Saving the Bay: From Rescue to Restoration

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What’s that stinky creek out there,
Down behind the slum’s back stair,
Sludgy puddle, sad and gray?
Why man, that’s San Francisco Bay!
– “Seventy Miles” by Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger, 1965

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Looking out on the majestic beauty of San Francisco Bay in 2015, it’s hard for many younger and newer residents of the Bay Area to believe that just fifty years ago, Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger were shocked enough by its condition that they memorialized it in song as a “Sludgy puddle, sad and gray.”

Yet, it’s true – half a century ago, the Bay was choked with raw sewage and industrial pollution, and plans were to fill in 60 percent of its remaining area, leaving only a narrow shipping channel in its place.

Fortunately, in 1961, Save The Bay’s founders set out to rescue the Bay from destruction, and helped give birth to our nation’s grassroots environmental movement. Mobilizing thousands of Bay Area residents into action over the course of the decade, these three remarkable women led landmark victories including a moratorium on Bay fill, the closure of more than 30 shoreline garbage dumps, an end to the release of raw sewage, and establishment of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to regulate shoreline development and increase public access to the Bay.

For 55 years, Save The Bay has been occupied primarily with successive versions of our founders’ initial mission to protect the Bay from damaging shoreline development. Along with dedicated local groups, we’ve defeated numerous, hugely destructive plans including: the Santa Fe Railroad Company’s Bay fill scheme to build Berkeley three miles out into the water; David Rockefeller’s surreal fantasy of building a new Manhattan in the Bay with fill from chopping off the top of San Bruno mountain; Mobil Oil’s blueprint for massive development on Bair Island; and SFO’s ill-conceived effort to pave the Bay for runway expansions.

Now, with Cargill’s Redwood City Saltworks proposal on the ropes, and plans to develop Newark Area 4 likely to be rejected by BCDC and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, these last threats to the largest remaining tracts of unprotected, restorable Bay wetlands may soon be overcome.

The next phase of saving the Bay

The first phase of our organization’s history, focused on rescuing the Bay, is now drawing to a close; the next phase of our history, focused on restoring the Bay to full health, is beginning in earnest; and the scale of our challenges and the importance of our work are as enormous as they have ever been.

While Bay restoration has always been integral to Save The Bay’s mission, only now, after many years’ effort, do we have a real opportunity to achieve it on scale and realize our founders’ ultimate vision.

In 1999, a consortium of estuary scientists published the Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals, which established that San Francisco Bay needed 100,000 acres of wetlands to restore and sustain its health. At the time, less than 40,000 acres of Bay wetlands remained, but thanks to the efforts of Save The Bay’s many partners, a similar number of restorable acres had been protected from any further development. Local efforts have managed to restore 5,000 acres of wetlands since then, but the vast majority of protected Bay wetlands are still awaiting restoration.

The biggest challenge has been the lack of sufficient, reliable funding to pursue large scale restoration. With scant annual federal funding – on the order of $5 million per year – and state support limited to one-time injections of bond funds, the price tag of $1.43 billion to restore the acres under protection has been too steep, and efforts to secure additional funding from existing sources have yielded little.

Faced with the quandary of having thousands of acres of restorable wetlands under public ownership without an appropriate source of funds to restore them, Save The Bay moved to change the equation.

Funding Bay restoration on scale

In 2007, we published Greening the Bay, a strategy for financing Bay restoration by establishing a regional special district that would allow the Bay Area to raise the local share of wetlands restoration costs, which could be used to leverage increased state and federal funding to cover the remainder.

That publication and the organizing around it led directly to creation of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, a regional public agency charged with raising the local funds and managing the grants necessary to implement the many restoration projects in the pipeline and begin the long overdue work of restoring the Bay’s wetlands.

Unfortunately, at its very start, the Authority was stalled out by the stark reality of the Great Recession. In the grips of that extraordinary economic downturn, the same Bay Area voters who had consistently and overwhelmingly supported the goal of improving the Bay for both people and wildlife proved unwilling to pay even a small amount in additional taxes to fund the local share of restoration efforts.

Today, the Authority is preparing to propose a small parcel tax to voters in all nine Bay Area counties, to enhance our environment and strengthen our economy at the same time.

  • The June 2016 ballot measure would generate $500 million in new funding for projects to restore thousands of acres of tidal marsh, making the Bay healthier for fish, birds, seals and other threatened marine life. Parcels would be assessed $12 each year for 20 years.
  • The funding would accelerate projects that prevent flooding of residential communities and economic infrastructure, reduce pollution in the Bay, and improve trails for public
  • An April 2015 survey found that a supermajority of Bay Area voters will make an investment to ensure the Bay is clean and healthy. After hearing arguments for and against, 70% would vote in favor of a $12 parcel tax to improve the Bay – more than the 2/3 necessary for passage.

A recent op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News by Save The Bay’s Executive Director, David Lewis, and prominent business leader Andy Ball made the case and the call: Act now to protect San Francisco Bay!

We can make this breakthrough, and restore San Francisco Bay for all the generations to come, but only if Save The Bay’s supporters lead the way, as we have throughout our organization’s history.

We know our supporters are up to the challenge, and in the weeks ahead we’ll be letting you know exactly what you can do to help. Thank you, as always, for all you do to Save The Bay!