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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Saving the Bay Area

Air Date: Week of May 27, 2016

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Much of San Francisco Bay used to look like the small wetlands in Alviso (Photo: Emmett Fitzgerald)

In June, San Francisco Bay Area residents will vote on Measure AA, a proposed tax that would fund wetland restoration. Bringing back wetlands would provide habitat for many bird species, and could help save the Bay Area from the rising seas expected from global warming. But some argue the funding mechanism is unfair. Emmett Fitzgerald reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: So much global warming is already inevitable even if emissions are cut, that we will have to adapt to its effects, including rising sea levels. In some places that will mean sea walls and levees, but many urban planners think that restoring the tidal wetland ecosystems that once buffered many cities could be a smart way to keep them above water. In the San Francisco Bay Area this June, voters will have a chance to fund wetland restoration throughout the region through a ballot initiative called Measure AA. Living on Earth’s Emmett FitzGerald has our story.

FITZGERALD: The Bay Area isn’t as vulnerable to sea level rise as east coast cities like Boston and Miami, but there are plenty of people who are concerned.

HILL: Well, we don’t have the worst situation, but we can expect to have 4-6 feet of sea level rise over the next, I keep saying 100 years, but it’s more like the next 85.

FITZGERALD: Kristina Hill looks out at the San Francisco Bay from Caesar Chavez Park along the shore in Berkeley. She’s teaches landscape architecture at the University of California.

HILL: And my specialization is in how we adapt to sea level rise, particularly in estuary environments like this one.

FITZGERALD: Kristina says a lot of people’s knee-jerk reaction to sea level rise is to build a wall to keep the ocean out. She was recently a guest on a call-in radio show in San Francisco.


The cities of the Bay Area have a lot of waterfront, making them vulnerable to sea-level-rise (Photo: Besopha, Flickr CC-BY-2.0)

HILL: People who called in all wanted to build a barrier at the San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge. And it’s 400 feet deep there! And the amount of water that comes in and out the Golden Gate in the tidal exchange is like three Mississippi Rivers. It’s a huge amount of water, so it would be like the Hoover Dam under the Golden Gate bridge. It’s a bad idea for a million reasons.

FITZGERALD: Sea walls do have a role to play in coastal adaptation, but they’re expensive, ugly, and they can’t be adjusted to changing conditions.

HILL: What I try to do is help people go beyond that idea of the wall.

FITZGERALD: Kristina wants cities to build what she calls a cyborg edge, mechanical infrastructure blended with a living zone made up of sand bars and marshes. Scientific research shows that wetlands can help protect cities from the sea by reducing the height of waves.

HILL: And they’ve shown that as little as 200 feet of wetland verge can reduce wave height before those waves hit the dry land. So that means less flooding, and that means a lower levee has to be built. Some kind of earthen berms will have to be a part of the system, but they can be lower and cheaper if we do the wetlands.


Before the salt ponds reduced the flow of water, Alviso used to be a big fishing port (Photo: Emmett Fitzgerald)

FITZGERALD: In the Southern portion of the San Francisco Bay, wetland restoration is already underway.

[TRAIN]

FITZGERALD Commuter trains pass right by the Alviso Marina County Park, a small marsh in the heart of Silicon Valley. John Bourgeois is the executive project manager for the California Coastal Conservancy’s South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. Standing on a wooden boardwalk in the park, surrounded by reeds and birds, he explains that all of San Francisco Bay used to look like this.

BOURGEOIS: So we’re standing next to a brackish water marsh at the far southern tip of San Francisco Bay. The size of this small marsh is pretty typical of what’s left of wetlands in San Francisco bay. We’ve lost about 85 to 90% of the tidal marshes.

FITZGERALD Some of those marshes were paved over for coastal development. Others were filled in for agriculture, but a lot of tidal marshes were turned into salt evaporation ponds. It all began way back in the 1850s during the Gold Rush.


John Bourgeois from the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (Photo: Emmett Fitzgerald)

BOURGEOIS: And little mom and pop salt making operations would come around, and they would levee off areas of wetland, flood them up, and evaporate the water to concentrate the salts and then harvest the salts, and that became bigger and bigger industry, to where the south bay and north bay in particular are now dominated by this salt pond landscape, and it accounted for quite a bit of wetland loss.

FITZGERALD: Unlike a parking lot, a salt pond can be deconstructed and turned back into a marsh. In 2003 the government secured rights to 15,000 acres of former salt ponds in the South Bay from companies like Cargill.

BOURGEOIS: And we’ve been returning these salt ponds, these industrial salt evaporation ponds, back into tidal marshes and other wetland habitats for the benefit of flood protection, public access, and of course habitat.

[MARSH WREN]

FITZGERALD: When the project started it was really focused on restoring habitat for wildlife. The wetlands are home to many bird species like this marsh wren.

[MARSH WREN]

But sea level rise has given a new, human urgency to John’s work.

[FOOTSTEPS]

FITZGERALD: A couple hundred yards down the shoreline, an earthen berm is all that protects a low-income neighborhood in Alviso from the water. The town is actually below sea level. Before the tech boom, this part of Silicon Valley was mostly orchards. But over the years farmers over-pumped the groundwater for irrigation, and it actually caused the land to subside – 15 feet in places.

