Restoration projects bring birds back to SF Bay

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project has restored about 3,000 acres of habitat in the past 12 years, and the bird population has doubled. Photo courtesy of Nasa.
The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project has restored about 3,000 acres of habitat in the past 12 years, and the local bird population has doubled. With adequate funding, this project would restore 15,000 acres. Measure AA would fund critical restoration projects like this one. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The ambitious South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, the largest tidal wetland restoration project on the West Coast, is already seeing some impressive results, according to biologists who have surveyed the area.

The populations of ducks and shorebirds in the area have doubled over 12 years, from 100,000 in 2002 to 200,000 in 2014, according to a report issued in October by researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies.

“It shows that what’s been done so far appears to be working. It’s really great,” said Susan De La Cruz, a wildlife biologist with the USGS who did much of the research told the Mercury News.

The success of the California Coastal Conservancy’s South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is an example of how wetland restoration can improve habitat for wildlife such as birds, fish, seals, and sharks, in addition to reducing the risk of flooding due to sea level rise associated with climate change,” says Donna Ball, Habitat Restoration Director for Save The Bay.

Historically, diking off wetlands along the bay’s shore for production of salt was a major factor in losing much of the bay’s tidal marshland.  Starting in the 1850s, salt production became a major industry, covering some 16,500 acres, most of which was owned by Cargill Inc. In 2003, Cargill sold 15,000 acres to state and federal agencies and private foundations, which drew up plans to restore the salt ponds to a more natural condition.

Already the South Bay restoration project has reconnected about 3,000 acres of salt ponds to the bay with the goal of revitalizing them as tidal marshes.  When complete, the project will have restored 15,000 acres of former salt ponds to wetlands and other vital habitats.

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is scheduled to be completed over the next 50 years if funding is available. Measure AA on the June 7 ballot is designed to generate $500 million over the next 20 years to provide funds for this project and many others throughout the Bay Area.

All around San Francisco Bay, there are more than 30,000 acres awaiting restoration. Your YES vote for Measure AA will help provide the funding needed for many of these much-needed projects.

How Measure AA could benefit your county

Restoration Map
Examples of projects that could be eligible for funds generated by Measure AA. Map courtesy of San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority

Measure AA for a Clean and Healthy Bay on the June ballot would generate, via a modest $12 parcel tax, badly needed funding for restoration of San Francisco Bay wetlands to benefit people, wildlife and the Bay Area economy.  Here are some examples of specific projects throughout the Bay Area that could be funded by Measure AA:

Alameda County: At the Alameda Point Seaplane Lagoon, vast paved areas could be transformed into ecologically rich habitats and wetlands with visitor amenities, including picnic and camping areas, a pedestrian and bicycle promenade, and water access points for boats.

Contra Costa County: At the North Richmond Shoreline and San Pablo Marsh, projects could  include improvement of endangered California Ridgway’s Rail habitat, removal of imported fill, establishment of transitional habitats between the marsh and upland areas, and development of public access for wildlife viewing and education.

Marin County: At Richardson Bay, funds could go to sand and gravel bay beach designs to combat shoreline erosion due to sea level rise. Funds could also go to protecting one of San Francisco Bay’s largest eelgrass beds, which provide food and shelter for fish and invertebrates and feeding grounds for migratory water birds.

Napa County: Funds could go toward implementation of the Napa County Youth Ecology Corps, which aims to train young adults in natural resource management. Crews would work on invasive species management and habitat enhancement projects to improve the resilience of tidal wetlands and buffer against sea level rise.

San Francisco: At China Basin Park, just across from the Giants’ AT&T Park, funding could be used for design and construction of a new, more natural shoreline to replace the current rip-rap. This would create habitat, improve public access and protect the park from sea level rise.

San Mateo County: At the popular Coyote Point Recreation Area, funding could be provided for the Eastern Promenade Project including a beach restoration project designed to protect the shoreline against  future sea level rise as well as against high winds and constant wave action. Projects could also include a trail from the Western Promenade to the Bluff trail on the Coyote Point knoll, along with visitor amenities, such as a new restroom and picnic areas.

