Remembering Pete Seeger and his Environmental Legacy

Launched in 1969, Pete Seeger and his allies used their sloop, named the Clearwater, to launch their successful efforts to save the Hudson River. In 2004, the Clearwater was listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places for its significance to the environmental movement. Photo by Anthony Pepitone.
Launched in 1969, Pete Seeger and his allies used their sloop, the Clearwater, to launch efforts to save the Hudson River. In 2004, the Clearwater was listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places for its significance to the environmental movement. Photo by Anthony Pepitone.

Pete Seeger is a household name for many, but like much of my generation, it was his songs I knew first. As a first grader growing up in Santa Cruz, we had a beloved teacher who would play her guitar every day and sing folk songs to us that Seeger had popularized. Our favorites included “This Land is Your Land,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “We Shall Overcome,” tunes that often find their way into my head as I’m washing dishes or walking in the hills.

When I started working at Save The Bay, I learned Seeger’s rendition of “Seventy Miles” – a song originally written in 1965 by Malvina Reynolds.“Seventy Miles” described the decrepit state of the San Francisco Bay as a place choked with sewage and trash, and being filled at a rapid rate by developers. Here are the lyrics:

Chorus: Seventy miles of wind and spray, Seventy miles of water, Seventy miles of open bay, It’s a garbage dump.

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!

(Chorus)

Big Solano and the Montecell’, Ferry boats, I knew them well, Creak and groan in their muddy graves, Remembering San Francisco Bay.

(Chorus)

Joe Ortega and the Spanish crew, Sailed across the ocean blue, Came into this mighty Bay, Stood on the decks and cried, “Ole!”

(Chorus)

Fill it here, fill it here, Docks and tidelands disappear, Shaky houses on the quakey ground, The builder, he’s Las Vegas bound.
(Chorus)

“Dump the garbage in the Bay?” City fathers say, “Okay. When cries of anguish fill the air, We’ll be off on the Riviere.”
(Chorus)

Pete Seeger sung songs on a wide-variety of subjects, from supporting labor struggles to opposing war, but he also cared deeply about the state of the planet.

Seeger says he was influenced, like many, by Rachel Carson’s game-changing book, Silent Spring, which he read in installments in the New Yorker in 1962. It made him realize that even if we can build a more equitable world, it wouldn’t be worth it if future generations would inherit a pretty poisonous place to live.

As a result, Seeger, along with his wife Toshi (who he described as “the brains of the family”), spent much of his life working around environmental issues – especially in his own backyard of the Hudson River. In fact, the British newspaper the Guardian describes saving New York’s Hudson River as one of Seeger’s greatest legacies.

“The Hudson was saved by a lot of people” environmental attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. told the Guardian, “but for a lot of us, Pete was the first guy. He started the train, and we all jumped on the moving train.”

Saving the Hudson River

Like San Francisco Bay at the time, the Hudson River was a polluted mess:

The river was a raging sewer when Seeger set out to save it in the 1960s, a liquid dump for industries that grew along its banks, full of PCBs from the electrical industry, sewage discharges, pesticides, and other contaminants. The main traffic was cement and oil barges. The public largely stayed away.

Local lore has it the chemical stew was so potent and so toxic it was seen as a cure for bore worms and other parasites feeding off wooden hulls. Sailors from the Caribbean would reportedly come up to cleanse their boats.

To do something about this, Seeger, always the optimist, started in 1969 by building a boat. That boat was named the Clearwater, and its mission was to educate people about the Hudson River environment, its history, and share a vision about what the Hudson could be if we all worked together. Imagine a river that you could swim in, catch fish in. Seeger wrote a song about it, called “Sailing Up My Dirty Stream,” with lyrics including “some day, though maybe not this year / My Hudson river will once again run clear.”

Through decades of hard work, Seeger and thousands of friends made the difference. The Hudson is swimmable and fishable again. In 1972, Seeger sailed the Clearwater down to Washington D.C. and sang to members of Congress, who shortly later passed the Clean Water Act, the landmark bill limiting pollution of our waterways. In 1980, thanks to the increased attention, the Environmental Protection Agency declared a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River a clean-up site, and for the past decade and a half, the toxic PCBs lining the floor of the river have been dredged up.

Seeger’s group was also successful at turning an old garbage dump along the river’s edge into a park, complete with a summer swimming area for kids, and to this day, the group organizes an annual benefit concert attended by over 15,000 people. As long as there is still work to be done, the Clearwater continues to sail up and down the river, two to three times a day, educating the next generation.

