Meeting the Challenge of Sea Level Rise

Too often, we let big and complicated (or just plain uncomfortable) issues linger until it’s too late to change.  Call it what you will – the urge to act like an ostrich and stick your head in the sand rather than deal with problems head-on is something innate in each of us.

Threats to our shoreline communities vary dramatically throughout the region.
Threats to our shoreline communities vary dramatically throughout the region.

And that’s part of why it was so refreshing to see over 400 individuals, agency staffers, local elected officials and scientists come together earlier this week for a wide-ranging set of conversations about the challenge of Sea Level Rise to the Bay Area, and San Mateo County specifically.  Supervisor Dave Pine brought together fellow elected officials (including Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Assemblyman Rich Gordon), scientists, agency heads, and other local leaders on the issue.

Here are some significant takeaways from the morning of talks.  You can learn more about the event and presenters here.


We need to start planning now:

Author and Oceanographer John Englander put it best in his talk, we know there will be at least 3 feet of sea level rise throughout the Bay.  We just don’t know – at least not precisely – whether it will take 20 years or 50 years for those projections to become reality.  With that in mind, there’s a strong argument for focusing not on the timeline, but on the level of protection needed to keep our shoreline communities safe, and keep the Bay healthy.  That means we need to start planning now; waiting for more accurate projections will only increase adaptation costs and put more of our shoreline at risk.


Different communities have different needs:

As a region, we’re all over the map.  Some counties have built right up to the shoreline, and are facing deep investments in what’s called “hard infrastructure” – the levees and other flood protection that we’re so used to seeing in New Orleans and elsewhere.  But other communities have significant restoration potential (particularly the South and North Bay), where salt ponds and former wetlands can provide incredible benefits to wildlife and communities by buffering against storm surges, which in turn means levees can be smaller and less costly.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; we will have to be creative in addressing the challenges of sea level rise.


Barriers exist, but none are insurmountable:

More than anything else, panelists (and local elected officials) showed that while there are countless barriers that need to be overcome in coming decades, none are insurmountable. And these barriers must be tackled from the local to the federal level.  Panelists from FEMA  discussed necessary changes to mapping and setting rates for flood insurance,  while the Army Corps of Engineers highlighted new challenges to designing and building much of the levee infrastructure. Both called on local pressure from elected officials and residents to change outdated thinking and plan for the future.  Locally, Supervisor Pine and Sam Schuchat, head of the California Coastal Conservancy, highlighted the opportunities presented by a regional funding strategy they are working on as members of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority.


Adaptation to sea level rise will continue to be a complex issue  filled with significant challenges.  But events like this one in San Mateo are a strong first step in raising the profile of issues like sea level rise, and beginning conversations about how we’re going to address one of the greatest challenges of the coming century.

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…

Reshaping the Bay

Beautiful restored wetlands, coming to a part of the SF Bay near you? (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Beautiful restored wetlands, coming to a part of the SF Bay near you? (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

At our 50th Anniversary celebration in 2011, I was struck and impressed on hearing former Environmental Protection Agency head William Reilly describe the saving of San Francisco Bay as one of the signature environmental achievements of the 20th Century. He was standing in a small crowd in front of Sylvia McLaughlin, one of Save The Bay’s famous founders.

We are still building on and learning from our founders’ work. In fact, when I introduce Save The Bay’s current policy efforts around pollution prevention and stopping Bay fill, I invariably refer back to our founders achieving what they did without much of a template for grassroots environmental activism and without many of the laws or government agencies – including the EPA – that we all take for granted today.

But there’s a third area of Save The Bay’s work that our founders likely dreamed of but were not able to address on any scale: the restoration of the Bay.

Our science-based tidal marsh restoration programs are models for other projects around the Bay and around the country. Through these programs, we give community volunteers and local schools the opportunity to directly restore the shoreline alongside our restoration and education experts. We back up this on-the-ground restoration work with policy and advocacy efforts like our recently-launched For The Bay initiative to mobilize thousands of Bay Area residents who care about the Bay in support of the bold goal of re-establishing 100,000 acres of tidal marsh around the Bay. 100,000 acres is the minimum number scientists say we need for the Bay to thrive.

