Taking a Stand for San Francisco Bay

My name is Ian McKernan and I am a 7th grader at Shorecliffs Middle School in Orange County. Although I live in Southern California, I have visited the Bay Area many times and am always impressed with how clean and good the Bay looks. It’s always fun for me to see how many people enjoy it too. Personally, I like to sail around Dana Point Harbor, so I always look for people sailing on the water.

After hearing about Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr, and Esther Gulick’s fight to save San Francisco Bay in the 1960s, it inspired me to build a website to share their story as my National History Day project. This year’s theme was “Taking a Stand in History.”

National History Day (NHD) is a year-long school program where students do research on historical topics that they choose and develop projects about them. The projects are then entered into contests at the local and state levels and the top projects from each state advance to the national contest in Washington D.C. at the end of the school year. More than half a million middle and high school students participate in NHD annually.

While researching the story of saving the Bay, I was most surprised to learn that San Francisco Bay was not protected by environmental laws in the 1960s like it is today. At that time, landowners, cities, and factories could build on the Bay and dump their toxic trash directly into the Bay. And they did just that! I was also surprised to learn that the laws that we have today resulted from the efforts of Save The Bay’s founders, not from the existing environmental groups or politicians at that time.

I was also impressed by how enthusiastic the people I interviewed for my project (Save The Bay’s Executive Director David Lewis, former Chief Engineer of the Bay Model William Angeloni, Sylvia McLaughlin’s daughter Jeanie Shaterian, and Senator McAteer’s son Dr. Terry McAteer) were when talking about an event that happened over 50 years ago. Their enthusiasm showed me how the women’s fight had a huge impact on the San Francisco Bay we enjoy today, and the importance of continuing their legacy of conservation into the future.

Click here to learn more about Save The Bay’s early history and view Ian’s website.

We are inspired by Ian. His passion for conservation shows that the youngest generation has the desire and drive to advocate for the Bay now, and far into the future.

You can inspire students like Ian by graciously giving to Save The Bay’s education programs. Our award-winning restoration education programs reach more than 2,000 kids each year. Your generous donation allows us to develop bay nature lesson plans for teachers, provide professional development for educators, organize school field trips to wetland restoration sites, and so much more. We can’t wait to teach a whole new group of students this year!

Thank you for supporting our work and for providing the resources needed to inspire the next generation of Bay stewards.


David Lewis

Executive Director, Save The Bay

Facing Down the Threat of Phytophthora


While Save The Bay is known primarily for policy and advocacy work, our restoration and education programs have grown immensely in the past twenty years. In addition to restoring the Bay’s wetland ecosystem by planting transition zone species, we also grow all of the plants ourselves in our native plant nurseries at the MLK Jr. Shoreline in Oakland and the Palo Alto Baylands in the Peninsula.

Each year we typically grow and install 35,000 plants into the ground. And last year we actually surpassed our annual totals by planting 100,000 native seedlings to complete several large-scale restoration projects, including the Horizontal Levee Project at the Oro Loma Sanitary District!

When I first joined the team as the Nursery and Habitat Restoration Fellow at the beginning of 2017, I knew planting native species and teaching students about Bay ecology would be a large part of my job. But, I never thought I’d learn as much as I did about plant disease.

One of the biggest threats native plant nurseries face today is the spread of plant pathogens, partially as a result of increased global trade and transportation. Right now in the Bay Area, the invasive pathogen that is on everyone’s radar is a genus called Phytophthora.

There are currently over 150 different documented species of Phytophthora worldwide, some of which are lethal to many native plant communities in our state. This water mold, or oomycete, causes a plant’s roots to rot which kills the entire organism.

One well-known example is Phytophthora ramorum, or more commonly referred to as Sudden Oak Death, has killed over three million oak trees in California. Another more recently identified species is Phytophthora tentaculata, which was first spotted in California in 2012 on a sticky monkey-flower (Diplacus aurantiacus). Although more research needs to be done, researchers don’t know all of the plants that P. tentaculata can live on, it is highly likely that many California native plants can act as its host.


Unfortunately, the cost of eradicating Phytophthora once it has spread into wildlands is very high and the process is extremely difficult. But, if left untreated and uncontrolled, Phytophthora activity could increase and cause even more harm to native plant communities throughout California. In other words, transmitting Phytophthora to a restoration site would be a worst case scenario. That’s why prevention is key.