Seeger’s devotedness to his waterway was a reflection of both his politics and his optimism. Like the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land,” Seeger believed that the Hudson River “belongs to all of us,” said Kennedy. Further, Seeger believed that the best thing we can do in the face of environmental destruction at such a large scale is to focus making a difference on the places that we call home. “I tell people, work in your local community. The world’s going to be saved by people who fight for their homes,” Seeger proclaimed.

This is a viewpoint shared by activists in Redwood City working to save over two square miles of restorable San Francisco Bay salt ponds from being developed by agribusiness giant Cargill. Activist Gail Raabe echoes Seeger’s comments by saying, “It’s really easy to feel overwhelmed about all of the worldwide threats to the environment,” but “if everyone in the world took responsibility for restoring or protecting their place,” then together “we would get the job done.”

 

Salt Pond Update: 2013 Year in Review

Don't Pave My Bay

As we enter the new year, two square miles of the Bay remains at risk in Redwood City.

It’s been a year and a half since you helped Save The Bay and a broad coalition of environmental organizations, community groups, elected officials, and others defeat Cargill’s initial proposal to build as many as 12,000 houses atop restorable salt ponds in Redwood City.

Still, Cargill is unwilling to back away from its intent to submit a revised development proposal for the site, let alone sell the salt ponds so they can be restored and included in the Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Instead, Cargill has pressured the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grant an “exemption” from the Clean Water Act, which would make it easier for Cargill to get permits to develop the site. Insider sources tell us that in recent months Cargill has ramped up its lobbying efforts in Washington D.C.

Thousands of you have called on the Army Corps and the EPA to stand up for the Bay and not let Cargill get out of basic environmental regulations that protect the health of our great estuary. The federal agencies have yet to make a decision, but thanks to you, we know they are hearing us.

Overall, there’s hope for the long-term health of the Bay. Every day the Bay Area moves further and further away from Cargill’s archaic plans to pave the Bay:

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a long-awaited blueprint to restore the Bay’s wetlands. Called the Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan, this federal report specifically calls for the protection and restoration of Redwood City’s salt ponds.
  • Through the recently adopted Plan Bay Area, the region has chosen to move away from sprawl, focusing future development near transit, in already urbanized areas. Cargill tried to undermine this plan at the last minute, threatening regional agencies with legal action unless the Redwood City ponds were were listed as “urbanized,” but we beat them back before it was too late.
  • As sea levels continue to rise, policymakers throughout the state are beginning to realize that we need to protect the infrastructure we already have – not put more people at risk. San Mateo County’s recent sea level rise summit shows this message is getting through.
  • Finally, the historic restoration of the Bay continues at a rapid pace, as thousands of acres of the shoreline are returned back to Bay wetlands. The restoration of former salt ponds in the North Bay demonstrate what’s possible in Redwood City, if only Cargill is willing to cooperate.

None of this progress could happen without our members and supporters. You’ve signed our petitions, shared our actions with your friends, donated, and helped us continue to lead this campaign that is shaping the future of the Bay. We’ll keep you updated as we continue this important fight in the new year.

Curious to learn more about the nearly 25,000 shorebirds that use the Redwood City salt ponds annually? View our Birds of the Redwood City Salt Ponds slideshow. 

King Tides an Opportunity to Educate about Sea Level Rise

King Tides are "a glimpse into the future," of sea level rise, say experts. Click above to see NBC News' story on the first set of King Tides this season.
King Tides are “a glimpse into the future,” of sea level rise, say experts. Click above to see NBC News’ story on the first set of King Tides this season.

The highest tides of the year are back in the Bay Area. With sea levels peaking over 11 feet in some areas of the Bay – flooding roadways, freeway onramps and more – the King Tides, which we will experience at least six days this winter, have become an annual reminder of our need to prepare for the serious impacts facing us with sea level rise. (Click here to read more about what produces King Tides)

If you ask scientists and policy experts about sea level rise planning, one of the most difficult challenges we face is that despite the enormous impacts sea level rise will have on the Bay Area (over $50 billion in property and infrastructure is at risk, according to the Pacific Institute), the issue is still not universally seen as an immediate and pressing threat for many policymakers. There is also a lack of strong regulations and guidance at the statewide and regional levels for local jurisdictions to address these issues. This highlights the need for voters to understand and voice their concerns about sea level rise.

