Climate Report Supports Wetland Restoration As Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy

Healthy wetlands protect our communities from flooding by slowing down and soaking up runoff and tidal inflow.
Photo credit: Dan Sullivan

A scientific report released just weeks ago confirms that people, societies, and ecosystems around the world are vulnerable to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up in 1988 by the U.N. and the World Meteorological Organization to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessment of climate change and options for adaptation and mitigation. The IPCC recently met in Yokohama, Japan to approve the report, titled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.

The report details the impacts of climate change, the future risks, and the opportunities to reduce risk. It concludes that both our atmosphere and our oceans have warmed, which has diminished ice and snow, causing the sea level to rise.

Sea level rise is a serious threat to the Bay area. According to the Pacific Institute, over $50 billion in property and infrastructure is at risk in the Bay area alone, with estimates of $100 trillion worldwide. In the Bay area, nearly 100 schools and healthcare facilities, 1,780 miles of roads and highways, 270,000 homes, and major infrastructure like our airports, bridges, power plants, and sewage treatment plants are at risk.

This report further reinforces the potential for wetland restoration to help prepare the Bay area for sea level rise. According to the report, “ecosystem-based adaptation is increasingly attracting attention.” The report states that “in coastal areas, the conservation or restoration of habitats (e.g. wetlands) can provide effective measures against storm surge, saline intrusion and coastal erosion by using their physical characteristics, biodiversity, and the ecosystem services they provide as a means for adaptation.”

Save The Bay has worked for years to restore Bay wetlands because we recognize the crucial role they play in the overall health of the Bay. Healthy wetlands filter toxins from polluted runoff, provide habitat for hundreds of species, and protect our communities from flooding and erosion by slowing down and soaking up runoff and tidal inflow. Wetland restoration is an important, multi-benefit, and cost-effective strategy for preparing the Bay area for sea level rise. The IPCC report identifies “the protection and restoration of relevant coastal natural systems…such as salt marshes” and “replacing armored with living shorelines” as two strategies for sea level rise mitigation and adaptation.

This study further confirms what we already knew about the importance of Bay wetlands. Join the thousands of volunteers who come out to the Bay every year to restore our wetlands, one native plant at a time.

Drought: Rain fell, but where did the water go?

Rain fell, but where did it go?  Photo Credit: Brandon Doran
Rain fell, but where did it go?
Photo Credit: Brandon Doran

The past week or so brought much needed rain to Northern California. But where did all that water go? Unfortunately, here in the Bay area most of it ran out to the Bay through the storm drain system, carrying trash and pollution with it.

There is a disconnect between how we manage water for flood control, quality, and supply. The goal of flood control systems is to remove water from our roads and urban areas as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this water is carrying a significant amount of pollution with it, degrading water quality in local waterways and the Bay. We are also experiencing a drought, and yet we are allowing runoff from our city streets to flow through our storm drains and out to the Bay rather than putting that water to beneficial use.


Before we urbanized the landscape of Northern California, rain water soaked into the ground where it fell, recharging groundwater. Now that the land is covered in impervious surfaces like asphalt and buildings, our cities have created a network of storm drains to carry water from our urban streets to nearby creeks that flow out to the Bay. However, flooding still occurs when trash, leaves and other debris clog storm drains, or when the local waterways become overwhelmed by the sudden and drastic increase in water flowing in from storm drains.


Because of the risk of flooding, storm water policies have focused on removing water from city streets and urban areas as quickly as possible, which means water flows directly into the waterways without treatment. As a result, pollutants like heavy metals, oils, pet waste, and trash are carried by the storm water into our waterways. This is why Save The Bay has prioritized stopping trash pollution at the source, working with cities and counties throughout the Bay Area to ban plastic bags and Styrofoam. We have also turned our attention to cigarette butts which are commonly littered on streets and sidewalks near storm drains.

Beneficial Use

There are better ways to prevent our urban areas from flooding than sending all the water, and the pollutants picked up along the way, out to the Bay and ocean. We depend on the streams and rivers of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to deliver water to the entire state even though rain falls throughout the state. The state of California is facing both a drought and groundwater depletion; we should be thinking more comprehensively about water supply solutions.