Recently, Paul Rogers wrote a terrific piece in the Mercury News about the modern reshaping of San Francisco Bay. We are so focused here on juggling the many details, large and small, involved in advancing this work that we sometimes fail to properly capture the scale and significance of this for the general public. That is not a weakness that we share with Paul Rogers:

The aquatic renaissance is already the largest wetlands restoration project ever completed in the Bay Area, turning back the clock 150 years and transforming the area between Vallejo and Sonoma Raceway, despite little public awareness because of the distance from the Bay Area’s large cities.

“It’s a stunning achievement,” said Marc Holmes, program director with the Bay Institute, an environmental group in San Francisco. “It’s a phenomenal ecological restoration, one of the most important coastal wetlands projects ever done in the United States.”

The restoration — encompassing an area as big as 8,500 football fields — is also offering a road map for similar projects now underway in the East Bay and Silicon Valley, particularly the massive restoration of 15,100 acres of former Cargill Salt ponds that extend from Hayward to San Jose to Redwood City.

It’s a great article. I hope you will read it, including the great visuals, and share it widely. Because this work is of vital importance for the Bay and brings such a broad array of public benefits: habitat restoration for threatened species; jobs for workers and flood protection for businesses; public recreation for people who love to walk, jog and bike by our beautiful Bay. I only hope that we are living up to the vision and daring of Save The Bay’s founders in working to ensure that this restoration project is finished as soon as possible.


Bay restoration moves ahead in Sonoma County

Sears Point Ranch (Sonoma Land Trust)
Sears Point Ranch (Sonoma Land Trust)

There is some good news for the San Francisco Bay this month. Restoration of the Sears Point Ranch in Sonoma County, owned by Sonoma Land Trust, received a grant of $5 million from the Wildlife Conservation Board.

The Sears Point site is one of the largest tidal wetland restoration projects in the state of California at more than 2300 acres. It was once proposed to be developed for a casino. About 1000 acres of the ranch are planned to be restored to tidal marsh. The WCB grant will pay for construction of a flood protection levee. And the top of the levee will serve as a trail – 2.5 miles of new public access.

This is unambiguously good news, and it appears that the full restoration is now on track at Sears Point.

As our regular readers know, the Bay needs 100,000 acres of tidal marsh habitat to be healthy, and less than half that number exists. Progress on restoration projects large and small all around the Bay Area is urgently needed, and this work could proceed much more rapidly with steady access to needed funds. That is why Save The Bay is committed to identifying new sources of funding for Bay restoration.

You can help. Please take action today and urge the US Congress to support the San Francisco Bay Restoration Act.

Another way to be For The Bay

Last week, we invited a handful of dedicated volunteers to spend a couple of hours in our office, making calls to Save The Bay supporters like you and I.  These great folks had conversations with hundreds of locals, sharing updates about the For The Bay initiative, and signing folks up to volunteer in the future.

Volunteers make calls to fellow Bay supporters, talking about our For The Bay initiative.
Volunteers make calls to fellow Bay supporters, talking about our newest initiative, For The Bay.

Having spent my share of evenings and weekends volunteering for organizations I support over the years, I’m proud to say that this was one of the most inspirational (and fun) indoor volunteer opportunities I’ve ever seen.  And that positive attitude clearly came across in the voices of our callers, which is part of the reason why over 40 of the people we talked to said they wanted to get more involved and volunteer themselves.

If you’ve never taken the plunge and tried volunteer phone banking (and even if you have), you should know that it’s easy, low stress, and a great way to share your passion for the Bay and our region with other Save The Bay supporters.

Wanna dive in and become a For The Bay volunteer?  Click here to sign up for one of our upcoming shifts.  We’ll take care of all the details, and even provide awesome prizes and a delicious free dinner!

Hope to see you soon!


P.S. – Have you attended one of our Phone Banks?  Tell us (and other readers) what you thought by posting a comment below!