A recent poll (full results here) by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that most Californians (63%) recognize that the impacts of climate change are already being felt and three-in-four (75%) support “steps to counter the effect of global warming right away,” yet only 28% of Bay Area residents said they were “very concerned” about the impacts of flooding as a result of global warming. It’s important to note, however, that these numbers were much higher for communities at greater risk of flooding, due to neighborhoods being built in flood zones – African Americans and Latinos were nearly twice as likely (40% and 42%, respectively) to be “very concerned” about the risk of flooding.

While you can mine the data further to see that a majority (56%) of California voters are either “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about increased flooding, the lower poll numbers compared to other global warming impacts (like wildfires) suggest that we still have a need to educate residents – and particularly policymakers – about the threats to the Bay Area from sea level rise, and how flooding will impact the places that we care about: our homes, our schools, and our communities.

You will be seeing more from Save The Bay on this subject in the next month, but in the meantime, here’s a few highlights of the impacts of sea level rise to keep in mind:

Highlights of Potential Impacts to the Bay Area from Sea Level Rise

  • Nearly 100 schools and healthcare facilities are threatened
  • 1,780 miles of roads and highways could be underwater
  • 270,000 renters and homeowners could be displaced or otherwise impacted
  • Over 3,000 acres of wetlands could be lost
  • Major infrastructure – including SFO International Airport, Oakland International Airport, the San Mateo and Dumbarton Bridges would be seriously affected, as could dozens of power plants and sewage treatment plants
  • Dozens of toxic sites listed as hazardous by the EPA could be inundated, posing a risk to Bay water quality and wildlife

Source: The Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the San Francisco Bay, Pacific Institute 2012. These numbers are reflective of a 55” rise in sea levels by 2100.

 

To learn more about the King Tides, as well as submit and view photos of areas near you that have been impacted, visit the California King Tides Initiative at www.californiakingtides.org

 

Federal Wildlife Plan Calls for Restoration of Redwood City Salt Ponds

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan calls for the restoration of the Redwood City salt ponds. Their map, above, illustrates how the salt ponds, if restored, could connect with existing wetlands and other wetland restoration site nearby.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan calls for the restoration of the Redwood City salt ponds. Their map, above, illustrates how the salt ponds, if restored, could connect with existing wetlands and other wetland restoration sites nearby.

Last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a much-anticipated 50-year plan for the restoration of the Bay’s wetlands. A blueprint for the recovery of over a dozen threatened and endangered plant and animal species that depend on the Bay’s wetlands, the Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan includes recommendations for tens of thousands of acres of the Bay shoreline, saying that the protection and restoration of the Bay’s wetlands are critically needed for endangered species like the California Clapper Rail and Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse to have a chance at avoiding extinction.

The plan clearly states that restoring the Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City and Newark would close critical gaps in the restoration of the South Bay shoreline.

This is consistent with the message from Bay scientists, Save The Bay, and the hundreds of organizations, cities, elected officials, and newspaper editorial boards who have formally opposed Cargill’s efforts to place thousands of houses on 1,400 acres of restorable salt ponds in Redwood City.

The Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan also calls for the restoration of a shoreline area immediately adjacent to the Newark salt ponds – a 550-acre section of diked baylands referred to as “Area 4.” Save The Bay has joined with a dozen other environmental groups to oppose the City of Newark’s proposal to fill these baylands with an 18-hole golf course and nearly 500 houses.

These strong recommendations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are another clear indication that the greatest value of the Redwood City salt ponds is what they can provide to the Bay if restored. Knowing that the Redwood City ponds provide habitat for tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds, Cargill nonetheless has fought against any governmental effort that discusses the site as anything other than an ‘industrial moonscape.’

This is the same message that Cargill has sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its petition to make the Redwood City salt ponds “exempt” from the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental laws that protect the Bay from being filled.

The Fish and Wildlife Service took a stand by highlighting the importance of the Redwood City salt ponds to the Bay. Now we need your help to ensure the EPA and Army Corps don’t cave to Cargill on their attempts to be granted an “exemption” from the Clean Water Act. Help Save The Bay continue to make sure state and federal agencies protect the Bay from Cargill. Donate today!

River Otter Sighting a Sign of Lake Merritt’s Recovery

This river otter is the first seen in Lake Merritt in recent memory. Are more to come? Photo courtesy of the Rotary Nature Center and Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge.
This river otter is the first seen in Lake Merritt in recent memory. Are more to come? Photo courtesy of the Rotary Nature Center and Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge.

“Keep Oakland Fresh” bumper stickers. “Great Lakes” T-shirts, comparing the outlines of Mono Lake, Lake Tahoe and Lake Merritt. Vintage color postcards showing flocks of birds wading in clear blue waters and flying above beautiful green hills. Nearly every candidate who runs for City Council in Oakland has a picture of themselves with Lake Merritt as the backdrop. There’s a reason why: Oaklanders love Lake Merritt.

