Taking the Long View at Bair Island

Inner Bair breach
Bay waters flow into Inner Bair Island culminating decades of community activism and wetland restoration.

The modern environmental movement has sometimes focused on responding to sudden, urgent crises.  Think oil spilling into rivers, species plummeting towards extinction, or toxic chemicals sickening people.

Indeed, Save The Bay was founded in 1961 in response to the alarmingly rapid decline of the San Francisco Bay.  Much of this organization’s early work was to stop the imminent destruction of large portions of the Bay for land “reclamation” purposes.  It was natural and even necessary to think in short-term time frames, so as to quickly react to rapid-fire developments and shifting tactics.

Today, with threats of new bay fill largely eliminated, attention is turning towards confronting the long-term threats to the Bay from climate change and sea level rise.  This increases the importance of careful planning and collaboration amongst various stakeholders to achieve successful restoration and protection of the Bay’s wetlands, which form a crucial defense against damage from extreme weather and encroaching waters.

It also requires working with nature itself, which restores degraded landscapes on a (often gradual) timescale of its own.

Persistence pays off at Bair Island

One timely example illustrating this shifting approach is the Bair Island restoration project in Redwood City, which celebrated a milestone on December 10 when a perimeter levee separating the Bay from Inner Bair Island was breached.  This moment is significant because it marks the completion of the nearly decade-long, $7 million project, some 35 years after the land was under threat of residential and business development.

Historically a flourishing wetland, Bair Island by the 1980s had been used for decades for agriculture and salt evaporation ponds.  In 1982, Mobil Oil owned the land, and wanted to construct a new development called South Shores on Bair Island.  A citizen’s group called Friends of Redwood City quickly arose to oppose this project, and through grassroots campaigning helped stop Mobil’s plans at the ballot box that year.

Since then, a long-running, multi-step process has been underway to complete the circle of ecological restoration at Bair Island.  First, the land was purchased by an entity that would ensure this outcome.  In 1997, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a local land trust, bought the land for $15 million.  In 1999, POST transferred the land to state and federal government agencies for inclusion in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, ensuring its permanent protection.

Then, a restoration plan needed to be crafted and funded.  A key collaborator in this process has been the conservation non-profit Ducks Unlimited, which pieced together much of the funding from government and foundation sources.  Construction began in 2006 and is now finishing up.

Investing for future challenges

Bair Island’s decades-long journey towards rehabilitation shows how complicated restoring ecosystems can be.  Local activists have successfully protected sites like Bair Island from reckless development around the Bay, which now must be restored to wetlands to benefit our region.  Chief among the challenges of accomplishing more projects like this one is finding the needed money.  Funding streams from the government, particularly through federal appropriations, can be unpredictable and inconsistent.  Contributions from foundations and individuals can significantly ebb and flow when the state of the economy changes.

Given this, having a dependable source of money would accelerate the timeline for pending and potential projects.  Like Bair Island, many of these projects could take decades from beginning to end.  So, we need to get to work now to see the benefits by the time sea level rise and climate change becomes more severe later this century, as stated in a recent scientific report.

The San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority (SFBRA) is a regional agency empowered to raise money specifically to fund Bay Area wetland restoration, shoreline improvement, pollution reduction, and flood protection. On January 13, SFBRA will vote on placing a measure on the June 2016 ballot that, if approved, would generate $500 million over two decades through a regional parcel tax.  Passing this measure will allow environmental stakeholders to more quickly and reliably undertake restoration efforts in all nine Bay Area counties.

The main threat to a thriving, productive Bay has changed.  We need long-term plans to address climate change and sea level rise.  Call on the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority to place the Clean and Healthy Bay measure on the June 2016 ballot.

