Biodiversity: More Is Not Always Better

Happy Biodiversity Day! Most of us have heard the word biodiversity being tossed around as an important subject that requires our attention, but why is biodiversity so important? This topic is much more difficult to address than you might think. Biodiversity refers to the level of variation of life within an ecosystem. Plants and animals have everything they need to live sustainably together in an ecosystem that has healthy biodiversity. Although biodiversity is a crucial subject in restoration science, there can be a misunderstanding that more biodiversity is always better. Researchers are finding that the types of species in an ecosystem are just as important as the number of species and more isn’t always better. Save The Bay confronts this issue of biodiversity every time we design a habitat restoration plan for tidal wetland transition zones within the San Francisco Bay.

Biodiverse restored transition zone habitat at Eden Landing with invasive monoculture of mustard on the other side of the fence.

To better understand this idea that more biodiversity isn’t always better when designing habitat restoration plans, let’s first consider what habitat restoration means and what’s being restored. Effective environmental restoration will restore ecosystem function. Ecosystem function involves biological, geochemical, and physical processes that vary between systems, but maintain a specific balance within each ecosystem, and that balance is delicate. Plants, animals, water, and earth all contribute to how ecosystems function, and when one of those contributions change, so do the others. Those changes not only displace the effectiveness and sustainability of food webs (Zedler and Kercher, 2004) but they also affect ecosystem services that humans rely on, such as food, water, medicine, transportation, employment, inspiration, shelter, and protection… to name a few. For example, an important ecosystem service that wetlands offer humans is their role as breeding and nursery grounds for economically important fish species, including the Pacific anchovy, California halibut, rainbow trout, and Chinook salmon. Tidal wetlands also provide important feeding and stopping grounds for migrating birds, which not only contribute to maintaining healthy populations of those economically important fish species, but also help to maintain healthy native insect and rodent populations.

Once researchers learned the importance of biodiversity and discovered it was diminishing, so began the mission to determine the cause for this great loss. Many factors have contributed to our worldwide decrease in biodiversity, and tidal wetlands are among the greatest victims. 90% of the San Francisco Bay wetlands have been destroyed due to bayfill, contamination, industrial use, and fragmentation. This hardship makes life difficult (if not impossible) for the San Francisco native species that depend on a healthy wetland habitat, and therefore, the wetlands have developed a decreased immunity to invasions by non-native species. Invasive non-native species thrive when conditions are difficult for the natives and they often completely take over entire ecosystems if left unchecked. Not all non-native species are invasive, just the ones that demolish the native diversity. And San Francisco Bay has the greatest number of invasive species anywhere in the western hemisphere.

As environmental scientists learned more about the intricacies of biodiversity, it became apparent that diversity should reflect the needs of the resident flora and fauna, since both are so interconnected. This observation may indicate that, while biodiversity offers the benefit of ecosystem stability, restoring an ecosystem to a sustainable functioning state should be the ultimate goal. So, rather than focusing on the blanket idea of increasing biodiversity across the board, researchers and practitioners have begun to implement the idea of restoring the biodiversity that has been lost in a particular area. That means that if a particular ecosystem historically was home to only a few species, practitioners are better off trying to restore the functions that those few species provided to that area, which is the entire point of restoration. Save The Bay works hard to understand and recognize the specific ecosystem functions at each of our sites and the specific native plant species that are capable of supporting those functions. Join us on one of our community-based restoration programs to ensure that the flowers have bees for pollination, the birds have a place to perch and nest, and the salt marsh harvest mouse has sufficient refugia during high tide.

Zedler, JB and Kercher S. (2004). Causes and consequences of invasive plants in wetlands: Opportunities,
opportunists, and outcomes. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences. 23(5):431-452.

Drought Puts Planting Season in Jeopardy

Habitat Restoration Volunteers Planting Native Seedlings
Volunteers plant native seedlings along the Bay shoreline.
Photo Credit: Dan Sullivan.

2013 was the driest year on record in California, leaving 87% of California in a severe drought. The drought we’re experiencing is caused by a massive high pressure ridge that has camped out over the eastern Pacific Ocean for 13 months. This ridge is pushing the jet stream that normally delivers our rainfall and snowpack up to Canada.

