The majority of Bay Area residents live and work within a half mile from the Bay, which makes the San Francisco Estuary one of the most urbanized estuaries in the world. Humans have valued the Bay for various ecosystem services throughout history and have modified the Bay to take advantage of some of those services. For example, humans have diked large areas of the Bay for commercial salt production and duck hunting, and have built trails close to the Bay so that they can enjoy the cultural services that the Bay provides. They have also hampered some of those services by filling and paving over large areas of the Bay to build urban infrastructure, and until the 1960’s, used the Bay as a place to dispose of garbage and sewage. It has only been the last several decades that the general public began to realize the importance of the natural ecosystem services the SF Bay provides.
San Francisco Bay was once ringed by healthy wetland habitats. Those wetlands, in many cases, gradually transitioned from tidal wetlands to upland terrestrial habitat. Those areas of gradual transition would often extend for a mile or more, comprising large expanses of native grasses and salt tolerant plants utilized by abundant wildlife populations. Over time, those transition areas have been squeezed between urban infrastructure and the Bay. These areas at the marsh-upland interface, that we call estuarine-terrestrial transition zones, are important because they provide important and unique ecosystem functions and services. Faced with climate change, transition zones can provide important ecosystem services, including buffering hazards associated with sea level rise such as flooding and erosion, and providing a place for wetlands to migrate inland. In addition, the transition zone provides nutrient cycling, filtration of pollutants from urban runoff, and support for biological diversity.
If someone had told me before I visited Hayward’s Eden Landing, that I’d see dozens of graceful white birds swooping over the marsh, or that a feeling of complete peace would wash over me once I stepped onto the levee, I never would have believed them.
As a San Franciscan who avoids freeways whenever possible, I’d never even been to Hayward before my first field experience as a new Save The Bay employee. All of my prior experience with wetlands had been in areas close to heavily populated urban areas, and well-used by the public, such as the Berkeley Marina. I didn’t know what to expect.
When I first turned off the freeway and began to make my way past the shopping centers and dense housing developments toward Save The Bay’s restoration site at Eden Landing, I have to admit I wasn’t expecting to experience beauty or peace. The area is both industrial and heavily residential. There didn’t seem to be space for nature. To my surprise, as I drove into the parking lot, and saw the Bay and its wetlands tucked away behind the homes, it was easy to leave the built world behind. I joined the group of Safeway employee volunteers in the park adjacent to the site for a quick orientation. Our job that day was to remove invasive plants to give the native plants room to grow. As we walked out onto the levee, the quiet was palpable despite the chattering volunteers.
We spent the morning scraping up the shallow-rooted slenderleaf iceplant (a plant that Seth Chanin, our Restoration Program Manager, describes as “plants with glistening vampire skin”) and pulling Russian thistle out of ground, concentrating on areas where the invasive plants were crowding out the pickleweed, California sage, salt marsh baccharis, and California goldenrod. These native plants provide important habitat for endangered species such as the salt marsh harvest mouse and California clapper rail. As quickly as the invasive weeds grow, it seems like a losing battle at first glance, but once the natives gain a foothold, they’ll do their own work to crowd out the invasive species.
One of my responsibilities in my new job is to explain to the media and the public why the work we do to restore our wetlands for people and wildlife is so important. Healthy wetlands are crucial for Bay habitats to thrive. But that’s not all. They also provide an unexpected source of quiet and stillness for humans to enjoy. A bit of wild nature in the midst of densely populated communities. Something I, for one, know that I need in order to thrive in my urban habitat.