Lake Merritt isn’t just in our backyard – it’s also our front yard. It’s where the city gets together to picnic on the weekends, to walk off stress during the week. It’s home to walk-a-thons and fundraisers, the Oakland Running Festival, and Oaklavia – our version of San Francisco’s car-free Sunday Streets.

Like our city as a whole, Lake Merritt has had some tough times. It was listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “impaired water body” in 1999 due to poor water quality. It has had huge algae blooms and has been invaded by hordes of plastic bags and other trash. Years before that, the lake had raw sewage pumped directly into its waters. Over the past century, much of Lake Merritt’s shoreline has been filled in – its wetlands paved over and its connection to the Bay severely constrained. It still has 62 storm drains and culvertized creeks from throughout the city draining into it – bringing all the oil, trash, and other toxins from our streets directly into the lake.

I’ve written about the history of Lake Merritt before. How the lake is really a tidal lagoon, connected to the Bay, and how a group of residents, spurred by a development proposal, crafted an ambitious plan to revive the lake. These plans, funded by Oakland voters in 2002, have led to a major effort by the City of Oakland to widen the channel connecting Lake Merritt to the Bay, carve out new wetlands to help filter toxins out of the water and provide habitat for wildlife, and build much-needed new trails and walkways to benefit the hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy the lake every year.

River Otter Visits Lake Merritt for First Time in Decades

Earlier this month, we received a surprising indication that this restoration work is making a difference. For the first time in living memory, a river otter was spotted on a dock along the lake’s shoreline. River otters have been making a comeback in the Bay, but there have been only a handful of sightings south of the Bay Bridge (click here to see the River Otter Ecology Project’s map).

For those of us who work on Bay conservation, it was a big surprise to hear of a river otter in Lake Merritt. We have seen reports from the Lake Merritt Institute of the decreasing amount of trash in the lake – thanks in large part to the bans on plastic bags and polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers, as well as volunteer efforts and the installation of trash capture devices by the City. We’ve seen with our own eyes the increasing clarity of the water, and the resurgence of wildlife-supporting mudflats as the old 12th Street Bridge and associated culverts were removed, doubling the amount of water flowing between the lake and the Bay and increasing the tidal influence. We know about efforts to restore tidal marshes and even build some floating wetlands. Despite all of this, as an Oaklander and Bay restoration advocate, the river otter spotting still came as a surprise to me.

River otters eat fish, oysters, crabs and even small water birds. They are more commonly seen in fresh water areas like streams, rivers and lakes, and are also a fairly common sight in the California Delta. (Click here to read more facts about river otters). For many years, river otter sightings in the Bay have been limited to the North Bay – especially Marin County. However, more and more the otters have been spotted in other parts of the Bay – including as far south as the sloughs near the Coyote Hills in Fremont. This is the first time an otter has been spotted along the Oakland shoreline.

It’s too early to say whether more river otters will come after this one. (Please, if you see one – do not feed or bother it – keep your distance and keep your dogs away too! Report any sightings to the River Otter Ecology Project.) Whether this was just a lone visitor who stopped by on his or her way elsewhere, or the beginning of what may soon be a permanent group of otters in Lake Merritt, we don’t know.

Restoration Works: River Otters Just One of Several Wildlife Species Returning to the Bay

What we can say is that restoration works. When we restore wetlands and improve water quality – wildlife notice. River otters are not the only species making a comeback in the Bay. Leopard sharks and bat rays have returned in large numbers to restored former salt ponds. Ospreys have also taken a liking to San Francisco Bay, nesting on lampposts and port cranes, and feeding on fish in the restored Napa River and elsewhere. Harbor porpoises have also returned to the Bay after a 65 year absence, and can frequently be spotted underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. What all of these species’ recoveries have in common is a healthier San Francisco Bay.

Much work still has to be done to clean-up Lake Merritt and restore the 100,000 acres of wetlands that scientists insist we need for a healthy Bay. There are still development threats, major water pollution issues (see our latest effort to rid the Bay of the scourge of littered cigarette butts), and many parts of our shoreline still need funds and volunteers so that they can too be restored.

Yet what this lone river otter represents is the potential of not just Lake Merritt – but all of our Bay. For if Lake Merritt – once the very image of a polluted, degraded waterway – can be brought back to life and see a resurgence in wildlife, so can every other part of the Bay.

Congratulations, Oakland. Let’s keep up the momentum.