In addition to following a set of best management practices recommended by plant pathologists, Save The Bay is now leading a movement to tackle Phytophthora prevention head-on, using innovative and scientific techniques including:

  • reconfiguring our nurseries and updating porous surfaces so everything can be sanitized
  • requiring all nursery visitors to spray the bottoms of their shoes with an isopropyl alcohol solution to avoid tracking in contaminated dirt
  • mobilizing volunteers to help clean the pots used to grow and transplant our native species during community restoration events.

To further reduce the risk of plant-killing pathogens from invading our nurseries, we searched for a clean, uncontaminated soil source to use (ideally before the start of the 2017 planting season). During our search, we quickly realized that a Phytophthora-free soil currently doesn’t exist in the market. So, we decided to start making our own!

Soil BBQ

Together alongside Save The Bay’s Nursery Manager Jessie Olson, we worked together to invent a solution that would allow us to heat large quantities of moist soil at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes with steam — an environment that would kill any present water mold.

33314422745_800736afbe_oUsing a design pioneered by The Watershed Nursery as a guideline, we rigged together parts from a propane barbecue, steel trash can, and other heavy duty materials to create a soil treatment system. You know the cooling process is complete when you smell that fresh and organic compost smell!

Constructing a closed heat treatment system like this, let alone three, is a huge milestone that many nurseries in the region have not yet reached. Although it required some trial and error to assemble and operate (who knew you could cut copper pipe with a PVC pipe cutter?), this was an exciting cutting-edge project for me to be part of.

Best of all, starting this season we will be able to propagate all of our new seedlings in our clean soil! Or put another way, in laymen terms, Save The Bay now has the cleanest dirt in the Bay Area!

5 Things You Can Do For the Bay This Earth Day


Saving San Francisco Bay and our planet can feel daunting. We know how you feel, but inspiration is always around the corner (and in this blog!). Earth Day is this Saturday, April 22, and to celebrate we’ve put together 5 easy, worthwhile things you can do for our planet and our Bay.

1. Participate in the March for Science and People’s Climate March

Resist, stand up and put on your walking shoes!  Have a poster making gathering with your friends and march alongside thousands of scientists and eco-warriors at the March for Science on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, and the People’s Climate March on Saturday, April 29.  We’d love to see your rally cries, so don’t forget to include the hashtag #savesfbay in your social media posts!

2. Be a year-round Bay saver

Want to make a lasting commitment to our local environment AND get a cool Save The Bay t-shirt in time for the People’s Climate March? Become a Bay Sustainer today and support our work each month! Bay Sustainers are some of our most important donors. Your reliable monthly donation gives us the stability to plan for the future and ability to tackle urgent challenges to our local environment.

3. Volunteer with Save The Bay

Put on your hat, grab your gardening gloves, and prepare for a marvelous day with Save The Bay’s restoration team.  Sign up to volunteer at one of our wetland restoration events and help restore our shoreline. Healthy Bay wetlands not only improve the Bay’s water quality, but they also protect Bay Area communities from rising seas.

4. Inspire others – share your SF Bay photos on social media using #MyBayPhoto

From images of King Tides and trash in our waterways to pictures of people walking on the Bay Trail and soaking in the Bay views, we know first-hand that your Bay photos have the power to move and motivate people to create a cleaner, healthier San Francisco Bay. Help us spread the word! Next time you take a photo of the Bay, please share it with us on social media by tagging

5. Tell-a-Friend about STB and help expand our conservation conscious community

We depend on the Bay as much as the Bay depends on us to stay informed, ask questions, and take actions that help keep it thriving for years to come. Tell 5 friends about our work and ask them to subscribe to our emails. Sharing is caring!

Your support is one of reasons we have a beautiful Bay. Together we can make it cleaner and healthier for nature and people, keeping it vibrant long into the future. So, thank you in advance for your get-up-and-go and do-good determination.

Wishing you a happy and healthy Earth Day!

The Man Behind the Mission – A Chat with David Lewis, Executive Director for Save The Bay

Our fearless leader, David Lewis, celebrates his 19th Anniversary at Save The Bay this month. To honor this occasion, David’s colleague and friend, Robin Erickson, CFO, sat down for a chat to hear about his motivations, what keeps him up at night, and how he’s changed as a leader over nearly two decades.