Brunch by the Bay

Brunch by the Bay
Save The Bay Board Member Lynda Sullivan enjoys brunch with Founding Members Dan Tuerk and Jan Tuerk. Click the photo to view the full album. Photo credit: Mike Oria

On Sunday, friends of Save The Bay gathered at the East Bay Regional Parks Shoreline Center to celebrate the San Francisco Bay. We were joined by over 75 guests, including our Board of Directors, Founding Members, Legacy Society, and Save The Bay’s founder Sylvia McLaughlin and family.

At the event, Redwood City Councilmember Ian Bain was presented Save The Bay’s 2015 Leadership Award. In April, Bain was the first elected official from Redwood City to explicitly oppose housing on Cargill’s restorable salt ponds. Bain spoke with guests about his opposition to Cargill’s plans and commitment to a healthier Bay.

Sylvia McLaughlin was thanked by the many members who have stood by her side since the 1960s. Many shared their stories about what it was like growing up in a time when the Bay was being filled with trash from neighboring cities. Their memories of founders Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick making phone calls, writing letters and collecting $1 membership contributions to create the “Save San Francisco Bay Association” around Sylvia’s kitchen table were surreal. Save The Bay and the entire Bay Area have these women to thank for creating the movement to save the Bay from destruction.

It was wonderful and inspiring having such close friends of the organization celebrate San Francisco Bay together.  Thank you to our long-time supporters and new friends for making the event a huge success!

Thank you to our volunteer photographer, Mike Oria for capturing these special moments. You can view the gallery of photos from the Brunch by the Bay here.

Tribute: Founding Member Ralph Nobles of Redwood City

Ralph Nobles. Photo by: Christopher-Gardner
Ralph Nobles’ legacy will forever live on in our storied Bay Area environmental lore. Photo by: Christopher-Gardner

Another giant in the battle to prevent overdevelopment of San Francisco Bay has died.  Ralph Nobles, who led the Friends of Redwood City and won the fight to protect Bair Island, passed away February 20, at the age of 94.

The 2006 winner of Save The Bay’s Founding Member award, Ralph was a long-time activist who inspired me with his tenacity and wisdom.  When I first met him in 1998, he showed me around Redwood City’s Bair Island, and shared the story of the citizens’ movement he led that saved it from becoming another Foster City development.

In 1982, Redwood City’s city council had approved plans by Mobil Oil to build 20,700 homes and corporate offices on those diked islands that had been Bay tidal marsh.  Ralph and his wife Carolyn led a referendum to overturn that decision, founding the Friends of Redwood City and mounting a grassroots campaign from their living room against a massive corporation.  Mobil Oil rented a camel from Marine World and staked it out in the Baylands, with a big billboard calling the area a desert where nothing grew. Ralph hired a plane to fly a “Yes on O” banner over a football game at Stanford Stadium.

On election night, Ralph was in Florida on a business trip for Lockheed and learned by phone that Friends of Redwood City had lost the referendum by a narrow margin, but when absentee ballots were counted, the Mobil plan was defeated by 42 votes, out of more than 18,000 votes cast.

Several years later, after Mobil had sold the property to a Japanese company, Ralph and his allies in the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge placed an advertisement in the Tokyo edition of the New York Times that shamed the owner into selling the property to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, and it eventually became part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  Save The Bay volunteers have helped restore native vegetation on Inner Bair Island, where a breach will restore tidal action later this year.

Ralph played another part in American history years before, serving as one of the youngest physicists on the Manhattan Project in 1943.  He witnessed the Trinity test of the first bomb at Alamogordo, NM, in the summer of 1945, just before bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

In 2004, Ralph and a new generation of Friends of Redwood City helped defeat a plan to build 17 high-rise condominiums near the Port of Redwood City.  And he was a vocal opponent of Cargill’s proposal to build 12,000 homes on retired salt ponds just south of Bair Island.  That battle continues today, and Ralph’s legacy is an inspiration to those waging it.

“People want to live here because there is a healthy San Francisco Bay,” Nobles told the San Jose Mercury News in 2009.  “And if you destroy that you destroy our most precious commodity.”

