and the first segment of trails accessible to the public since restoration work began in 2007. Read more…

Trash Dumps and the Hidden History of the Bay Shoreline
After the Gold Rush, a full one-third of the San Francisco Bay was diked off or filled in for development. Over three dozen trash dumps (both official and unofficial) lined the Bay shoreline. The public had access to less than six miles of shoreline, but far from being the recreational haven that the Bay Trail is today, the old shoreline greeted visitors with views of a struggling Bay choked with raw sewage and industrial pollution. Read more and view the interactive map…

Weekly Roundup November 1, 2013

Check out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay

Contra Costa Times 10/26/13
Court case, environmental fight continues over planned development in Newark’s Areas 3 and 4
A fight over the development of a swath of land in the southwestern part of town known as Areas 3 and 4 has been reignited as the city updates its plan for the future.
In one corner are city officials, who since 2006 have wanted to construct more than 1,000 homes and a golf course on more than 600 acres of land owned mostly by Newark Partners, a consortium of developers.
In the other corner are some residents and environmental groups who filed suit in 2010 to try to stop the development and have so far done so, although an expected court ruling could change that.
“It’s not a smart place for the city to be building on or sprawling into,” said Josh Sonnenfeld, of the environmental group, Save the Bay. “Most of the region has focused growth around existing transit and infrastructure, but there is no existing infrastructure out there.”
Read more>>

weekly roundup

San Francisco Chronicle 10/27/13
Otter Signals Lake Merritt Ecosystem Comeback
Greg Lewis had just finished his evening row on Oakland’s Lake Merritt when he saw a slick, squirmy, furry bundle hoist itself out of the water and onto the edge of the dock.
It was a river otter, the first one spotted in Lake Merritt in decades.
“I saw his head pop up and saw him pull himself on the dock,” Lewis, 53, of Berkeley, said of the surprise Oct. 6 encounter. “He looked at us, we looked at him for a bit.”
Lewis, who develops air pollution monitors, snapped a few shots, and like that, the animal plopped back into the water and paddled off.
Read more>>

San Francisco Chronicle 10/28/13
Report: Some Chemicals in SF Bay Near Levels of Concern
Pesticides, flame retardants and other chemicals used in homes and businesses have been found in San Francisco Bay at levels that could pose hazards to aquatic life if they go unchecked, according to a new report.
For now, none of the chemicals is present in concentrations alarming enough to be of “high concern,” meaning they are unlikely to cause significant harm to water quality and the bay’s inhabitants, according to the annual report from the Regional Monitoring Program, an environmental group that tracks contaminants in the bay.
Read more>>

North Bay Business Journal 10/28/13
Efforts to Reform CEQA Environmental Law Fizzle
Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law a much-scaled back version of a bill that was aimed at reforming the California Environmental Quality Act, eliciting disappointment from much of the business community across the North Bay.
Despite significant momentum from a number of interests across the state, comprehensive reform of CEQA — perhaps one of the most polarizing laws in the state — fizzled at the close of the last Legislative session, resulting in a much narrower bill that proponents of reform say fails to address systematic abuse and slowed economic development.
Read more>>

Oakland Tribune 10/25/13
White Pelicans Flock to Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge
Being the first wildlife refuge in the nation, the bird sanctuary at Lake Merritt has quite a history of visiting birds.
“Not only are we on a migratory path, but we also house injured and senior birds that can no longer fly with their pack,” says Stephanie Benavidez, the supervising naturalist of the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge since 1974.
Two of their more famous injured birds were Hector and Helen, a pair of American white pelicans that had made Lake Merritt their home until they died at the ages of 27 and 29 years old, respectively. Hector died in 1985 and Helen in 1999.
Read more>>

Contra Costa Times 10/30/13
Fiery Newark Residents Sway Planning Commission Delay Vote on General Plan Environmental Report
A vote to certify the general plan’s final environmental impact report has been pushed back at least two weeks, after a fiery Planning Commission meeting where residents complained the city gave them just a day to review the document.
The draft report was made public Monday and posted on the city’s website, but some residents told the commission on Tuesday they could not access it because the large file kept freezing their computers.”The public’s ability to provide substantive comments during this public hearing are being thwarted because the documents under review were not provided in a timely fashion,” said Carin High, member of the environmental group Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge. “I’ve never encountered a situation before where the public is given only one day.”
Read more>>