Santa Clara County: The Alviso Ponds, part of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, could include over 700 acres of wetland restoration in the Mountain View area, restoration of over 1,400 acres of wetlands in Alviso to improve fish habitat and water quality, enhancements to over 250 acres of wetlands in the Milpitas area, and new trails and interpretive features.

Sonoma County: At Sears Point, funds could go toward completion of tidal marsh restoration, improving habitat at newly restored wetlands to encourage the return of rare and endangered species  such as the Ridgway’s rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse, and development of a visitor center at the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Solano County: At the Benicia shoreline, funds would go to restoration of wetlands and beach habitats, protection of adjacent infrastructure, installation, and management of public trails and protection of wetlands and Bay from urban stormwater.

These restoration projects represent examples of the unprecedented opportunity for Bay Area residents to accelerate improvements all around the region, but the missing piece is funding. To   generate badly needed funding for large-scale Bay restoration, your YES vote is needed on Measure AA on June 7.

Measure AA seeks Bay Area-wide parcel tax to restore wetlands

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 1, 2016. 

Talk with anyone working to restore marshes and wetlands along San Francisco Bay, and they’ll say there’s no shortage of projects that are all but ready to go — except for the lack of funds.

If Measure AA passes on June 7, that job gets easier to the tune of roughly $25 million a year.

“This would be a huge benefit for us,” said John Bourgeois, project manager for the California State Coastal Conservancy’s efforts to convert 15,000 acres of South Bay salt ponds to a seminatural condition. “We own the property, we have the plan in place, and we know how to do this kind of restoration. The missing piece is money.”

The measure would create a parcel tax across the Bay Area of $12 per parcel for the next 20 years. The money raised would be dispensed across the region on an annual basis to projects with measurable environmental benefits in terms of wildlife habitat, public access and “protecting communities from flood.” Like other such tax proposals in California, it needs a “yes” from two-thirds of voters to become law.

A nine-county measure of this sort is a first for the Bay Area. It also differs from such tax initiatives as countywide transportation improvements that spell out exactly who gets what down the road. The idea with Measure AA is to replenish a pool of money each year available for projects deemed worthy, whether it provides the final bit of cash for a restoration effort or helps attract federal and state funding.

The approach also makes sense, proponents say, given the huge body of water that would benefit — a placid-looking estuary that stretches from San Jose to Petaluma, the Golden Gate to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“People view the bay and its shoreline as a regional asset and a regional symbol,” said David Lewis, executive director of the advocacy group Save the Bay. “We all see it, and we all share it in that regard.”

Leaving nothing to chance

The tax has long been a goal of local environmentalists eager for a guaranteed stream of financial support for restoration efforts, and the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority was created by the state Legislature in 2008 to dispense funds should an ongoing source exist. But the recession put the initiative on hold.

Even now, given the novelty of the nine-county approach and the requirement of a “supermajority” of voter support, the pro-AA campaign is leaving nothing to chance. Extensive polling occurred before the $12 figure was chosen, as well as the decision to pursue a flat parcel tax rather than something keyed to the value of individual properties. Roughly $2.5 million has been raised for the campaign, and endorsements have been collected from more than 600 individuals, organizations and government bodies — a cross-section that ranges from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the Oakland Chamber of Commerce to 57 environmental groups.

The only opposition at this point is a loose alliance of groups opposed to new taxes and people wary of anything that smacks of regional government, especially one with tax revenue flowing its way.

“The concern for us isn’t taxes but regionalism, the fact that we’d be losing local control,” said Marcy Berry of the Nine-County Coalition, formed this year in response to Measure AA. As for the idea that the bay’s challenges reach beyond county lines, Berry called that “a spurious argument. We still have a form of government that says each local community has a say.”

Urgency of climate change

If there’s a way in which this year’s campaign differs from what we might have seen when the parcel tax idea was conceived, it’s the emphasis on the likelihood of sea level rise in the coming decades. Unless the pace of marsh restoration picks up in coming years, environmentalists say, there will be less of a chance to create ecologically adaptable wetlands along the bay as it expands.

“A decade ago, we were still explaining the local impact that climate change would have,” Lewis said. “What has changed is that more of the public and our elected officials have come to recognize the urgency posed by sea level rise.”

