Notes from the Field | Ramping Up Restoration

Eden Landing
Save The Bay staff scoping new Eden E9/E14 restoration site.

I’m of the opinion that ambitious goals are a good thing, especially when they come with a realistic, coordinated plan for attainment. Save The Bay has come a long way since its start 52 years ago, yet we still maintain many of our grassroots values and principles.  In addition to continuing to advocate against reckless shoreline development and Bay fill, we’re dedicating significant effort to restoring wetlands.  This year we’ve set our most ambitious native species planting goal ever: 40,000 plants.

In more than one Notes From The Field blog post I’ve talked about how volunteers from the community can make a difference through Save The Bay’s Community-based Restoration program.  The Bay Area has seen decades of wetland loss due to urban development, agriculture, and industrial salt production, but in recent years we’ve actually regained wetlands around the Bay.  This reversal is certainly due in part to the policy and restoration work of Save The Bay and our thousands of dedicated volunteers. We and our many partners are working to restore 100,000 acres of wetlands around the Bay to keep it healthy for future generations of people and wildlife. To date, there are roughly 45,000 acres of restored and historic wetlands in the Bay Area, so we’re nearly halfway there.

Restoring 55,000 acres of wetlands will be no easy feat. It will require lots of time, energy, money, and cooperation among state and federal agencies, various NGOS, and the public. We’re excited about a new restoration project that could serve as a scalable model for future large projects to help our region reach the 100,000 acre goal. The project is in a remote area of Eden Landing Ecological Reserve in historic salt ponds E9/E14. Working in partnership with the California  Department of Fish and Wildlife and the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, we’ll be restoring our largest area of transition zone (the area of the marsh between water and land that provides wildlife habitat during high tides) ever. To accomplish this goal we’ll be using our tried and true manual planting method in addition to hydroseeding the entire transition zone, a process that involves spraying a liquid seed mix on the ground (essentially applying a layer of organic papier-mâché).   We’ll carefully document our activities and protocols used so that other organizations and agencies can replicate this process.

The future of Bay restoration is looking bright, but like most impactful projects, success is contingent upon the availability of funding. Of the 55,000 acres of wetlands that still need to be restored, 31,000 acres are already publically owned, and await funding. The remaining 24,000 still need to be acquired Save The Bay is working with a broad coalition of local organizations and agencies to support the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority. This is the first regional entity of its kind to focus exclusively on raising and allocating new funds for Bay restoration, public access, and flood control.  Stay tuned…

Notes from the Field: Seth’s Three Cents

Exchange students from Singapore removing invasive species at Ravenswood Pond in Menlo Park.

With a new school year recently underway and our native planting season beginning in a few short months, I took some time this past weekend to reflect upon the two and a half years I’ve spent with Save The Bay. Ultimately, I identified a handful of personal opinions formed while leading habitat restoration programs with Save The Bay. Anyone who has spent time with me in the field has probably listened to me harp on some of the themes discussed below, and while I do not intend to come across as prophetic or prescient, I firmly believe in these three ideas:

1. Almost nothing is static. People change, cultures evolve, economies fluctuate, and landscapes are perpetually in a state of transformation, albeit a gradual one. Back in the fall of 2011 I applied Jared Diamond’s theory of landscape amnesia to the San Francisco Bay. Humans often fail to recognize changes when they occur gradually enough to be imperceptible to the human eye. While we may look at the shape of the Bay and assume it remains unchanged, in reality the outline and appearance of our estuary has shifted dramatically—due to geology, climate, and human impact—and will continue to shift due to these same variables.

Though humans’ impact on the Bay has been ecologically destructive in the post-Gold Rush era, this momentum can be reversed through progressive legislation and physical reparation. Our land use advocacy and on-the-ground wetland restoration accomplishes exactly this: changing the shape of San Francisco Bay in an ecologically beneficial manner. Personally witnessing two and a half years of work at our restoration sites has proven to me that our approach really works; degraded wetland areas can be improved at a terrific pace. As we look towards a future challenged by the threats of climate change, water scarcity, and loss of biodiversity, maintaining a dynamic view of our relationship with the California landscape will be critical to finding creative, sustainable solutions.

2. Everyone cares. I’d like to suggest that Community-based Restoration be renamed “Global Community-based Restoration.” The sight of 50 or 60 Bay Area locals showing up to volunteer at 9am on a rainy Saturday morning will never fail to impress me. That being said, even more astonishing are the groups of volunteers from Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and even Singapore we’ve witnessed demonstrating the same dedication and respect for our projects that the locals do. Despite the likelihood that these volunteers will never visit our sites again, they still take the time to plant each native seedling with care, recognizing that while we do not necessarily all share a bay in common, we do share oceans.