Palo Alto Online 11/1/13
Saving the Baylands
Palo Alto Online The Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve marshlands, home to the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse and the California clapper rail, have turned to fall colors of red and gold. Behind the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center, yellowing native Pacific cord grass nods at the channel’s edge, and the succulent pickleweed, which tastes briny and tart, is crimson.
Last week, long-billed dowitchers and godwits pecked at mudflats exposed by the receding tide. The elusive clapper rail did not appear along the watery channel known as “rail alley.” But there were signs: Marks in the mud bank showed where the birds had scooted down to water’s edge from hollows made in the pickleweed. A lone feather clung to a nearby plant.
Read more>>

National Wildlife Refuge System 10/23/13
Seals Making a Comeback on the Farallon Islands
More than a century after fur traders killed them off, northern fur seals have staged an amazing recovery on the Farallon Islands. Starting with the 1996 birth of a fur seal pup on West End Island ¬− the first seal birth in the Farallons in more than 150 years − the northern fur seal population on Farallon National Wildlife Refuge has increased exponentially. Seals have re-colonized the islands, which offer prime habitat − remote, easily accessible by sea and lacking human presence.
Read more>>

River Otter Sighting a Sign of Lake Merritt’s Recovery

This river otter is the first seen in Lake Merritt in recent memory. Are more to come? Photo courtesy of the Rotary Nature Center and Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge.
This river otter is the first seen in Lake Merritt in recent memory. Are more to come? Photo courtesy of the Rotary Nature Center and Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge.

“Keep Oakland Fresh” bumper stickers. “Great Lakes” T-shirts, comparing the outlines of Mono Lake, Lake Tahoe and Lake Merritt. Vintage color postcards showing flocks of birds wading in clear blue waters and flying above beautiful green hills. Nearly every candidate who runs for City Council in Oakland has a picture of themselves with Lake Merritt as the backdrop. There’s a reason why: Oaklanders love Lake Merritt.

Lake Merritt isn’t just in our backyard – it’s also our front yard. It’s where the city gets together to picnic on the weekends, to walk off stress during the week. It’s home to walk-a-thons and fundraisers, the Oakland Running Festival, and Oaklavia – our version of San Francisco’s car-free Sunday Streets.

Like our city as a whole, Lake Merritt has had some tough times. It was listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “impaired water body” in 1999 due to poor water quality. It has had huge algae blooms and has been invaded by hordes of plastic bags and other trash. Years before that, the lake had raw sewage pumped directly into its waters. Over the past century, much of Lake Merritt’s shoreline has been filled in – its wetlands paved over and its connection to the Bay severely constrained. It still has 62 storm drains and culvertized creeks from throughout the city draining into it – bringing all the oil, trash, and other toxins from our streets directly into the lake.

I’ve written about the history of Lake Merritt before. How the lake is really a tidal lagoon, connected to the Bay, and how a group of residents, spurred by a development proposal, crafted an ambitious plan to revive the lake. These plans, funded by Oakland voters in 2002, have led to a major effort by the City of Oakland to widen the channel connecting Lake Merritt to the Bay, carve out new wetlands to help filter toxins out of the water and provide habitat for wildlife, and build much-needed new trails and walkways to benefit the hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy the lake every year.

River Otter Visits Lake Merritt for First Time in Decades

Earlier this month, we received a surprising indication that this restoration work is making a difference. For the first time in living memory, a river otter was spotted on a dock along the lake’s shoreline. River otters have been making a comeback in the Bay, but there have been only a handful of sightings south of the Bay Bridge (click here to see the River Otter Ecology Project’s map).

For those of us who work on Bay conservation, it was a big surprise to hear of a river otter in Lake Merritt. We have seen reports from the Lake Merritt Institute of the decreasing amount of trash in the lake – thanks in large part to the bans on plastic bags and polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers, as well as volunteer efforts and the installation of trash capture devices by the City. We’ve seen with our own eyes the increasing clarity of the water, and the resurgence of wildlife-supporting mudflats as the old 12th Street Bridge and associated culverts were removed, doubling the amount of water flowing between the lake and the Bay and increasing the tidal influence. We know about efforts to restore tidal marshes and even build some floating wetlands. Despite all of this, as an Oaklander and Bay restoration advocate, the river otter spotting still came as a surprise to me.