The State Department of Water Resources is likely to recommend that Governor Brown declare a drought emergency by February 1st. In a meeting with Central Valley farmers and water managers on Monday, Governor Brown responded to drought declaration questions with “not today, but we’re certainly getting ready.”  This declaration could loosen water quality regulations that are meant to protect endangered fish, allowing more water to be delivered throughout the state.

Major Bay Area water agencies are expected to make decisions in the next few months about whether to impose mandatory summer water restrictions. Meanwhile, local water utilities in Sonoma and Marin counties have launched a campaign to educate the public about conserving water. Lake Mendocino, which supplies water to Sonoma County is at 38% of capacity. Reservoirs in the Mokelumne River watershed, which supply most of the East Bay’s water, are still two-thirds full. The ten local reservoirs in Santa Clara County are at 33 percent capacity.

The lack of rainfall is also having a significant impact on Save The Bay’s planting season. Our on-the-ground wetland restoration projects re-establish native plants in the unique transition zone habitat located between Bay water and land. Our Habitat Restoration team and thousands of volunteers restore the wetlands by growing seedlings in our nurseries, sowing the plants along the shoreline, and maintaining the sites by removing invasive weed species and cleaning up trash.

Donna Ball, our Habitat Restoration Director, wrote last year about the difficulty of planting and maintaining 30,000 seedlings without adequate rainfall. We plant during the rainy season because newly installed plants require water to ensure their survival immediately after planting. With an even drier winter so far and an ambitious 40,000 plants to put in the ground by the end of March, this planting season has proven even more challenging. Donna says that “due to the lack of rain this winter, our staff and volunteers have spent more time on watering instead of planting, jeopardizing our ability to plant all 40,000 seedlings.” We need more volunteers to help us get these plants in the ground and keep them watered.

Help us get through this drought with 40,000 healthy plants in the ground and intact by volunteering at one of our habitat restoration events! Visit to sign-up!



UPDATE – January 17, 2014:

Governor Brown has declared a Drought State of Emergency.  In his press release, the Governor said “We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas.”  The Governor called on all Californians “to conserve water in every possible way.”  Please visit the Office of the Governor’s website to view the press release and the language of the Governor’s proclamation.  



UPDATE – January 21, 2014:

“State regulators can now relax water quality standards, allowing rivers and estuaries to be saltier and warmer, as they try to manage the state’s limited supplies.”  A KQED article explains how the drought declaration will loosen environmental regulations.

Taking Ownership of Our Public Shorelines

This past fall, Woodside-Atherton Garden Club became the first community organization to adopt a section of Bay shoreline under Save The Bay’s new Adopt-a-Shoreline Leadership Program. What this means is that the Garden Club pledges to restore a section of the shoreline near our nursery at Palo Alto Baylands back to functioning transition zone habitat. The club will also use the site as a demonstration shoreline to connect the public to the processes of native plant propagation and habitat restoration.


At Save The Bay we are really excited about this new program for its potential to deepen our connections in communities around the Bay and create new opportunities for local civic organizations to get involved in Bay conservation.

But there’s an even bigger idea behind all of this. The Bay is a public resource and it’s the responsibility of everyone who lives here to do his or her part to make sure it thrives.

This idea of taking “ownership” of our public lands is hardly new. Communal management of land was the norm in many places around the world for centuries—though the stewardship ethic dramatically decreased with the rise of private property ownership.

When Save The Bay was founded, fewer than 6 miles of the San Francisco Bay Shoreline was publically accessible. The vast majority of the shoreline was privately owned and highly modified to make way for urbanization, farming, and salt ponds. Over 90% of the the Bay’s wetland habitat was lost and its shoreline became a dumping ground for waste and sewage.

Over the past 50 years, through the efforts of Save The Bay and countless other organizations and concerned citizens, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in our conservation and stewardship values of the Bay. Hundreds of miles of shoreline are now publically accessible. Tens of thousands of acres of critical wetland habitat have been restored, and although we have a long way to go to fully restore the remaining acres needed to provide habitat for the wildlife of the region, there is good reason to be optimistic. We are at a turning point in history regarding how we value our natural resources. Now is the perfect time to encourage our communities to take further steps to take back ownership of these precious public, natural resources.

The Woodside-Atherton Garden Club is an ideal group for pioneering this new partnership. As one of over 200 garden clubs affiliated with the Garden Club of America, the club is committed to connecting people to gardening and improvement of public spaces through horticulture, as well as conservation of native flora.