Peter Baye
Local wetland ecologist Peter Baye, Ph.D, walking down a bike path flooded by king tides last winter.

3. It’s all about the “watershed” perspective. One cannot talk about the health of San Francisco Bay without also considering the health of the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the polar ice caps. Melting glaciers at the poles are raising ocean levels worldwide, which means that our Bay will also experience a rise in water levels. In anticipation of this change, local scientists are focusing research on wetlands’ ability to migrate vertically and keep up with rising waters. One major variable in determining the success of vertical migration is the availability of adequate sediments (dirt, sand, and other materials) present in Bay water. The majority of these sediments originate from the Sierra Nevada mountains and travel to the Bay via the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta.

In recent years the sediment load entering the Bay has decreased significantly due to river damming and diversion in the Sierra Nevada and Central Valley. This sediment supply chain connects the future of coastal Bay communities with the water politics of the San Francisco Bay watershed, an area comprising 40% of California’s landmass. As you might guess, this is just one of many complex interrelationships impacting the Bay. What this means is that San Francisco Bay conservation and restoration cannot just be a local issue; effective action will require state-wide participation and collaboration. Everyone will have a role, and the more we can educate ourselves and maintain a big picture view, the better off our state will be.

Care to discuss any of these ideas in person? Come volunteer with us.

Spring Runoff 2013: From the Sierra to the San Francisco Bay

Tunnel Chute Rapid
Taking my family rafting, Tunnel Chute Rapid (class IV+), Middle Fork American River between Oxbow Reservoir and Folsom Lake.

During the spring and summer I have a habit of sneaking away on the weekends to guide whitewater rafting trips in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and have been lucky enough to explore the majestic canyons and exhilarating whitewater runs of rivers like the American, Tuolumne, Merced, North Stanislaus, and Kaweah.   In the process of learning to navigate these rivers I gained a deep understanding of the linkages between winter snowpacks, weather conditions, dam releases, and the volume of water flowing through a given drainage; however, it was only when I began working with Save The Bay that I adopted a complete “watershed” view of how water travels from the Sierra to the Bay.

Back in December I wrote a blog entry titled Driving over the Drain, investigating the ecological and hydrological significance of the Golden Gate (not the bridge, but the strait of water beneath it).   This piece explained how roughly 40% of California’s landmass is contained within the San Francisco Bay watershed.  By definition this means that all water falling on this land as rain, snow, and sleet should ultimately flow into the Bay and out through the Golden Gate.  I deliberately use the word “should” in the previous sentence rather than “will,” because the truth is that while some of this runoff will ultimately reach the Bay, it certainly won’t be following the natural course it did 200 years ago.

Humans began damming, diverting, and modifying the physical structures of California rivers as early as the Gold Rush. Today, the 1,400 named dams in California provide valuable services such as flood protection, hydroelectric power generation, and water storage for our state’s vast agricultural industry.   However, damming and diverting rivers comes at a significant ecological cost.  Not only do dams flood entire river canyons and destroy riparian habitat, they also change the quantity and characteristics of waters passing through them.

Folsom Dam
Folsom Dam, East of Sacramento.

The dams and aqueducts of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project currently divert roughly 30% of the freshwater inflow to the San Francisco Bay delta.  Less freshwater entering the Bay means that water in the estuary is now saltier, and saltwater is moving farther upstream into the Delta.  This is a direct cause of fish mortality and ecological disturbance.   Dams also obstruct the natural flow of suspended sediments (sand and soil in the water), ultimately causing less sediments to reach the Bay.  While this may at first seem like a beneficial side effect in that it improves water clarity, the presence of suspended sediments is a key factor in determining the potential rate of accretion (accumulation) of tidal marshes.  Tidal marsh vegetation, such as the native plants installed by Save The Bay volunteers, have the ability to trap sediments, thus allowing marshes to rise vertically over time to adjust to changes in sea level; however, this is partially dependent upon availability of these sediments.

Though the situation I’ve outlined above may seem concerning, the saving grace of manmade water projects is that they can be removed.   The road is dam removal is a long and costly one, but venerable organizations like Friends of the River and Tuolumne River Trust are tackling these challenges head-on.   As we plan for the future of water management in California, it’s important to maintain a “watershed” perspective, remembering the myriad ecological interdependencies existing within the complex network of natural and manmade waterways connecting the High Sierra to the Bay.

Notes from the Field: Poppies Springing out of Dormancy

CA Poppies
Spring has sprung and so has the California poppy.

