“Surviving the Storm” by Saving the Bay

Surviving the Storm
The Bay Area Council’s report “Surviving the Storm” estimates that a superstorm in the Bay Area would cause $10.4 billion of damage. Restoring the Bay’s wetlands will help protect our communities from flooding.

Four years into a record-breaking drought, few of us in the Bay Area are worrying about the harm that might happen if we get too much rain all at once, but a newly published report says that we should be.

Last Monday, the business-backed Bay Area Council released “Surviving the Storm,” a study of the economic damage that would occur in the event of the kind of powerful superstorm the Bay Area is expected to suffer once every 150 years, and perhaps more frequently as our region’s climate grows more volatile and we experience increasingly extreme weather due to the effects of climate change.

The study estimates that such a storm, dropping 12 inches of rain in a week, would cause $10.4 billion of damage region-wide, almost as much as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Santa Clara County would suffer the greatest losses – more than $6 billion – while San Mateo and Marin counties would each lose more than $1 billion, and Alameda and Contra Costa counties would each lose about $750 million.

Strikingly, these enormous figures actually understate the potential damage such a storm would cause, as the study’s estimates do not include the costs of repairing the region’s airports and highways, do not account for the significant possibility of levee failure in Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and do not factor in the additional impacts attributable to anticipated sea-level rise of as much as two feet by 2050.

The good news is that this huge risk to our region’s economy is largely preventable, and that accelerating the large scale restoration of San Francisco Bay’s wetlands is a big part of the solution.

One of the report’s key recommendations is to, “Support funding for the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority to restore wetlands and provide associated flood protection,” and the report further features the use of “wetlands and other natural systems to provide reliable and cost-effective flood protection while providing wildlife habitat and other ecosystem benefits.” Such flood protection mechanisms include the use of “horizontal levees” that integrate traditional grey infrastructure with green transition zones so as to enhance flood resiliency, increase habitat diversity, and provide public access to the Bay.

The report’s inclusion of these elements highlights the growing consensus regarding the crucial role that wetlands restoration should play in helping address and adapt to the effects of climate change. Save The Bay Executive Director, David Lewis, commented on the report: “Restoring the Bay will help protect our communities from flooding and promote our region’s economy, all while enhancing water quality and wildlife habitat. This report shows why wetland restoration projects have overwhelming public support.”

Save The Bay is joining the Bay Area Council and other key stakeholders to raise awareness among businesses, elected officials, and community leaders about the potentially devastating consequences of a superstorm driven flood, and the critical role of accelerated, large scale wetlands restoration in protecting our region.

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.


Notes from the Field | Rain, Rain Come and Stay

Mud SnowmanThe last few weeks have been quite soggy around the Bay. From record King Tides to winter storms that packed a punch, Bay Area residents have become well aware that the winter season is upon us. These storms have wreacked havoc on our morning commutes, created the always frustrating soggy sock dilemma, and have even flooded low lying areas around the bay.

But, the Bay needs this super soaking! As a Restoration Project Specialist, I see first-hand how much Save The Bay’s work is dependent on wet weather. The rain means planting season has begun! Volunteers from around the bay have been diligently working to plant native plants in our baylands.

This holiday season is an exciting time to be by the Bay! Volunteers are completing the restoration process that community volunteers, schools, and local businesses have been a part of since the early spring. Volunteers have been there every step of the way–from collecting and sowing seeds, to transplanting and caring for the little seedlings in Save The Bay’s two native plant nurseries.

So as you and your family and friends are coming together during this special time of year, all bundled up next to a nice warm fire and with a cup of hot chocolate, think about how much more you will appreciate the warmth after you come out to one of Save The Bay’s six restoration sites and brave the wintery weather to help us plant a few of the 30,000 seedlings that are just itching to go in the ground. Bring out your family and give back to the Bay! Sign up now and get in on the fun.

–Jack States, Restoration Project Specialist