River otters eat fish, oysters, crabs and even small water birds. They are more commonly seen in fresh water areas like streams, rivers and lakes, and are also a fairly common sight in the California Delta. (Click here to read more facts about river otters). For many years, river otter sightings in the Bay have been limited to the North Bay – especially Marin County. However, more and more the otters have been spotted in other parts of the Bay – including as far south as the sloughs near the Coyote Hills in Fremont. This is the first time an otter has been spotted along the Oakland shoreline.

It’s too early to say whether more river otters will come after this one. (Please, if you see one – do not feed or bother it – keep your distance and keep your dogs away too! Report any sightings to the River Otter Ecology Project.) Whether this was just a lone visitor who stopped by on his or her way elsewhere, or the beginning of what may soon be a permanent group of otters in Lake Merritt, we don’t know.

Restoration Works: River Otters Just One of Several Wildlife Species Returning to the Bay

What we can say is that restoration works. When we restore wetlands and improve water quality – wildlife notice. River otters are not the only species making a comeback in the Bay. Leopard sharks and bat rays have returned in large numbers to restored former salt ponds. Ospreys have also taken a liking to San Francisco Bay, nesting on lampposts and port cranes, and feeding on fish in the restored Napa River and elsewhere. Harbor porpoises have also returned to the Bay after a 65 year absence, and can frequently be spotted underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. What all of these species’ recoveries have in common is a healthier San Francisco Bay.

Much work still has to be done to clean-up Lake Merritt and restore the 100,000 acres of wetlands that scientists insist we need for a healthy Bay. There are still development threats, major water pollution issues (see our latest effort to rid the Bay of the scourge of littered cigarette butts), and many parts of our shoreline still need funds and volunteers so that they can too be restored.

Yet what this lone river otter represents is the potential of not just Lake Merritt – but all of our Bay. For if Lake Merritt – once the very image of a polluted, degraded waterway – can be brought back to life and see a resurgence in wildlife, so can every other part of the Bay.

Congratulations, Oakland. Let’s keep up the momentum.

A river otter on Lake Merritt?

river otter
If you spot a river otter, leave it alone and contact the River Otter Ecology Project. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch. Click this image for more photos.

A couple weeks ago, something pretty unusual was spotted in downtown Oakland. A North American river otter stopped by the Lake Merritt boathouse, posed for a photo, and caused a bit of a stir.

Naturally, the photo found its way onto Facebook and Twitter, and Save The Bay passed it along with a sense of celebration: Huzzah for spunky and adorable Bay critters! Congrats to Oakland for reconnecting the lake to the Bay! Thanks to everyone who works to make the Bay healthy for humans and wildlife!

But then, at the request of one of our environmental partners, we agreed to delete our post from Facebook. Wildlife groups were justifiably concerned about the “Sutro Sam effect”—you know, the phenomenon where a bunch of bozos think it’s okay to approach a wild animal, offer it food, throw stuff to provoke a reaction, and unleash their dogs for uninvited play dates.

In retrospect, I’m not sure what we expected to accomplish by removing our Facebook post. If the otter (Let’s call her Merritt Mary) had decided to take up residence, there would have been no keeping the lid on it. We all know that soon enough there would be viral videos, a Merritt Mary Twitter account, and in all likelihood a parade of people getting all up in Merritt Mary’s face.

The fact is, many of us are generally pretty clueless when it comes to animals in the wild. We tend to imagine them as pets or pests, when we think of them at all. And when it comes to San Francisco Bay, we often forget that beyond the postcard-perfect view, it is first and foremost a habitat for hundreds of amazing species. Otters, sea lions, seals, porpoises, skates, sharks, jellyfish, octopuses, herring, pipefish, rockfish and many others make their home in the Bay. We don’t often see them, so it can be easy to forget that our own bad behaviors affect them every day—from the plastic bags we let escape into the environment to littered toxic cigarette butts we give so little thought to.

Personally, I’m still hoping that Merritt Mary will make her way back to the boathouse and take up residence somewhere just out of onlookers’ reach, like the sly sea lions famously have done over at San Francisco’s Pier 39. We could all use a reminder of the wildlife in our midst, if only to remind us not to be such bozos.

If you spot a river otter in the Bay Area, report your sighting to the River Otter Ecology Project

Floating Wetlands, Coming to a Bay Near You?