Save The Bay’s community-based habitat restoration program works with more than 6,000 volunteers every year to restore the tidal marsh-upland transition zone, important habitat for two endangered species, the California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. We propagate locally collected, native plants at two facilities: the MLK Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland, in partnership with the East Bay Regional Park District; and at the Palo Alto Baylands, through the City of Palo Alto. We welcome volunteers along the shoreline at all of our sites, as well as in our two nurseries.

To find out more about the Adopt-a-Shoreline Leadership Program, please connect Doug Serrill by email at, or by phone at (510) 463-6828. For other exciting volunteer opportunities to help restore this critical resource, please visit our website. I hope to see you at our nurseries and along the shoreline!

Notes from the Field | Asters along the Bay

If you’ve been searching for the best fall activities in the bay area, ponder no longer, because I’ve found the best kept secrets down by the edge of the bay.   After spending the past few weeks conducting our annual vegetation monitoring of our restoration sites around San Francisco Bay, I’d like to encourage everyone to check out our fabulous native fall bloomers right now.  Sure, you’ve had friends and family suggest locations to check out the amazing wildflower displays in the spring after the winter rains, but once the hillsides turn that quintessential golden hue of summer, most folks neglect to think about what might be in bloom in the fall.

What’s providing sustenance late in the summer season to our pollinators and wildlife alike?  What’s the largest family of flowering plants in the world and in the California floristic province?  Asters!

Many of the plants in flower and going to seed throughout the fall are in the Asteraceae, or sunflower family.  According to, there are more than 27,000 accepted species in this family worldwide.  Asteraceae species are well represented in California, with more 1,400 species, and over 300 species recognized in the bay area.

Plants in the Asteraceae family grow from the Sierras to San Francisco Bay and range in size from large shrubs to small annual herbs.  The most distinct characteristic are their flowers, which cluster together in inflorescences to resemble individual flowers.  Take a sunflower, for example, the seeds are formed from separate disc flowers that have small petals often fused together in a ring, and the  yellow petals we see, are actually a ring of individual ray flowers, each with a single petal.  There are three types of inflorescences in the sunflower family — those composed entirely of ray flowers, those composed entirely of disk flowers, and those, like the sunflower, that consist of both.  Each flower produces a single seed, known as an achene, that sometimes has hairs, or pappus, that help carry it away from the mother plant, much like dandelions.  These plants’ pollen and seeds provide critical sources of food for insects, birds, and mammals. They also provide a beautiful display of colors for us to enjoy along the shoreline and throughout the hillsides all around the bay.

Here’s a good selection of native species that are in bloom along the bay’s shoreline this month.

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To learn more about these amazing species and other native plants along the edge of the bay, come join us at any of our fun volunteer programs at our nurseries in Oakland and Palo Alto and the sites we’re working to restore!

Happy fall flower hunting!


Notes from the Field | A sagebrush by any other name

Artemisia californica a.k.a. ARCA a.k.a. California Sagebrush

Artemisia californica a.k.a. ARCA a.k.a. California Sagebrush

My favorite marsh plant goes by many different names. A wetland ecologist may refer to it by its Latin name, the general public will most likely use the common name, but I call it ARCA. You may have noticed this is a shortened version of the Latin name combining the first two letters of the genus and species, a common practice among those who work with numerous plant varieties on a daily basis.

ARCA came to be my favorite marsh species due to its vibrant green color and a pungent, herbal smell it shares with its cousin, Artemisia douglasiana (a.k.a. Mugwort), another species you can find in Save The Bay’s nurseries and along the shorelines of the San Francisco Bay. This smell is derived from terpenes, a diverse class of organic compounds produced by a variety of plants and a few insects.

Aside from ARCA’s pleasant aromatics, it is quite useful to humans and animals alike. Often found in the upper edges of the ecotone and in chaparral environments, ARCA is rarely eaten by animals but provides important cover from predators as it grows into larger bushes. It is incredible to see ARCA grow from year to year at our sites, as they start out no bigger than a hand and continue to grow into bushes a few feet across. Interestingly, while animals are not interested in ingesting this plant, humans can use it in cooking as a spice or as tea. Much like its cousin ARDO that is used medicinally to aid digestion, ARCA tea can be used to treat coughs and colds.

Interested in hanging out with some ARCA? Check out upcoming volunteer programs in one of our nurseries or at one of our sites.