The campaign isn’t shy about playing this card, with one flyer emphasizing the need to “protect our shoreline in the future.” Scientists make the same point.

“We need to restore as much as we can by 2030 to get ahead of the sea level rise curve” that forecasts the increase gaining speed after 2050, Bourgeois said. “If I restore a salt pond today, it’s going to be 20 years before it is truly well established.”

At the same time, Save the Bay’s Lewis knows that distant dangers are no match for a kayak ride or the sight of reeds rippling near the road.

“For most voters, sea level rise isn’t the top motivator,” Lewis said. “They want the bay to be clean and healthy.”

-John King, San Francisco Chronicle 

Guest post | Cleaning up South Bay Creeks

Chinook Salmon
Local cleanup efforts have made Los Gatos Creek healthier for Chinook salmon.

For the past 3 years, the South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition has been a community-based volunteer effort struggling to restore our trash-clogged South Bay Creeks and Rivers, removing over 140 tons of trash. Prior to this effort, the winter storms carried much of this trash downstream and into the Bay. As this work has progressed, we are seeing nature reward us with the return of beaver absent from our creeks for over 160 years and improved habitat for steelhead and Chinook salmon.

This work is only a piece in a larger chain of an interconnected puzzle with each impacting the other. The benefit to our Bay’s health by setting aside a long term financial commitment via Measure AA is an important next step.

– Steve Holmes, South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition 

SF Chronicle endorses Measure AA

San Francisco Chronicle Masthead

A Way to Help Save the Bay

The San Francisco Chronicle published the following endorsement of Measure AA on April 8, 2016

The bay is what we love about living in the San Francisco Bay Area. It defines the landscape, sets the mood with its ever-changing aspect, helps provide the foods we love and connects us with nature — whether you sail the bay, walk the bay shore, bird-watch or just cross the bay during your day. The bay is our protector from severe weather. But the bay needs your help.

A parcel tax, Measure AA on the June 7 ballot in nine Bay Area counties, would generate funds to restore the bay wetlands and shelter bay communities from flooding and storm surge. Its very genesis as our region’s first nine-county tax measure conveys its importance to the Bay Area’s future. “This is a true regional opportunity to make something happen that needs to get done,” said Jim Wunderman, the president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business organization.

What needs doing is restoring the bay wetlands. Those watery swathes of grasses and pickleweed that line the bay’s edge are more than nurseries for fish and birds and attractive places to walk and paddle. The broad plains of marsh plants and wandering waterways allow storm-driven waves to spread out, dissipating their destructive force and lowering floodwaters. The problem is: There aren’t enough to act as the sponge we need to protect the airports, hospitals and office buildings we’ve built alongside the bay.

Since the 1800s, we have paved over wetlands for building sites or diked them for hay fields. Today, rising seas threaten to drown the marshes we do have because dams have held back the needed, nourishing sediment carried to the bay each spring. Work started in the 1960s has about 44,000 acres of tidal wetlands restored. There are another 35,000 acres available for restoration now, with the goal of reaching a total of 100,000 acres by 2030. Modern engineered levees, rather than mounded earth berms, also are needed to protect homes and offices.

The $12-a-parcel tax is expected to raise $25 million a year or $500 million over its 20-year term to aid that work. Those dollars will be used to leverage funding from state, federal and philanthropic sources. Other wetlands restoration projects — notably Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound — have attracted four times the federal dollars that San Francisco Bay projects have, according to David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay. A source for a local match will help draw more federal funding here.

Persuading two-thirds of voters in nine counties to tax themselves remains a heavy but necessary lift. The San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, created by the Legislature in 2008, put the measure on the ballot and will allocate the funds. It will rank projects by need and geography so that every county receives some funding.

The need encircles the bay. The chair, San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, noted that his county is the most vulnerable to sea level rise, as measured by property value. Santa Clara County, with areas lying 13 feet below sea level, has highways and a water treatment plant at risk.

There’s another plus: “The measure is helping us build collaborative muscle,” Lewis said. “It is giving us a place to start to tackle other regional problems” — such as housing and transportation.

This modest tax has the potential to restore invaluable protective and pollution-cleansing powers of the tidal wetlands. We recommend a “yes” vote on Measure AA for those who live around and value the bay.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 2016