As water simply soaks into soil, pollutants are filtered out. This clean water then soaks into our groundwater system, replenishing water that we remove through wells and pumps. Homes have gutter systems that remove rooftop water and direct it out of a single pipe. If this pipe drains onto an impervious surface like a sidewalk or driveway, the water will run into the storm drain. If the pipe drains onto dirt or grass, the water is soaked into the ground, replenishing groundwater. Better yet, this water can be captured in barrels to use for watering plants during dry days. On a larger scale, the same concepts can be used for larger buildings and structures, or larger pieces of land like city parks. Another option is to create more permeable space, including paving streets with porous asphalt, green roofs, and more open space like parks.

Luckily, California legislators and policy makers are currently working to address the many water related issues facing the state, and are taking a more comprehensive approach. For example, Senator Wolk’s water bond bill, SB 848, includes $500 million for storm water capture and reuse projects. These projects are essential to improving water quality and can increase water supply. We’ll have to wait and see what decision makers will agree upon to address the significant water issues facing the state, but one thing is for sure; doing nothing is no longer an option.


Drought Puts Planting Season in Jeopardy

Habitat Restoration Volunteers Planting Native Seedlings
Volunteers plant native seedlings along the Bay shoreline.
Photo Credit: Dan Sullivan.

2013 was the driest year on record in California, leaving 87% of California in a severe drought. The drought we’re experiencing is caused by a massive high pressure ridge that has camped out over the eastern Pacific Ocean for 13 months. This ridge is pushing the jet stream that normally delivers our rainfall and snowpack up to Canada.

The State Department of Water Resources is likely to recommend that Governor Brown declare a drought emergency by February 1st. In a meeting with Central Valley farmers and water managers on Monday, Governor Brown responded to drought declaration questions with “not today, but we’re certainly getting ready.”  This declaration could loosen water quality regulations that are meant to protect endangered fish, allowing more water to be delivered throughout the state.

Major Bay Area water agencies are expected to make decisions in the next few months about whether to impose mandatory summer water restrictions. Meanwhile, local water utilities in Sonoma and Marin counties have launched a campaign to educate the public about conserving water. Lake Mendocino, which supplies water to Sonoma County is at 38% of capacity. Reservoirs in the Mokelumne River watershed, which supply most of the East Bay’s water, are still two-thirds full. The ten local reservoirs in Santa Clara County are at 33 percent capacity.

The lack of rainfall is also having a significant impact on Save The Bay’s planting season. Our on-the-ground wetland restoration projects re-establish native plants in the unique transition zone habitat located between Bay water and land. Our Habitat Restoration team and thousands of volunteers restore the wetlands by growing seedlings in our nurseries, sowing the plants along the shoreline, and maintaining the sites by removing invasive weed species and cleaning up trash.

Donna Ball, our Habitat Restoration Director, wrote last year about the difficulty of planting and maintaining 30,000 seedlings without adequate rainfall. We plant during the rainy season because newly installed plants require water to ensure their survival immediately after planting. With an even drier winter so far and an ambitious 40,000 plants to put in the ground by the end of March, this planting season has proven even more challenging. Donna says that “due to the lack of rain this winter, our staff and volunteers have spent more time on watering instead of planting, jeopardizing our ability to plant all 40,000 seedlings.” We need more volunteers to help us get these plants in the ground and keep them watered.

Help us get through this drought with 40,000 healthy plants in the ground and intact by volunteering at one of our habitat restoration events! Visit to sign-up!



UPDATE – January 17, 2014:

Governor Brown has declared a Drought State of Emergency.  In his press release, the Governor said “We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas.”  The Governor called on all Californians “to conserve water in every possible way.”  Please visit the Office of the Governor’s website to view the press release and the language of the Governor’s proclamation.  



UPDATE – January 21, 2014:

“State regulators can now relax water quality standards, allowing rivers and estuaries to be saltier and warmer, as they try to manage the state’s limited supplies.”  A KQED article explains how the drought declaration will loosen environmental regulations.

Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 1)

Today's Delta is a system of man-made levees and dredged waterways, surrounded by farm land and communities.
Today’s Delta is a system of man-made levees and dredged waterways, surrounded by farm land and communities.

The California Delta is a system of waterways and islands at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, and is connected to the Bay through the Carquinez Strait.  The land of the Delta is largely agricultural, much of it reclaimed and protected by a series of levees.  All of California depends on the Delta in one way or another.  The Delta supplies water for 25 million people and crucial habitat for land and water species unique to this ecosystem.  It supports the economy as a nursery for salmon, a deep water shipping channel, a water supply to Delta and Central Valley farms, and a tourism destination.

Governor Jerry Brown released the draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) on December 9, re-igniting the long-standing debate over what to do about the Delta.  The 34,000+ page plan stems from the 2009 Delta Reform Act, which directed the Department of Water Resources to create a “multispecies conservation plan.”  The plan includes 22 conservation measures aimed at improving water operations, protecting water supplies and water quality, and restoring the Delta ecosystem within a stable regulatory framework.

The most controversial part of the plan is Conservation Measure 1, Water Facilities and Operation, a plan to divert fresh water from the Delta that currently moves through it.  The State proposes to develop and operate three new intakes from the Sacramento River and build massive tunnels underneath the Delta to divert up to 9,000 cubic feet per second of fresh water.

The Problem

Pre-1800’s, most of the Delta was a tidal wetland, nearly 60% submerged by daily tides.  In the 1800’s European settlers began farming in the Delta, diking and draining these previously flooded lands.  Today, the Delta has been altered by a system of manmade levees, reservoirs, and dredged waterways.  Natural flows have been altered by the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, which deliver water to Central and Southern California.  The 1,100 miles of levees in the Delta are vulnerable to seismic activity and breaches.  Land subsidence makes flooding in Delta farms and communities more likely and more devastating, with most of the Delta at 5 to 25 feet below sea level.  A decline in fish populations, like the endangered Delta Smelt, is likely due to a combination of increased mortality at pumping facilities, a decline in habitat and water quality, and reduced food availability due to invasive species.

The “Solution”

The Delta Reform Act, passed by the state Legislature in 2009, established the framework to “achieve the two coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta Ecosystem.”  The Act tasks the Department of Water Resources with creating a multispecies conservation plan – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The Concerns

Opposition to the BDCP comes in many forms, from many perspectives. Those who rely on the Delta for water, like the City of Antioch, worry about the negative impacts to their water supply, including increased salinity, if more water is exported or if the water is diverted before flowing through the Delta.  Delta farmers are concerned about construction impacts and habitat restoration that displaces agriculture.  Environmentalists want to make sure that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan decisions are based on science and have a high likelihood of improving populations of endangered fish and other species.  Many interests are concerned about the $25 billion cost estimate for the plan.

Save The Bay is concerned that the BDCP and the science used to inform the plan do not adequately analyze its impacts on San Francisco Bay.  The Bay and Delta are an interconnected ecosystem.  A healthy San Francisco Bay depends in large part on fresh water from the Delta, which improves Bay water quality and provides healthy habitat for fish and wildlife, including the many endangered and threatened species that live in the Bay and along its shoreline.  The 2011 State of the Bay report attributed declining fish populations in the Bay to continued low annual freshwater flows as water is diverted from the Delta and its rivers.

We are working with a broad coalition to formulate a response to the BDCP – the public comment period ends on April 14, 2014.  We’ll keep you posted.

Want to learn more about Bay-Delta governance?  Read my blog entitled “Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 2) – The Regulatory History of the Delta.”

Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 2) – The Regulatory History of the Delta

Bay Delta Region Map
Bay-Delta Region

Delta water issues have been deeply contentious for over half a century.  To understand the recently released Bay-Delta Conservation Plan and its significance, here is a bit of historical context.

The Central Valley Project (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation or “Bureau”) began exporting water from the Delta in 1951, and the State Water Project (Department of Water Resources or “DWR”) began larger-scale water exports to the south through the California Aqueduct in 1972.