Image of potential Lake Merritt floating wetlands
A visualization of the potential floating wetlands that could soon be installed in Lake Merritt. Courtesy of the City of Oakland.

We were excited to hear earlier this month about an innovative new project to tackle water pollution and habitat loss in heavily impaired waterways: human-constructed islands of floating wetlands.

Community groups in the City of Baltimore recently installed these floating wetlands in the city’s highly-urbanized inner harbor. Made out of previously-littered plastic bottles collected from the harbor itself, the volunteers planted 2,000 square feet of floating islands with native marsh plants, launching them into a waterway that is too polluted for human contact 73% of the time. (Click here to watch a video of Baltimore’s floating wetlands being installed in the Chesapeake Bay)

The marsh plants will help to filter pollutants out of the water and provide habitat for a variety of species including crabs, mussels, herons and perch. Beyond these benefits, the floating wetlands provide an invaluable educational tool to the community. They remind residents what the shoreline used to look like, and that the Bay is not just a place for cigarette butts, plastic bags, and car oil – but an ecosystem that needs our help and attention.

Next Stop: Oakland’s Lake Merritt?

We know that protecting our shorelines from development and restoring them back to naturally-functioning tidal marsh should always be our priority. Unfortunately, there are some areas of the San Francisco Bay that are so significantly altered – with tidelands paved over by urban development, and the ecosystem highly polluted and degraded – that options for habitat creation are limited.

One of those areas is Oakland’s Lake Merritt – a tidal lagoon that is in the midst of an impressive effort by the City to reconnect the waterway with the Bay, restore tidal marsh and improve public access and park space.

The natural marshes along the Lake’s shoreline have long since been filled in with roadways, housing, offices, a convention center and more. The channel connecting the Lake to the Bay had been narrowed considerably over the past century, with the tides eventually forced through a series of culverts, further constricting flows. Perhaps most damaging, 62 storm drains, from throughout Oakland, were routed directly into the Lake, bringing with them car oil, trash and other pollutants from the city’s streets. The result: what had once been the first wildlife refuge in the United States in 1870, became listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “impaired water body” in 1999.

Since then, the City of Oakland has worked hard, alongside dedicated residents and the Lake Merritt Institute, in improving the health of the Lake. Several large water fountains were installed to get more oxygen into the water to support aquatic species. The City, thanks to local funding approved by Oakland voters, has completed an historic project to take out the old culverts, widen the channel connecting the Lake to the Bay, re-design the nearby roadways to slow traffic and increase parkland, and carve out 3 acres of new wetlands. (Click here to read our blog on the history of Lake Merritt and learn more about the major projects underway)

However, future wetland restoration around Lake Merritt is limited by the highly urbanized shoreline – the fact that so much of the former mudflat and tidal marsh areas have been filled in and developed.

Rather than let the constraints stop continued progress on bringing back the health of the Lake, staff with the City of Oakland are currently designing a large track of floating wetlands –similar to those developed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – to be installed in the Lake in years to come. While staffers are still determining the size, plants and anchoring material, early visualizations show a long, curved expanse of marsh, floating along the shoreline of the Lake near stormwater outfalls.

Rebecca Tuden, Watershed Specialist with the City of Oakland, notes that they are currently looking at this as a pilot program, which should provide benefits to water quality including improved oxygen and the uptake of harmful pollutants that make their way to the Lake from city streets. The floating wetland would also offer habitat for benthic species – critters at the base of the food web that support fish, birds and other wildlife.

While floating wetlands will never replace the need to restore our natural shorelines, we are encouraged by their potential benefits to water quality and species at the base of the food system, and most importantly, the educational value they provide for local communities. If we can begin to think about our local waterways as an exciting ecosystem full of opportunities for improvement, rather than a trash-filled cesspool, that will make a big difference for what our Bay’s future looks like.

This Sunday, the City of Oakland is teaming up with the Measure DD Community Coalition, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition and others to organize “Love Our Lake Day” – a celebration of the grand opening of the new trails, wetlands, and re-configured roadways at Lake Merritt. 3 miles of streets around Lake Merritt will be closed to car traffic, allowing walkers and bikers to enjoy the improvements to the area. Visits for more information, and make sure to stop by the Save The Bay table in Snow Park!