David Lewis, Executive Director of Save The Bay. Photo: Mike Oria

I’ve worked for this man for 12 years. That’s 3,000 days in the office together. (OK, we’ve taken a few vacations in there, but you get the idea). And when I think about why I’m still at Save The Bay, David Lewis is at the forefront.

I’ve never stopped learning from David. About our fascinating Bay, about politics and history, and random Latin phrases I really wish I could remember (and have no idea how he does).

In the 12 years I’ve known David, he’s never slowed down. He leads by example. He cares about the people who work for him. He welcomes differing opinions. He doesn’t get defensive when you point out mistakes. He’s the first to sign up for kitchen cleaning duty.

I respect David a lot. So I was honored to sit down with him and ask him a few questions.

Robin: What’s the best part of your job?
David: A rare part of the job – being on the Bay, which I get to do when I’m participating in tours with donors or stakeholders. I’m lucky to see it from my office window (and my house), but it’s not the same. Experiencing the Bay be it walking, hiking, biking, sitting on the beach, kayaks, volunteering in a wetland restoration, etc. is inspiring and it’s what drives me to get up and go to work every day.

Robin: What’s the hardest part of your job?
David: Seeing more opportunities for Save The Bay to protect and restore the Bay than we have people and resources for. We have to be very strategic because there are way more things to work on than we are able.

Robin: How have you changed as a leader in 19 years? 
David: I’ve developed more confidence to make changes that need to be made. Earlier on I wasn’t always able to recognize when change was needed and act quickly. And I’ve realized the importance of hiring the best people available. Your effectiveness as a leader depends most on the people you hire. I’ve also become more comfortable delegating work, like some writing tasks and funder relationships.

Robin: When the going gets tough, what values and practices do you lean on to get you through your day?
David: Do something. When things get overwhelming it can seem paralyzing. I try to do the most important thing, but if that isn’t obvious I at least try to do something. It’s about action. It’s important to plan and to build alignment and consensus, but you can’t let that get in the way of making the call or having the meeting. What organizations and individuals do is more important than what they are “for.”

Robin: Where have you seen the most impact in environmental conservation in the Bay Area in the last 19 years?
David: When environmentalists truly partner and enlist other constituencies they have the most impact. There’s a saying, “Winning advocacy is about addition.” We have who we have, but how do we get who we need that we don’t yet have on our side? Measure AA is a great example.  There wasn’t any doubt that we would gain environmental leaders’ and organizations’ support, but we were going to need support from a two-thirds majority of 3.5 million registered voters. That required support from people who care about the Bay but don’t primarily identify as environmentalists —  business leaders, labor unions, community organizations, elected officials. That’s why it took 10 years. In the Bay Area we’ve done most of the easy stuff. Hard stuff requires building alliances and support outside our core constituency.

Robin: Like many conservation nonprofits, Save The Bay has survived decades of climate deniers and low funding prioritization. Today’s political climate creates more hurdles for nonprofits like us, how will Save The Bay survive for another 50+ years?
What you said about climate deniers is true in general but less true in the Bay Area and on the issue of the Bay. People here are mostly not climate deniers, they have concern for the environment and pride in the Bay, and we are a wealthy region overall, so it’s not as much of a challenge for us to tell that story (and be believed) as it is for environmental organizations in other parts of the country. A bigger challenge is that there are a lot of important causes competing for attention and support here (and the overall number of conservation donors is still a small fraction compared with other nonprofit causes). One of Save The Bay’s advantages, if we use it, is that our issue is visible and beloved. But when people look at it, the Bay looks beautiful, so we have to work harder to explain that the Bay isn’t saved: it is still threatened by pollution, climate change, and population growth in the region, and if we don’t continue to protect and restore it, it won’t support our economy or the lifestyle Bay Area residents love.

Robin: If a million dollars landed in our lap, what would Save The Bay work on?
David: I’d have Save The Bay work in more cities for our Bay Smart Communities program. It’s a new program that we’ve just launched that focuses on the importance of greening Bay Area communities to ensure a clean and healthy Bay.  We’re focusing on two cities to start with – Oakland and San Mateo – because we can’t be in too many places at the same time and know we can make a valuable impact in communities there. Long-term, I want us to be able to make a difference all around the Bay. I want us to make a bigger impact and faster… which requires a lot more money.

