Meeting the Challenge of Sea Level Rise

Too often, we let big and complicated (or just plain uncomfortable) issues linger until it’s too late to change.  Call it what you will – the urge to act like an ostrich and stick your head in the sand rather than deal with problems head-on is something innate in each of us.

Threats to our shoreline communities vary dramatically throughout the region.
Threats to our shoreline communities vary dramatically throughout the region.

And that’s part of why it was so refreshing to see over 400 individuals, agency staffers, local elected officials and scientists come together earlier this week for a wide-ranging set of conversations about the challenge of Sea Level Rise to the Bay Area, and San Mateo County specifically.  Supervisor Dave Pine brought together fellow elected officials (including Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Assemblyman Rich Gordon), scientists, agency heads, and other local leaders on the issue.

Here are some significant takeaways from the morning of talks.  You can learn more about the event and presenters here.


We need to start planning now:

Author and Oceanographer John Englander put it best in his talk, we know there will be at least 3 feet of sea level rise throughout the Bay.  We just don’t know – at least not precisely – whether it will take 20 years or 50 years for those projections to become reality.  With that in mind, there’s a strong argument for focusing not on the timeline, but on the level of protection needed to keep our shoreline communities safe, and keep the Bay healthy.  That means we need to start planning now; waiting for more accurate projections will only increase adaptation costs and put more of our shoreline at risk.


Different communities have different needs:

As a region, we’re all over the map.  Some counties have built right up to the shoreline, and are facing deep investments in what’s called “hard infrastructure” – the levees and other flood protection that we’re so used to seeing in New Orleans and elsewhere.  But other communities have significant restoration potential (particularly the South and North Bay), where salt ponds and former wetlands can provide incredible benefits to wildlife and communities by buffering against storm surges, which in turn means levees can be smaller and less costly.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; we will have to be creative in addressing the challenges of sea level rise.


Barriers exist, but none are insurmountable:

More than anything else, panelists (and local elected officials) showed that while there are countless barriers that need to be overcome in coming decades, none are insurmountable. And these barriers must be tackled from the local to the federal level.  Panelists from FEMA  discussed necessary changes to mapping and setting rates for flood insurance,  while the Army Corps of Engineers highlighted new challenges to designing and building much of the levee infrastructure. Both called on local pressure from elected officials and residents to change outdated thinking and plan for the future.  Locally, Supervisor Pine and Sam Schuchat, head of the California Coastal Conservancy, highlighted the opportunities presented by a regional funding strategy they are working on as members of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority.


Adaptation to sea level rise will continue to be a complex issue  filled with significant challenges.  But events like this one in San Mateo are a strong first step in raising the profile of issues like sea level rise, and beginning conversations about how we’re going to address one of the greatest challenges of the coming century.

Trash Dumps and the Hidden History of the Bay Shoreline

Click here to view the interactive map which accompanies this post.

First there were marshes; then there were dumps. The dumps were eventually turned into regulated landfills, and the landfills into shoreline parks.

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.

In 1961, three women mobilized thousands of residents to save the Bay from its path of destruction. Their movement was called Save The Bay, and it sought to stop the filling of the shoreline, the polluting of its waters, and to bring the Bay back from the brink. The movement was a success: one by one, the dumps were closed off, capped with fresh soil, and for the vast majority, turned into parks. There are over a dozen such parks open today, making up some of the most popular open spaces along the Bay shoreline with renowned views of the Bay atop what, unbeknownst to many, is thousands of tons of trash.

Click above to go to an interactive dump map
Click above to go to an interactive dump map

We have come a long way from the Dump Era of last century. Use this interactive map to explore what the Bay used to look like when dumps ruled the land. From a boy’s first bicycle scavenged among the rubble to an all-Italian worker-owned trash company, the stories embedded in this map paint a way of life now buried (though not so deeply) underground.

Take one classic scene from the Dump Era:

Let’s go back 50 year or so and imagine it’s a Saturday morning on the Peninsula. After cleaning out their garages and filling up car trunks…families took a trip to the dump on the Bay. Many came in their expensive cars absolutely loaded with trash, old-timers recall. Once at the dump, socializing began, as residents saw friends and people stood around and talked. Inevitably, a few brought along a bottle of wine. It soon turned into a dump party of sorts, while people scoured around looking at what others had dropped off.  Most cars went home with trunks once again filled from these precious free finds.[2]

Before there were dumps and dump parties, there were wetlands, home to a thriving habitat of flora and fauna. Decades of rampant filling in of shallow areas destroyed 90 percent of San Francisco Bay’s wetlands. Scientists say the Bay needs 100,000 acres of tidal marsh to thrive, more than double that which exists today.

Play your part in contributing to the revival of the Bay. Volunteer at one of our restoration sites.  Get outside and discover up-close the hidden history of the Bay shoreline. Visit one of the dumps-turned-parks featured here and see how far we have come from a time when the stench of garbage pervaded the flatlands and the Bay was best known as a receptacle for residents’ refuse. Take your dog for a walk at San Mateo’s Seal Point Park or bird-watch from Berkeley’s Caesar Chavez Park and you’ll be reminded that our history isn’t behind us – it’s lying right under our feet.

[1]Please note: this map is not exhaustive. If you know of any former dump sites not included, contact

[2] Diamond, Diana.  “Era ending – no more dumps,” Daily Post.  18 July 2011.

