Sandy… Can it Happen Here? Healthy Tidal Marsh Can Protect Bay Area Communities from Extreme Weather

Sandy flooding
Healthy tidal marsh can protect Bay Area communities from flooding during extreme storms like Sandy. Photo of taxis in Hoboken, New Jersey via flickr.com/ThatHartfordGuy

One year after Sandy, New York continues to rebuild while planning for the future. City planners are weighing strategies to protect their shores from future storms and sea level rise; natural solutions such as wetland restoration may figure prominently into their plans. While wetland restoration holds promise, the New York shoreline is so developed that there are currently few large expanses of wetlands to buffer storms.

The Bay Area too is at risk of flooding from sea level rise, yet we are lucky to live in a place with tens of thousands of acres of restorable wetlands around the Bay shoreline. We’re working hard to restore 100,000 acres of wetlands to protect our communities from sea level rise. As we reflect on the anniversary of Sandy, let’s also recognize how lucky we are as a region to have solutions within our grasp. Please share this post with a friend or leave a comment with your reflections on Sandy.

All of us at Save The Bay are sending our thoughts to the millions of people on the East Coast who are impacted by the devastating and unprecedented superstorm Sandy.

Here in the Bay Area, we have experienced the devastation of earthquakes.  And severe flooding during the rainy season impacts some communities around the Bay.  But as the climate change warming trends continue, many scientists are saying that extreme weather events are here to stay. Unfortunately, it is probably not a matter of if, but when the Bay Area will be faced with widespread and severe flooding from an event like Sandy or Hurricane Katrina.

The good news is that by investing today in restoring more natural wetlands and repairing damaged levees, the Bay Area can reduce the risk of severe flooding, save money, and help keep our communities safe.

Over generations, unchecked bay fill destroyed 90 percent of San Francisco Bay’s original wetlands, or tidal marsh.   Studies have shown that healthy tidal marshes can keep pace with modest sea level rise – they build up sediment and establish vegetation, creating buffers against rising seas. They act as natural barriers to storm surge and extreme high tides, protecting wildlife and shoreline communities.  Bay wetlands also filter toxic runoff pollution to improve water quality, prevent shoreline erosion, and provide food and shelter to 500 species of wildlife including seals, sea lions and pelicans.

Today, our Bay shoreline is low-lying and heavily developed.  More than $100 billion in California homes, businesses, and crucial infrastructure is at risk from flooding: ports, airports, bridges, freeways, even entire communities are at or below sea level. And two-thirds of that risk is here in the Bay Area.

Sea level rise will worsen the impact from storms. Scientists and the State of California estimate that the sea level could rise 16 inches in the next 40 years and 55 inches by 2100.

Significant sea rise would overwhelm levees that surround San Francisco Bay. Facebook, Google, Yahoo and other major Silicon Valley corporations could be flooded, along with thousands of homes around the Bay Area. Portions of major freeways could be underwater.

Scientists recommend that at least 100,000 acres tidal marsh be re-established to support a healthy, sustainable Bay into the future.  However, only about half of that habitat exists. The Bay’s restorable wetlands will not return to tidal marsh in our lifetime without money, manpower, and political support.  Climate change makes this goal even more relevant and urgent.