Robin: The Bay Area is the world leader in technological development. How has technology changed since you started at Save The Bay and what difference has it made?
On the plus side, technology gives us efficiency and power so we are able to reach more people to share our story and ultimately broaden support. The danger is when it becomes a crutch and barrier to personal contact because it’s often the personal contact that brings results. For example, we just got a first-time six-figure gift from a funder. I developed a phone relationship with a program officer, they spent two hours attending one of our restoration programs, and Save The Bay’s Habitat Restoration Director Donna Ball and I made an in-person presentation to their board. If I had limited my efforts to just email we wouldn’t have had the same result, but it was a multi-touch approach and the ability to have face-to-face time that helped us secure that support.

What I’ve learned is that every person likes to be contacted in different ways, for some, a phone call stands out more because email volume can be overwhelming, for others, they use text and social media to connect. A big advantage we have as a local organization with a volunteer program is that we can have that in-person contact, and that in-person time is priceless.

Robin: What keeps you awake at night?
David: Trump, lately. I worry about what the last election means for the future of our planet, our country, and our Bay. I’m still a pretty good sleeper, though.

Robin: What do you do when you’re not working?
David: I am fortunate to live on the edge of Tilden Park in the East Bay. I love to hike local trails and my dog loves it too because he can be off leash. I learned to ski after I was 40, which was difficult but (eventually) very rewarding. This year the snow came back after years of drought and low snowpack, so I’ve enjoyed some epic skiing with my family.

Robin: What advice would you give to yourself at 20? 
David: Work less, travel more.
Robin: Why that advice?
David: I grew up in the Bay Area, which is a great place, but not typical of the country or the world. Then I worked for 15 years in Washington, DC, which is also a great place, but pretty insular and sheltered “inside the Beltway”. I became a much more effective advocate by working on cleanup and shutdown of nuclear weapons production facilities with local activists. This was in remote places like Paducah, Kentucky, Amarillo, Texas, Eastern Washington state, and rural Ohio and Tennessee. That was tough territory. People working in those places had to be clever, efficient, and collaborative to be successful. By contrast, we live in a place where you can get 1,000 people to give you $25/year for almost any cause. It’s almost impossible to run an organization into the ground here because people here are well-off and generous and progressive. My travel to those other places made me appreciate what effective advocacy requires. Travel and exposure to more people and places has made me appreciate the advantages I have and the challenges other people face, so I can quickly get into that “don’t mourn – organize” mindset, appreciate the great advantages I have as a person, and we have as an organization. No whining!

Robin: Have you given that advice to your kids?
David: My girls have traveled way more than I did at their age (more credit to their mom than me). They don’t need me to give them that advice.

Robin: What gives you hope?
David: My kids. Young people, generally. We’ve had an incredible parade of talented people – staff and fellows – passing through the organization, bringing great work and energy and going on to other challenges. They become ambassadors for Save The Bay. Our Fellows Program is one of the best additions we’ve made at Save The Bay. It gives me hope.

2017 Conservation Action Award Winner David Lewis: With Ballot Measure Passed, What’s Next for Save the Bay?

DavidLewisPortraitILLO-1_squareI wonder at first why David Lewis has chosen to meet at Point Isabel, a somewhat nondescript stretch of filled Bay shoreline at the south edge of Richmond.

“What we’re standing on shouldn’t be here,” Lewis admits. “But look around!” He gestures toward the hills. “Up there is where Kay Kerr lived.” Kerr, one of the three founders of Save The Bay, the organization Lewis now heads, looked down on this shore when it was a row of active landfills pushing into the Bay—and knew she must take a stand. At home in Kensington, Lewis enjoys a similar but now less alarming view.

He gestures toward the Golden Gate. Under a streaky gray December sky is the glimmering reach of the Central Bay, bounded by its three big bridges, cradling its four big islands. In the campaign for Measure AA, the wetland restoration measure, “we learned what people see in their minds when they hear the word ‘Bay’.” It’s this: the bridges, the islands, the cities next to the water. Other stretches of bayshore are wider, wilder than Point Isabel. There are better places, north and south of here, for marshland restoration; there are better places to be alone with a big sky. Lewis is especially fond of China Camp in Marin and the vast expanses near Alviso. “But people like nature with people. That’s what we learned.”

