Taking the Long View at Bair Island

Inner Bair breach
Bay waters flow into Inner Bair Island culminating decades of community activism and wetland restoration.

The modern environmental movement has sometimes focused on responding to sudden, urgent crises.  Think oil spilling into rivers, species plummeting towards extinction, or toxic chemicals sickening people.

Indeed, Save The Bay was founded in 1961 in response to the alarmingly rapid decline of the San Francisco Bay.  Much of this organization’s early work was to stop the imminent destruction of large portions of the Bay for land “reclamation” purposes.  It was natural and even necessary to think in short-term time frames, so as to quickly react to rapid-fire developments and shifting tactics.

Today, with threats of new bay fill largely eliminated, attention is turning towards confronting the long-term threats to the Bay from climate change and sea level rise.  This increases the importance of careful planning and collaboration amongst various stakeholders to achieve successful restoration and protection of the Bay’s wetlands, which form a crucial defense against damage from extreme weather and encroaching waters.

It also requires working with nature itself, which restores degraded landscapes on a (often gradual) timescale of its own.

Persistence pays off at Bair Island

One timely example illustrating this shifting approach is the Bair Island restoration project in Redwood City, which celebrated a milestone on December 10 when a perimeter levee separating the Bay from Inner Bair Island was breached.  This moment is significant because it marks the completion of the nearly decade-long, $7 million project, some 35 years after the land was under threat of residential and business development.

Historically a flourishing wetland, Bair Island by the 1980s had been used for decades for agriculture and salt evaporation ponds.  In 1982, Mobil Oil owned the land, and wanted to construct a new development called South Shores on Bair Island.  A citizen’s group called Friends of Redwood City quickly arose to oppose this project, and through grassroots campaigning helped stop Mobil’s plans at the ballot box that year.

Since then, a long-running, multi-step process has been underway to complete the circle of ecological restoration at Bair Island.  First, the land was purchased by an entity that would ensure this outcome.  In 1997, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a local land trust, bought the land for $15 million.  In 1999, POST transferred the land to state and federal government agencies for inclusion in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, ensuring its permanent protection.

Then, a restoration plan needed to be crafted and funded.  A key collaborator in this process has been the conservation non-profit Ducks Unlimited, which pieced together much of the funding from government and foundation sources.  Construction began in 2006 and is now finishing up.

Investing for future challenges

Bair Island’s decades-long journey towards rehabilitation shows how complicated restoring ecosystems can be.  Local activists have successfully protected sites like Bair Island from reckless development around the Bay, which now must be restored to wetlands to benefit our region.  Chief among the challenges of accomplishing more projects like this one is finding the needed money.  Funding streams from the government, particularly through federal appropriations, can be unpredictable and inconsistent.  Contributions from foundations and individuals can significantly ebb and flow when the state of the economy changes.

Given this, having a dependable source of money would accelerate the timeline for pending and potential projects.  Like Bair Island, many of these projects could take decades from beginning to end.  So, we need to get to work now to see the benefits by the time sea level rise and climate change becomes more severe later this century, as stated in a recent scientific report.

The San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority (SFBRA) is a regional agency empowered to raise money specifically to fund Bay Area wetland restoration, shoreline improvement, pollution reduction, and flood protection. On January 13, SFBRA will vote on placing a measure on the June 2016 ballot that, if approved, would generate $500 million over two decades through a regional parcel tax.  Passing this measure will allow environmental stakeholders to more quickly and reliably undertake restoration efforts in all nine Bay Area counties.

The main threat to a thriving, productive Bay has changed.  We need long-term plans to address climate change and sea level rise.  Call on the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority to place the Clean and Healthy Bay measure on the June 2016 ballot.