See what Ralph saved for us.  Visit the Inner Bair Island trail – click here for directions.

Continue Ralph’s legacy by helping Save The Bay improve habitat for endangered species on Bair Island.  Sign up to volunteer there on April 11.

Read more about Raph’s remarkable journey here.

Guest Post | Share the Local Love for the South Bay

Carlsen Subaru Todd Parksinson San Francisco Bay
A vintage photo of Carlsen Subaru’s Todd Parkinson on the SF Bay

The “Share the Love” promotion is Subaru’s 7th annual holiday charity event where Subaru of America will donate $250 per new vehicle sold during the promotional period (November 20, 2014 to January 2, 2015) to one of the customer selected national or local charities. This year, individual dealerships, depending on their sales volume, had the option of also partnering with a local “hometown” organization that would then be added to the list. Carlsen Subaru in Redwood City chose Save The Bay as their local charity. General Manager Todd Parkinson talks about his connection to San Francisco Bay.

I approached Save The Bay to be Carlsen Subaru’s hometown charity for several reasons. First of all, Subaru owners in general tend to be environmentally conscious people who enjoy wildlife and the outdoors. I think that most of our local Subaru customers would agree that San Francisco Bay, its estuaries and the Delta, are all treasures that should be safeguarded and protected. Therefore, I felt confident that Save the Bay’s mission would resonate well with our present and future customers. In addition, I have a very personal connection with the bay as I have spent quite a bit of time exploring the waterways, marshes, and levees surrounding San Francisco Bay and the delta.

Forty years ago, I was introduced to the wonders of the South San Francisco Bay by my father George. Alviso, the ghost town known as Drawbridge, the miles of Leslie Salt levees, and the sloughs and marshlands of the surrounding south bay area was my playground growing up. Almost every weekend, I would accompany my father exploring these areas. In the early years, we would ride motorcycles out the salt pond levees to the end of Alviso slough and fish for sharks, sturgeon, striped bass and sting-rays.   Later we would launch our various trailer-able boats from Alviso, Redwood City, and San Mateo to fish and explore the bay. During my teenage years, my family had a large boat berthed in Alameda. Several weekends a month were spent motoring around San Francisco, Angel Island, Sausalito, and occasionally making the long trip to the fresh water of the Delta.

As far as my favorite memories or San Francisco Bay experiences, there are many. My father and I used to ride our motorcycles from Alviso down the railroad tracks (yes down the middle of the railroad tracks as it’s the smoothest place to ride) to the remnants of the town of Drawbridge. As a youngster, exploring the old abandoned buildings perched on the marshes made a lasting impression. This trip also made for many exciting close encounters with the trains, especially at high tide when there was very little room on either side of the tracks to escape the approaching train. More than once, we were forced to crouch just off the tracks while the train whizzed by at 50mph plus. Thankfully, my mother did not get the full details of these adventures until years later. Throughout the years, there were also countless successful fishing trips with my family and friends from the South Bay to outside the Golden Gate. Fleet Week on the water was always a special treat. Being able to get close to the war ships and watching the Blue Angels fly over the bay were true highlights that I will never forget.

As a father, I have retraced some of the same south bay levees with my children. Instead of motorcycles and fishing poles, we now set out with mountain bikes and energy bars. I am happy to say that the geography remains much the same as I remember it from years ago. The trail systems that now border the bay have increased public access. However, I don’t take this fact for granted. Without the efforts of multiple governmental and private partners who have worked together to safeguard this local treasure, the current state of the bay could have been a very sad story. Thankfully, this is not the case. It is my hope that the Carlsen Subaru/Save the Bay partnership will result in increased funding and local awareness for Save the Bay so the organization can continue to preserve and protect this wonderful local resource.

