Taking the Long View at Bair Island

Inner Bair breach
Bay waters flow into Inner Bair Island culminating decades of community activism and wetland restoration.

The modern environmental movement has sometimes focused on responding to sudden, urgent crises.  Think oil spilling into rivers, species plummeting towards extinction, or toxic chemicals sickening people.

Indeed, Save The Bay was founded in 1961 in response to the alarmingly rapid decline of the San Francisco Bay.  Much of this organization’s early work was to stop the imminent destruction of large portions of the Bay for land “reclamation” purposes.  It was natural and even necessary to think in short-term time frames, so as to quickly react to rapid-fire developments and shifting tactics.

Today, with threats of new bay fill largely eliminated, attention is turning towards confronting the long-term threats to the Bay from climate change and sea level rise.  This increases the importance of careful planning and collaboration amongst various stakeholders to achieve successful restoration and protection of the Bay’s wetlands, which form a crucial defense against damage from extreme weather and encroaching waters.

It also requires working with nature itself, which restores degraded landscapes on a (often gradual) timescale of its own.

Persistence pays off at Bair Island

One timely example illustrating this shifting approach is the Bair Island restoration project in Redwood City, which celebrated a milestone on December 10 when a perimeter levee separating the Bay from Inner Bair Island was breached.  This moment is significant because it marks the completion of the nearly decade-long, $7 million project, some 35 years after the land was under threat of residential and business development.

Historically a flourishing wetland, Bair Island by the 1980s had been used for decades for agriculture and salt evaporation ponds.  In 1982, Mobil Oil owned the land, and wanted to construct a new development called South Shores on Bair Island.  A citizen’s group called Friends of Redwood City quickly arose to oppose this project, and through grassroots campaigning helped stop Mobil’s plans at the ballot box that year.

Since then, a long-running, multi-step process has been underway to complete the circle of ecological restoration at Bair Island.  First, the land was purchased by an entity that would ensure this outcome.  In 1997, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a local land trust, bought the land for $15 million.  In 1999, POST transferred the land to state and federal government agencies for inclusion in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, ensuring its permanent protection.

Then, a restoration plan needed to be crafted and funded.  A key collaborator in this process has been the conservation non-profit Ducks Unlimited, which pieced together much of the funding from government and foundation sources.  Construction began in 2006 and is now finishing up.

Investing for future challenges

Bair Island’s decades-long journey towards rehabilitation shows how complicated restoring ecosystems can be.  Local activists have successfully protected sites like Bair Island from reckless development around the Bay, which now must be restored to wetlands to benefit our region.  Chief among the challenges of accomplishing more projects like this one is finding the needed money.  Funding streams from the government, particularly through federal appropriations, can be unpredictable and inconsistent.  Contributions from foundations and individuals can significantly ebb and flow when the state of the economy changes.

Given this, having a dependable source of money would accelerate the timeline for pending and potential projects.  Like Bair Island, many of these projects could take decades from beginning to end.  So, we need to get to work now to see the benefits by the time sea level rise and climate change becomes more severe later this century, as stated in a recent scientific report.

The San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority (SFBRA) is a regional agency empowered to raise money specifically to fund Bay Area wetland restoration, shoreline improvement, pollution reduction, and flood protection. On January 13, SFBRA will vote on placing a measure on the June 2016 ballot that, if approved, would generate $500 million over two decades through a regional parcel tax.  Passing this measure will allow environmental stakeholders to more quickly and reliably undertake restoration efforts in all nine Bay Area counties.

The main threat to a thriving, productive Bay has changed.  We need long-term plans to address climate change and sea level rise.  Call on the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority to place the Clean and Healthy Bay measure on the June 2016 ballot.

Measure AA: By the Numbers

If you’ve been following our work over the last few years, you’ve likely heard about our effort to secure long-term funding for Bay wetlands restoration. You may have even heard that the effort is gaining momentum and a measure will be on the June 2016 ballot. But what do you know about the Measure AA itself? And how will it impact the Bay?

Let’s break it down by the numbers:

36,000: Number of acres of wetlands sitting in public hands and awaiting funding for restoration. Scientists say that we need 100,000 acres of restored tidal marsh and flatland around the Bay in order to sustain a healthy ecosystem. Today we have only 44,000 acres of restored wetlands. That’s down from 190,000 acres back in 1850. So if we can pass this measure to fund the restoration of those 36,000 acres and perhaps even more, we will be that much closer to the 100,000 marker.

$12: The amount of the parcel tax, per year, that the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority is considering for the June ballot. The tax will fund wetlands restoration activities all around the Bay, including protecting and enhancing habitat, maintaining critical levees that provide habitat and public recreation, and installing critical trash collection facilities near the mouths of creeks that drain into the Bay. That’s only $1 per month to help keep the Bay healthy for future generations to enjoy.

$500 million: The amount of money the tax will bring in over 20 years. That’s $25 million every year. Here is a startling comparison for you: Every year, certain regions of the country receive significant federal funding for restoration activities. In 2014, Puget Sound received $25 million. The Chesapeake Bay received $100 million. The Great Lakes received $300 million. San Francisco Bay? $5 million. That sad fact is one reason why we are reliant on a stream of local and regional funding and why this parcel tax is necessary to help fund restoration activities.

66.6%: Percentage of voters in all nine Bay Area counties – San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, Napa, Sonoma, and Marin – that need to support the measure in order for it to pass. It can fail in any one or more counties as long as the cumulative support is two-thirds, or 66.6%.

55: Inches of sea level rise – more than four feet – that scientists predict for the Bay Area by 2100. That would threaten 89 schools and healthcare facilities, 1780 miles of roads and highways, and 270,000 renters and homeowners who live along the immediate shoreline. Such a rise in sea level would also destroy more than 3,000 acres of wetland habitat. That is unless, of course, we improve our infrastructure and sea level rise adaptation efforts. Wetlands restoration can serve that purpose, providing a natural, cost-effective solution to rising tides by accumulating sediment over time and acting as a buffer against flooding and storm surge.

That’s Measure AA in a nutshell. For just $1 a month, we can act to restore the Bay and make sure it’s clean and resilient for future generations.

Pledge your support for Measure AA Now