It’s hard to deny that spring has arrived in California. Our coastal areas and foothills are lighting up with the floral blues of miniature lupine (Lupinus bicolor), the vivid purples of blue-eyed grass (sisyrinchium bellum), the glowing oranges of sticky monkey flower (mimulus aurantiacus) and our state flower, the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Though the scientific name of the California poppy may be nearly impossible to pronounce — it gets its namesake from Livonian naturalist Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz — this doesn’t stop us from celebrating the beauty and resiliency of this iconic flower.

On April 6th, 70 Save The Bay volunteers gathered at Eden Landing in Hayward and the MLK shoreline in Oakland to celebrate California Poppy Day by participating in a public community-based restoration program. Though the California poppy is just one of roughly 30 native plants we propagate and install at wetland restoration sites around the Bay, it is certainly one of my personal favorites. Not only is the California poppy quite beautiful, it is also extremely hardy, making it a prime species for use in wetland restoration.

The California poppy is native to the west coast of North America, ranging from Washington state down through Baja California, and as far inland as Texas. Pollinated by beetles as well as introduced European bees, the poppy can exhibit the lifecycle of both an annual (living for one growing season) or perennial (living for multiple growing seasons) flowering plant. The poppy acts as an annual when in harsh, dry living conditions or during drought years, while it can function as a perennial when in more favorable conditions. This flexibility makes the California poppy a wonderful drought escaper, as it can remain in an area in dormant seed form until adequate moisture is available.

Though our restoration sites are a great place to see California poppies in bloom, true poppy enthusiasts recognize the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve as the Holy Grail of poppy populations. Located in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, this state park’s rolling hills explode with acres of poppy fields every spring. Want to get to know the poppy a little better? Come join us for a restoration program?

A Quasi-brief History of Mustard, the “Triangle of U,” and Your Favorite Veggies

Invasive species removal is an important part of the restoration cycle.

Spring is right around the corner, which means that weeds are sprouting at many of our newest restoration sites. Not to worry, we were expecting this to happen! Invasive species management is an important part of the restoration cycle. Most project sites will require at least 2-3 years of intensive invasive removal before our native plantings grow large and dense enough to overtake the annual invaders such as mustard, radish, fennel, and iceplant.

Of all the invasive species removed by Save The Bay’s dedicated volunteers and wetland restoration staff, black mustard, Brassica nigra, is perhaps our most targeted invader. Our relationship with this plant is conflicted; though we love to see it removed from wetland areas, Save The Bay staff have also brought it into their homes to process into homemade yellow mustard for consumption as a condiment. Perhaps this behavior is a restoration practitioner’s fulfillment of Sun Tzu’s famous axiom from The Art of War:

If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Because we all interact with mustard either in our kitchens, backyards, or local wetlands, it makes sense to learn a little more about it. Hold on to your pocket protectors, it’s time to get a little geeky.

More than an invasive species

History of mustard
Black mustard even made its way into scripture.

Black mustard is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, where it has been grown as a food crop for thousands of years. The shoots and stems can be cooked and consumed, while the seeds can be ground for use as a spice, cough suppressant, and treatment for respiratory infection. In addition to its culinary and pharmaceutical utility, mustard also found its way into scripture:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.
-Matthew 13:31-32

Besides being culturally influential, the Brassica genus has also contributed to our understanding of genetics. In 1935, Korean-Japanese botanist Woo Jang-choon (the Japanese translation of this name is “Nagahara U”) crossed the three “traditional” Brassicas—B. nigra (black mustard), B. rapa (turnip, Chinese cabbage), and B. oleracea (kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts)–to create three new hybrid species–B. juncea (Indian mustard), B. napus (rapeseed, rutabaga), and B. carinata (Ethiopian mustard). The artificial interbreeding of three separate, yet closely related, diploid species (each with two set of chromosomes), to create three new tetraploid species (each with four sets of chromosomes) is referred to as the “Triangle of U,” in reference to Nagahara U.

Triangle of U
Overview of species relationships in the genus ‘Brassica’. Original work by Mike Jones

Though the Triangle of U was only a theory in 1935, it has now been confirmed by DNA mapping. The Triangle is significant in that it explains the creation (by both natural and artificial means) of many of our most important food crop species, and provides the genetic understanding necessary to prevent undesired hybridization of these species.

Next time you pull a mustard plant out of the ground or buy mustard seed in the grocery store, take a second to appreciate the scientific and cultural significance of this pesky weed, without which we would not have some of our favorite condiments and vegetable oils.