In 1978, the State Water Resources Control Board (“Water Board”) adopted a water quality control plan that set standards for salinity control and protection of fish and wildlife.  The Water Board also made “Water Right Decision 1485,” which modified Bureau and DWR permits in order to comply with the new water quality standards.  The Bureau and DWR appealed the decision in United States v. State Water Resources Control Board (or for you water law buffs, the “Racanelli Decision”).

Save the Bay and the Environmental Defense Fund jointly submitted an amicus brief arguing that the public trust required a higher level of protection for the Bay-Delta.  One important holding in the case was that the public trust doctrine permits the Board to reconsider past water allocation decisions and to amend water rights if necessary to protect fish and wildlife.  The court also held that the Board’s water quality role is not to protect water rights, but “beneficial uses,” including domestic, municipal, agricultural and industrial supply; power generation; recreation; aesthetic enjoyment; navigation; and preservation and enhancement of fish, wildlife, and other aquatic resources or preserves.

To comply with the Racanelli decision, the Water Board worked in the late 1980’s to set stronger standards requiring greater flows to protect the estuary.  But the Water Board was directed to withdraw proposals in 1988 by Governor Deukmejian and in 1992 by Governor Wilson.

In the midst of all that was going on at the State Water Board, a statewide ballot initiative in 1982 proposed construction of a canal to convey water directly from Northern California to Central and Southern California, bypassing the Delta.  Save The Bay campaigned against the Peripheral Canal at the ballot box, and the initiative was defeated 63%-37%, with Bay Area counties voting against the canal by  more than 90% margins.

California experienced a six year drought from 1987 to 1992, intensifying the debate.  In 1992, Save The Bay and a coalition of organizations united as “Share the Water” helped draft and win enactment of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, one of the most significant water policy reforms in California history.  The federal law reallocated a portion of Central Valley Project water supplies to benefit fisheries and the ecosystem.

In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of California signed an agreement to coordinate activities in the Delta – the Bay-Delta Accord.  The agreement set water quality standards and initiated a long-term planning process to improve the Delta and the reliability of its water supply.  Over the next ten years, this group of state and federal agencies known as “CALFED” worked together to formalize cooperation among state and federal agencies with management and regulatory responsibility in the Delta and agreed to work together on water quality standards, coordinate operations of the State Water Project and the Central valley Project, and work toward long-term solutions the Delta issues.

Fraught with complaints that CALFED was not accomplishing what it was created to do, in 2005 Governor Schwarzenegger called for an independent review of CALFED and in 2007, established a Blue Ribbon Taskforce to create a Delta Vision, a strategy for managing the delta sustainably to support environmental and economic functions.  In 2008, the strategic plan developed from the Delta Vision project articulated 12 recommendations, the first of which was that the ecosystem and a reliable water supply are the primary, co-equal goals for sustainable management of the Delta.

In 2009, the State Legislature passed SBX71, the Delta Reform Act, which provides a framework to achieve the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply to California and restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem, while protecting the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta.
The Delta Reform Act created the Delta Stewardship Council, charged with creating a comprehensive management plan for the Delta – the Delta Plan, and tasked the Department of Water Resources with drafting a multispecies conservation plan – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  The BDCP will be incorporated into the Delta Plan if it complies with the Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

The Delta Reform Act also required the State Water Board to develop new flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem “for the purpose of informing planning decisions for the Delta Plan and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.”  The Board’s 2010 report, Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem, concluded that increased freshwater flows to the Bay are essential to protect fish and wildlife.  The EPA’s comment letter on the administrative draft of the BDCP observes that the options presented for analysis “appear to increase Delta outflow, despite the fact that several key scientific evaluations by federal and State agencies indicate that more outflow is necessary to protect aquatic resources and fish populations.”

For years, the State Water Board has attempted to set water quality and salinity standards that would increase fresh water flow to the Bay.  The Board’s 2010 report clearly states that “best available science suggests that current flows are insufficient.”  Save The Bay and many partner organizations are concerned that without increased freshwater flow to the Bay, the BDCP will not be a successful multispecies recovery plan.

Learn more about the BDCP in my blog “Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 1).”