Welcome Paul Ledesma, our new Regional Political Organizer

Paul Ledesma, Regional Political Organizer for Save The Bay
Paul Ledesma, Regional Political Organizer for Save The Bay

My earliest memories of Penitencia Creek include playing on the ruins of the turn-of-the-century mineral baths.

One of my favorite pastimes was searching for crawdads in the creek as it flowed through Alum Rock Park in San Jose. At that time, the area was surrounded by orchards and pasture lands that were disappearing vestiges of the Santa Clara Valley, and on the verge of being rechristened Silicon Valley.

The Valley’s constant and rapid change is what I most remember.

In 1961, the year I was born, San Jose had a population of just over 200,000. Today, over a million people call it home. As the city sprawled towards the foothills, the pastures and orchards disappeared.

Seeing such dramatic change during my childhood left me with the desire to better understand the forces at play that could cause such a transformation. Eventually, this preoccupation became a vocation, born out of an aspiration to help preserve the City’s undeveloped riparian corridors.

For the last 25 years, I have had a rewarding career managing environmental programs at the cities of San Jose and San Francisco where I worked on watershed protection, zero waste, and clean energy programs. At Save The Bay I want to apply the lessons learned from working in local government to my new role, advocating for higher standards, improved funding, and more oversight of the watersheds that drain into the Bay.

As Save The Bay’s new Regional Political Organizer, I’ll be working with Bay Area local governments and community partners in support of our new Bay Smart Communities program and our ongoing efforts to make Bay restoration a core element of climate change adaption policies across the region.

I am thrilled to join the policy team at Save The Bay.

When I was in local government, I relied on Save The Bay’s advocacy to amplify the City’s messages regarding watershed protection and reach into the community in a way that I couldn’t as a city staff person. The objectives of local governments and that of Save The Bay won’t always line up, no matter how hard we try. But, what I’ve learned from my time at City Hall is that the kind of collective impact needed to protect and restore San Francisco Bay doesn’t always require stakeholders’ objectives to align perfectly.

It just requires that we all share a core vision and keep traveling in the same direction.

Restoring the Bay: Ecology + Advocacy

Jon and Beckie _03-min
Climate Change Policy Campaign Manager Beckie Zisser (left) works with partners and policymakers to secure large-scale, sustainable funding for Bay restoration projects. Jon Backus (right) manages Save The Bay’s field specialists and community volunteers, who turn shoreline and man-made levee sites around the Bay into healthy tidal marsh habitat.

“Restoration” means creating healthy, vibrant ecosystems that provide important services to both wildlife and people. Save The Bay’s restoration work is powerful because we integrate on-the-ground habitat work with political advocacy for large-scale change.

Our Climate Change Campaign manager Beckie Zisser and Habitat Restoration Manager Jon Backus share what restoration means from both of these perspectives:

Jon: Save The Bay’s Habitat Restoration Team works with community volunteers to restore crucial transition zone habitat around the San Francisco Bay. Due to rampant filling of the shallow Bay edge, and conversion of marshes into salt ponds and agricultural land, the San Francisco Bay has lost 90% of the historic marsh habitat. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Now that people are aware of the critical importance of marshes for wildlife habitat, filtration of Bay water, and flood protection in the face of rising seas, there are large scale efforts to restore marsh habitat around the Bay.  Our volunteers, comprised of students, companies, and the public, help us to remove invasive species and plant California native plants that historically grew along the Bay shoreline.

Beckie: On the advocacy side, our team promotes sound policies that protect and enhance the health of the Bay so that it’s preserved for future generations. I reach out to elected officials, their staff members, and other decision-makers to share why restoring Bay wetlands is so important: protecting wildlife, enhancing water quality, and public access are some of the biggest reasons. It’s my goal to spread the message about how important this restoration work is for our region and to help secure new local, state, and federal funding for those activities.

Both on the shoreline and in the policy world, the key to success is applying the restoration expertise of Save The Bay and its partners on a scale where we can truly make a difference:

Jon: In addition to maintaining and continuing our work at our six restoration sites around the Bay, we are preparing to plant 70,000 native plants at the Oro Loma Sanitary district for a groundbreaking pilot project involving a constructed wetland and horizontal levee that will both store and treat wastewater while also providing native habitat. We are also planting 20,000 plants in sensitive habitat of former salt ponds at Eden Landing Ecological reserve, part of the South Bay Salt Pond Resotration Project.

