Report: The Baylands and Climate Change

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The Baylands and Climate Change: What We Can Do, The Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Science Update was released earlier this week.   More than 200 scientists and climate change experts have worked over the last three years to update the 1999 Baylands Goals Report to address the threat of climate change.   This Science Update addresses threats facing the Bay including rising seas, extreme weather events, the effects of climate change on urban functions, and decreased sediment supply.

Not just another report  

This report highlights the urgency and the boldness with which we must act to save over 80% of our existing wetlands over the next 100 years during this period of rapid change.  Sea levels are rising; weather patterns are shifting, and the sediment supply that has helped nourish our wetlands since the Gold Rush appears to have been exhausted.  We have modified our key natural processes such as freshwater flows, tidal exchange, flood-plain productivity, and the balance between native and nonnative species.

Much of our critical infrastructure such as levees, flood-control channels, roads, railways, storm drains, landfills, and sewage treatment systems are all built at the edge of the bay.  Our human built infrastructure as well as our remaining natural habitats needs immediate investment in adaptation strategies to be resilient in the face of the coming changes.  We need to adjust our policies and our methods to encourage rapid restoration and enhancement of natural infrastructure to protect people and property while also supporting natural processes, and protecting habitat for native plants and animals.

Sea levels are predicted to continue to rise at what is currently thought to be a fairly predictable rate through mid-century.  After 2050, sea levels are predicted to rise at a much higher rate.  We need to accelerate restoration to get ahead of the sea level rise acceleration that is projected for the middle of this century.    This Science Update incorporates the latest science – and advances the understanding of climate change and sediment supply in the baylands. This proposed science-based path forward to address threats facing the Bay emphasizes working with nature to protect existing wetlands and help them grow to keep pace with sea level rise.

This report and the online science chapters place emphasis on:

  • Restoring complete baylands systems. Many of our watersheds and habitat are disconnected from adjacent habitat types and are disconnected from the physical processes that keep them healthy.  Diverse, connected habitats can help sustain wildlife and humans during extreme conditions.
  • Accelerate restoration of complete baylands systems by 2030. This can be done by ensuring that we restore as many tidal marshes before this time so that they are intact to provide benefits when sea levels begin to rise more quickly.  This requires acceleration of restoration projects on available land.
  • Plan for a dynamic future. Instead of reacting to events, we need to create policies that anticipate change over time.  This means that we need to prepare for the landward migration of the baylands by conserving transition zones between the baylands and adjacent uplands.  We also need to develop and implement a regional plan for sediment reuse that takes advantage of sediment from dredged, excavated, or naturally occurring sites so that it can be used to restore and sustain the baylands.
  • Increase regional coordination. Working together is going to be key to implement the recommendations in this report in a timely way.  The recommendations included in this report will require even more collaboration to build consensus, identify barriers, solve problems, and promote shared learning.

The original Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Report was released in 1999 and much progress has been made on restoring San Francisco Bay’s tidal wetlands as a result of the recommendations included in that report.   A number of large tidal marsh restoration projects have been planned and restored.  However, much work remains to be done to reach the goal of 100,000 acres of healthy wetlands and there are numerous pending projects that need funding in order to be implemented.

Shorelines will need to be protected by a combination of gray and green infrastructure but we need to resist the temptation to erect hard infrastructure in every location.  We can use wetlands to provide effective protection from storm-induced waves, absorb excess water from both uplands and from the Bay, filter pollutants, sustain fisheries, and provide wildlife habitat and places to enjoy nature.  While hard levee protection will be needed in some areas of the way we also need to work with nature to use bay shore wetlands to buffer and protect the Bay area’s seven million people from rising seas and extreme storms.

What does this report mean for Save The Bay’s work? 

Our Habitat Restoration Team has been working on restoring transition zone habitat for the past 15 years.  In the past several years we have stepped up that work to work with our partners on much larger projects that can provide protection and migration space.

We are currently working on the Oro Loma Horizontal Levee Project that will serve as a demonstration project for implementing innovative restoration methods to use natural systems to respond to climate change.  Our Policy and Communications Teams are responding to the call from scientists to accelerate marsh restoration by working with other Bay area leaders to place a $12 annual parcel tax measure on the June 2016 ballot that would raise $500 million over the next 20 years for wetland restoration and flood control.  These are only a couple of the ways that we are addressing the threats facing the Bay.  We look forward to working with other Bay area leaders and scientists to implement the recommendations included in this report.