Lewis grew up on an urbanized bayshore not unlike this one, in Palo Alto. The waterfront the family liked to visit had everything proper to such a shore: a duck pond, a sewage treatment plant, an airport where they went “to watch planes land,” and a dump. “Of course we went to the dump. The dump was a destination.”

His parents “sent in their dollar a year to Save The Bay,” the organization’s original and symbolic membership fee, but Lewis’s activism came home with him from school. During the 1976-77 drought, “I was the water police,” the monitor of running taps and lengthy showers. A summer class in natural history also planted some seeds.

These would not sprout, however, for 20 years. After high school, instead of following in his parents’ footsteps to Berkeley, Lewis chose the other coast, winding up at Princeton. He majored in politics and American studies, writing his senior thesis on the evolving nuclear freeze movement in the early 1980s. This interest led him to the arms control field and to Washington, D.C., where he worked successively for Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan), and the League of Conservation Voters. But the Bay kept pulling him back. He and his family had already decided on the move when, in 1998, Save The Bay tapped him as its second executive director.

It didn’t take long for lobbying skills honed in Washington to come into use in California. In 1998, San Francisco International Airport released a plan to add runways on Bay fill, the first big Bay encroachment proposed since the 1980s. The powers that be lined up in unanimous favor. “It looked unwinnable,” Lewis recalls. Some conservationists toyed with the thought of a grand bargain: SFO would get its expansion but fund the purchase of all the restorable former wetlands around the Bay rim. Lewis wasn’t tempted. “If there was going to be any accommodation, it should be at the end of the environmental review process, not the beginning. Even if we lost, we would have represented the Bay well.” The ensuing campaign followed the classic Save The Bay model—factual, science-based, polite, equipped with reasonable alternatives, implacable—arguing that the airport could clear up its rainy-day delays with gentler, cheaper, more sophisticated means. That would prove to be the case. “Later,” says Lewis, “SFO Director John Martin thanked me.”

Lewis would gladly declare victory in the generation-long battle against Bay fill, but “an old-style fight” continues at Redwood City, where Cargill hopes to develop 1,400 acres of crystallizer beds once used for salt production with 12,000 homes. Opposition has slowed down this new juggernaut, and the public is increasingly skeptical of the plan. “Meanwhile, the sea level keeps rising and the traffic gets worse.”

The restoration of the wetland rim, more urgent than ever as sea level rise gains speed, is proceeding without Faustian bargains. Lewis threw himself into the campaign to pass Regional Measure AA. Now the citizens of nine Bay counties are taxing themselves to plow ahead with the restoration job.

Save The Bay has recently raised and widened its sights, from the here and now to the long-term future and from the immediate shoreline to the wider Bay watershed. The streams that feed the Bay are carrying too much pollution, too many plastic bags, and often too little sediment to help rebuild marshes, Lewis says. “We need to look upland and upstream and influence what’s happening there—the way cities develop and adapt and conserve.”

The watershed vision leads to these bold words in the organization’s year-old 2020 Strategic Plan: “We must help save the Bay Area as a sustainable community with a healthy Bay at its heart.”

How do you do that? “You build more and deeper relationships where the [land] development is happening, with elected officials and agency staff. You look for community organizations and businesses to ally with. And you go after the money! It doesn’t work otherwise.” Acknowledging that Save The Bay is one of many partners, Lewis notes with pride, “We are more active than others in getting more money. We endorsed ten local ballot measures in November, and nine of them passed.”

Walking back to the Bay Trail trailhead, next to the joyful dogs of the Point Isabel off-leash area, we pause at the channel that nourishes remnant Hoffman Marsh. Lewis eyes the waters for bat rays, points out the mud banks where endangered Ridgway’s rails loaf at low tide. Across the marsh is a culvert where an urban creek pours into the tide. This one, it turns out, lacks even a name: It is mapped as Fluvius Innominata. Several neighboring streams, however, have been “daylighted” here and there, reopened to the sky. It’s symbolic of what Lewis is looking for. “Daylighting helps the creeks and builds interest, awareness, stewardship.”

He speaks of the tension sometimes felt between access and preservation. “I have no patience with excluding people too much from nature.” He corrects himself: “I have patience with a lot of things, actually. But it’s not necessary to wall off all of the wildlife from all of the people. We have a big enough canvas to have strict nature preserves and recreational access areas, too.”


This article was originally written by John Hart and posted on Bay Nature Magazine’s website March 28, 2017.