Beckie: My most pressing and exciting work right now is in support of the Clean and Healthy Bay ballot measure that would fund long-term wetland restoration—not the great work Jon and his team are doing, but many large-scale projects around the Bay. I’m working to make sure this measure gets on the June 2016 ballot. It’s a $12 parcel tax in all nine Bay Area counties, and it would raise $500 million over 20 years. It would be the first real, region-wide commitment to protecting our Bay for future generations.

The political and ecological opportunities we face today are enormous, but climate disruption and extreme weather make the situation on the Bay an urgent one.

Beckie: We know the climate is changing, and we have already seen its effects on the Bay: Warmer waters, more extreme weather that exacerbates our droughts and influences freshwater flow from the Delta, and rising water acidity. Long term, my goal is to elevate the conversation about how climate change impacts the Bay.

Jon: Our biggest challenge to restoring habitat around the Bay is the ongoing drought. Whenever a seedling is planted, even a native, drought tolerant plant, the seedling needs water to establish a healthy root system. It is impossible to hand-water the tens of thousands of plants we install, and we need winter rains to water our seedlings. We are all hoping this year’s predicted El Niño will bring much needed rain for plants and people alike. At the same time, an extreme El Niño—and a warming climate in the years ahead—will bring a different set of problems, including tidal surges that will have huge impacts on communities built at or near the Bay’s shoreline. The marshes we are working so hard to restore, if done on a large enough scale, would work similar to a giant sponge, providing a buffer and natural protection for our communities from the threat of rising sea levels.

Our work is about the future of the Bay—and the Bay Area.

Jon: What inspires me about Save The Bay’s habitat restoration program is the tangible results of our restoration efforts combined with engaging community members around the Bay. It gives me hope to see families, schools, and businesses working together to bring back lost habitat for the well-being of both wildlife and Bay Area residents.  To me that shows how much we care about this place we call home, and how dedicated our region is to saving it for generations to come.

Beckie: It’s so clear to me from my work that people want to do what it takes to protect the Bay. That should give us all hope. In the Bay Area, people are clearly concerned about climate change and its effects on our planet and our livelihoods. I just think many people are at a loss as to what they can do about it. In the face of the stalling and denial that comes from some of our elected leaders, that’s understandable. If residents of the Bay Area support the Clean and Healthy Bay ballot measure in June, our region will have a solid base of funding to work toward real, tangible solutions to the biggest ecological threat of our time.

Getting to Zero Trash

Trash fills Coyote Creek in San Jose at William Street Park, Photo by Vivian Reed

Trash has plagued the Bay since landfills ringed its shoreline in the 1950’s and 60’s. Times have changed, but according to the agency tasked with protecting water quality in the Bay, not enough progress has been made.

At the Regional Water Quality Control Board’s meeting a couple weeks ago, Board members discussed the effectiveness of a 5-year-old policy that requires cities to drastically reduce the flow of pollutants into their storm drains, which connect directly to creeks and the Bay. Trash was the main topic, and the discussion focused on how to improve the policy to ensure that trash in the Bay is eliminated by 2022. Save The Bay has been tracking progress since the policy went into effect in 2010, and unfortunately we’re not convinced that much has changed.

Stronger policies needed

Part of the problem is the lack of clear requirements for determining how much trash ends up in local creeks or along the Bay shoreline. How will cities, the Water Board, or the public know if our efforts to reduce trash are working if no one is collecting data in and around the water? Another concern is the lack of consequences for cities that don’t demonstrate major trash reductions. Some cities are working very hard to reduce trash through activities like street sweeping, maintenance crews in commercial areas, promptly collecting illegally dumped materials, and organizing community trash clean-ups. Inconsistent effort among cities must be discouraged to truly reduce trash throughout our region.

Luckily, the Water Board voiced these same concerns at the meeting and asked their staff to come back with a better, stronger policy. Board Member Jim McGrath stated that the region is nowhere near a 40% reduction in trash (which was supposed to have been achieved in 2014) and the Board Chair, Terry Young, made it clear that future failures to meet mandatory reductions will not be tolerated—the next one is a 70% reduction by 2017.

While trash remains a serious threat to the Bay, the leadership demonstrated by the Water Board gives us hope. For our part, Save The Bay will continue to advocate for a strong policy while also working to support cities in their efforts. At the meeting, many city representatives spoke of the difficulty in securing resources to implement solutions—that’s why YOUR voice is so important. Tell your elected officials to do everything they can to keep trash out of our neighborhoods and storm drains. Talk to your local businesses about keeping their sidewalks clean. Take the Zero Trash pledge to stay up-to-date on future opportunities to advocate for a trash-free Bay.