Are Butts the New Bottles? NY Proposes Cigarette Butt Redemption Program

A NY Cigarette Butt Redemption Bill stands to keep cigarette butts off the streets and out of the water. If the bill passes, this frog will be one happy croaker. CC image courtesy of Bradley Gordon 2008
A NY Cigarette Butt Redemption Bill stands to keep cigarette butts off the streets and out of the water. If the bill passes, this frog will be one happy croaker.
CC image courtesy of Bradley Gordon 2008

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.  The bill (A3756) will add a 1-cent deposit on every cigarette.  The money generated will fund collection costs of the returned butts as well as an anti-litter public outreach campaign.  The returned butts will be recycled into solvents that prevent rust or raw material for making plastic molds.

The result?  A healthier environment, less litter in the streets, less public funds spent on cleanup of preventable pollution, and the creation of new jobs and new raw materials.  NYC spends up to $500,000 annually in solid waste cost to dispose of cigarette butts alone.  That’s a significant amount the city stands to save were all these butts recycled instead of landfilled or littered.  “The bill saves taxpayer money, creates new jobs, and has a positive environmental impact,” says DenDekker.  “That makes it a win-win.”

Save The Bay has been hard at work preventing pollution in the San Francisco Bay by advocating for polystyrene (“Styrofoam”) and plastic bag bans throughout the region.  Today, more than 50% of Bay Area residents live in communities that have banned plastic bags, and over 30 cities and counties in the area have banned polystyrene food ware in restaurants.  Save The Bay is proud of our accomplishments, but we know that the fight against pollution is far from over.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butt litter accounts for one in every five items collected during cleanups, making it the most prevalent form of litter on earth.  It is estimated that 4.5 trillion cigarette butts, representing 1.7 billion pounds, end up as litter around the world each year.  Cigarette filters are made out of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic which never biodegrades.

San Francisco estimates that it spends a total of 11 million dollars annually cleaning up butts.  Discarded carelessly on city streets and washed straight into the Bay through storm drains, tobacco waste is the most pernicious item to enter bay waters, costing our cities millions of dollars in cleanup, harming local wildlife, and creating a serious eyesore for residents.

Tobacco litter poses a major threat to the health of the San Francisco Bay, and the problem calls for creative and innovative policy solutions like that presented by Assemblyman DenDekker.  At the same time, there are multiple ways you can personally contribute to a more beautiful, healthy, and thriving San Francisco Bay.  If you smoke, always throw your butts away in trash cans and encourage others to do the same; ask your elected officials what they are doing to address the tobacco pollution issue, and join a cleanup day with Save The Bay.

King Tides Foreshadow Rising Seas

A man rides his bike slowly along the flooded bike path at Bothin Marsh, Marin, CA. The flooding is the result of the King Tides this past week.

Due to the slow but steady nature of ocean expansion, sea level rise has a tendency to be dismissed as a far-off predicament, not as an immediate threat. But with seas expected to rise 16 inches in the Bay Area by 2050, flooding 180,000 acres of coastline, the issue is now at our doorstep. Literally.

Last Thursday, sea levels peaked at over 10 feet in some places in the Bay Area during the highest King Tides event of 2012. The tides last week offered us a glimpse into the future of the California coastline: closing roads, flooding parking lots, and threatening to overwhelm levees from Marin to Santa Clara Counties.

A quarterly occurrence that reaches far back in history, the ultra-high King Tides are the result of a strong gravitational pull exerted by the Sun and the Moon – not climate change. But scientists say they offer important insight of how rising sea levels will impact coastal regions in years to come.

The combination of rapidly melting ice sheets and the thermal expansion of the ocean as it absorbs atmospheric and land-generated heat places sea level rise on an unstoppable trajectory that could raise the sea 16 feet in 300 years. Since experts agree that the reversal of rising seas is not possible, the risk for low-lying coastal areas will only increase. In the Bay Area, 81 schools, 11 fire stations, 9 police stations, and 42 healthcare facilities will be underwater or exposed to high flood events by 2100, when seas are expected to rise by 55-inches. Additionally, an estimated 270,000 people in the Bay will be at risk if no adaptive measures are taken – a 98 percent increase of those who are currently at risk.

Our approach to sea level rise must not mimic our approach to one-time natural disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, in which we can recover and rebuild. Instead, the permanence of sea rise calls for a focus on adaption. It is more important than ever to propose plans to avoid the potential disaster of rising waters. One of the best solutions? Tidal marshland.

Tidal marsh and wetland habitat act as sponges during high tides, storm surges, and river flooding. They work to attenuate wave action that contributes to erosion. Since 40 percent of California’s land drains to the San Francisco Bay – contributing to longer-lasting flood events – wetlands have the substantial and crucial task of soaking up water from both land and sea.

Action now to protect and restore the Bay’s wetlands is essential and will help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Many Bay Area residents are becoming part of the solution by volunteering their time to restore these protective marshes. Sign-up to volunteer with Save The Bay’s winter planting season!

Plastic bags are SO 2012

Bag Ban-ometerYou did it! Thanks to your strong show of support for a plastic bag ban in Mountain View, the city council made the right decision for local creeks and the Bay. The ban, which will go into effect on Earth Day (April 22nd), 2013, will eliminate plastic bags at all stores in Mountain View. This is the same policy in place in San Jose, Sunnyvale, San Francisco, and elsewhere throughout the Bay Area. Shoppers can still obtain paper bags at ten cents each or – even better – bring their own bag and avoid any charges!

We are so pleased that Mountain View has taken this important step to protect Bay wildlife and wetlands. Plastic bags are truly going out of style in the Bay Area, and we’ll continue to update you on the latest cities to adopt this regional trend.

Click here to find out which other Bay Area cities have banned plastic bags and Styrofoam.

–Allison Chan, Policy Associate