— Todd Parkinson, General Manager of Carlsen Subaru in Redwood City

Cargill Tries to Gut the Clean Water Act to Build Homes in The Bay

Cargill Salt and its developer partner DMB revealed last month that they attempted to secure a key exemption from the federal Clean Water Act that would have weakened the nation’s top water pollution law for the benefit of their reckless development scheme in Redwood City. And they almost succeeded: the companies convinced a key official at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarter to unilaterally reinterpret the law. Thankfully, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervened to block Cargill’s effort, at least temporarily.

The revelation shows Cargill is still desperate to advance its massive housing development on Bay salt ponds, and even is willing to gut the nation’s most important water protection law without any public process or Congressional debate. Through vigorous behind-the-scenes lobbying of a few federal government lawyers, Cargill almost upended laws that have reduced water pollution and protected public health for more than 40 years.

In August, Cargill released documents to a Redwood City newspaper showing that general counsel of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tried to instruct the agency’s San Francisco District to decline federal oversight of the Redwood City salt ponds where Cargill wants to build thousands of homes.

The Daily News reported that the Corps’ Chief Counsel, Earl H. Stockdale, signed a memo in January exempting the Saltworks site from Clean Water Act coverage because the ponds contain “liquid” that has “been subject to several years of industrial salt making processes.” His memo repeats nearly verbatim arguments DMB made two years ago that the concentrated bay water in the ponds is actually not water.  Stockdale’s memo also suggests that most of the ponds are also not covered by the Rivers and Harbors Act, which discourages construction of structures on “navigable water”.

If adopted as policy, Stockdale’s memo would overturn decades of Corps precedents in San Francisco Bay, including the Corps’ 2010 conclusion that development on the Saltworks site does require federal permission because those ponds do contain water protected by the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act. Stockdale’s memo was issued without any public process or review, and without consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has primary authority over implementation of the Clean Water Act.

When the EPA discovered Stockdale’s memo, it intervened to halt any hasty decision about the Saltworks property. EPA officials realized that Stockdale’s reinterpretation could not only block protection of Bay salt ponds, but also jeopardize regulation of polluted runoff from mines and other sites across the nation. EPA Region 9 Administrator Jared Blumenfeld insisted that EPA have final say on the Clean Waters Act “in light of the significance of the issues raised by the Corps’ proposed approach and the ecological importance of the San Francisco Bay waters at issue.”

The EPA’s intervention prompted senior Army Corps officials to suspend any action on the Cargill site. They have launched an internal review of Stockdale’s memo and how its sweeping change to federal water law could be snuck through the regulatory process without their knowledge, public review, EPA consultation, or action by Congress.

Even if Cargill wins the ruling it seeks from the Army Corps, it will still face hurdles from other state and federal agencies to secure permits for developing on the Bay shoreline.  And no development project on the Redwood City salt ponds can advance without initial approval from the city itself.  Cargill’s formal project proposal was withdrawn from the city in May 2012, after three years of strenuous opposition from local residents and Bay Area elected officials prevented the completion of even a draft environmental analysis.

Residents objected to the city council considering the project because it was at odds with Redwood City’s General Plan and zoning, state and federal laws. Local opposition to the project prompted hundreds of residents to establish a new citizens group, Redwood City Neighbors United. These residents continue to object that Cargill’s plan would destroy restorable wetlands, add to traffic gridlock, overtax drinking water supplies, encroach upon industries at the Port of Redwood City, and put thousands of new residents at risk of floods from rising seas.

For years, Cargill and DMB have acted as if they were above the law, but they have made no progress convincing local, state and federal agencies their Saltworks project is legal. Now they have arrogantly disclosed their own effort to gut the laws that protect San Francisco Bay and the nation’s water so they can boost their profits.

These companies have been tireless and shameless, but Save The Bay and our allies remain vigilant to Cargill’s sneak attacks, and we have mobilized more than 25,000 Bay Area residents and more than 150 elected officials to tell Cargill to abandon its plan to build in the Bay.

Please help us spread the word! If you haven’t already signed our petition telling Cargill to abandon its plan, do so today, and spread the word to your friends here today.