Earlier this year, the San Francisco Bay/Estuary was named a “Wetland of International Importance” under the 1971 “Ramsar Convention.” The United States is one of 165 parties to the intergovernmental treaty which have committed to work towards the wise use of all their wetlands through national land-use planning, appropriate policies and legislation, and public education.
The San Francisco Bay/Estuary was designated a Wetland of International Importance for the range of ecological services it provides, including flood protection, water quality maintenance, nutrient filtration and cycling, and carbon sequestration, as well as its role as key habitat for a broad suite of flora and fauna, its hemispheric importance for hosting wintering shorebirds, and for being a renowned international tourism destination.
Historically, San Francisco Bay was a thriving estuary supporting thousands of plant and animal species. However, since the mid 1800’s nearly 200,000 acres of Bay wetlands have been filled in, built over, or diked off from the tides. By 1961, 90% of the Bay’s wetlands had disappeared. Scientists agree that the Bay needs at least 100,000 acres of healthy wetland habitat to function effectively. But as of 2012, only 45,000 acres exist.
Scientists from the United Nations and the White House also recommend wetland restoration as a strategy to fight global warming. Tidal salt marshes capture carbon from greenhouse gases in the air and act as sponges, slowing down and soaking up large quantities of water. This natural flood control will reduce the impact of future sea level rise, estimated at 20-55 inches by the end of the century, on our developed shoreline areas. California’s Climate Adaptation Strategy predicts that around $100 billion in structures, their contents, and infrastructure may be at risk of inundation by 2100 and that the cost of constructing the necessary fortifications are likely to be substantial.
A local retired FEMA official warns that “in all flooding events, no levee system can provide full protection to the people and structures behind it, as shown to be the case when levees failed from Hurricane Katrina.” Nearly 300,000 acres of Bay-Delta lands are already below sea level on land that continues to subside, and rely on an aging levee system.
Today we have an opportunity to make San Francisco Bay healthier for wildlife and safer for people by restoring our Bay wetlands. Over 36,000 acres of shoreline property have already been acquired and await restoration, but it takes a village. More than 5,000 volunteers work with Save the Bay annually to restore our Bay shorelines.