BOURGEOIS: This is a mini New Orleans situation. We’re standing on a levee where we’ve got the bay on one side and a very subsided community on the other side, and if it wasn’t for this levy these people would flood, and they have flooded. There are people who show up to my meetings whose homes have flooded three times in their lifetimes, and so we’re really committed to making sure we, in addition to the habitat values , we really want to provide protection for them.

FITZGERALD: Standing on top of the levee looking out at the bay, there’s just a strip of marsh about 25 yards wide, and after that it’s just open water.


A barren stretch of salt pond (Photo: Emmett Fitzgerald)

BOURGEOIS: All of the open water you’re seeing here are salt ponds. All of this used to be marsh. So you can imagine, if you look across that vast area, if all of that were a wetland and were acting as a giant sponge to absorb those storm waters, you can really kind of imagine the effect of that from these storm events, of how much buffering that would provide for the community.

FITZGERALD: Turning that barren salt pond into a productive marsh is a complicated process, but John says they try to let nature do the heavy lifting.

BOURGEOIS: We undo what the salt companies did years ago. We take down the levees. We restore the hydrology back into the old remnant channels, and we let the natural processes of the bay take-over.

FITZGERALD: But John admits it’s not quite as simple as just getting out of nature’s way. In the 150 years since the salt ponds were established, birds like the Western Snowy Plover have grown to like the salt ponds. The plover is a threatened species, and John says they need to ensure that it still has habitat.

BOURGEOIS: So we’ve got this mix of large scale, natural marsh restoration and these more, kind of intensive, more engineered, more designed areas where we’re trying to maximize the habitat for the birds that actually liked the salt ponds.

FITZGERALD: It’s a difficult job but they’re making good progress. So far, John and his team have completed work on 3,700 acres of former wetlands in the South Bay, about 25 percent of their ultimate goal. The biggest obstacle right now is finding a consistent source of funding. So far they’ve depended on a jumble of small grants from the federal and state government, but that could soon change. In early June, Bay Area residents will vote on measure AA, a so-called parcel tax, where every landowner pays a small fee for their parcel of land with cash going to fund wetland restoration throughout the Bay Area. Where exactly that money would go has yet to be determined, but The Salt Pond Restoration Project is exactly the kind of initiative the tax is supposed to fund.


This earthen berm protects the subsided city of Alviso from the Bay (Photo: Emmett Fitzgerald)

BOURGEOIS: Measure AA does have an expenditure plan with examples of projects that could be funded, and clearly we fit within their realm and, we would most definitely be applying for those funds if and when they become available.

FITZGERALD: One of the primary sponsors of measure AA is the environmental organization Save the Bay, so I headed to its offices in Downtown Oakland.

[ELEVATOR]

FITZGERALD: Save the Bay is on the 18th floor, and from director David Lewis’ windows you can see all the way to San Francisco.

[SOUND OF SHADE GOING UP]

LEWIS: It is very nice to be able to see the Bay.

FITZGERALD: David says that measure AA would raise roughly $25 million a year over the next 20 years, and that money would go a long way to restoring the coastal wetlands.

LEWIS: So we think this measure alone could accomplish 15- to 20,000 acres of tidal marsh restoration over its 20-year lifespan and leverage additional federal and state matching funds to help us complete the work.

FITZGERALD: Under measure AA all property owners in the nine counties that touch the Bay would have to pay $12 a year for tidal marsh restoration. Given the many benefits of wetlands, David says $12 is a small price to pay.

LEWIS: Everybody who owns a parcel of land can afford a dollar a month to help make the Bay healthier and help make our community stronger and more resilient for decades to come.

FITZGERALD: But not everyone in the environmental community thinks the proposed tax is fair. Brian Beveridge is the co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators project, an environmental justice organization based in West Oakland, a mostly low-income neighborhood beside Oakland’s port. Brian says that parcel taxes like measure AA are notoriously regressive. A working class homeowner in West Oakland will pay the same amount of money as a giant tech company in Silicon Valley.

BEVERIDGE: I don’t think we can take it so casually to say, well, it’s only $12 and say that this has no meaning. If we’re going to stop doing regressive taxes at some point we actually have to stop doing them.

FITZGERALD: Brian is all for restoring the bay, but he says the public shouldn’t have to pay for it.


San Francisco salt ponds from the air (Photo: Matt Hintsa, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

BEVERIDGE: The very people who lost their shoreline in the first place, which is the public, are now being asked to pay to get it back. And we do this consistently. We ask, essentially we ask the victims of a wrong to pony up and pay to fix it.

FITZGERALD: Brian works to reduce the impacts of pollution on people living in West Oakland, and his organization follows the “polluter pays” principle, which says the company or organization that caused environmental damage should be the one that pays to clean it up.

BEVERIDGE: So if it was this great expansion of private development along the shoreline that caused the problem in the first place, maybe we should go back to the private sector and say hey, you know, the chickens have come home to roost.

FITZGERALD: Getting companies to pay for wetland restoration is not a totally new idea. In Louisiana, environmental groups have brought lawsuits to try to force oil and gas companies to pay for the restoration of coastal wetlands that they helped to destroy. Those lawsuits are currently stuck in the courts facing fierce opposition from the industry. But there hasn’t been a lawsuit in the Bay Area, and landscape architect Kristina Hill says the government needs to find these funds as quickly as possible if it wants to avoid the worst effects of sea level rise.

HILL: I mean it’s an accelerated problem. We have to work harder, we have to start sooner. Measure AA has to pass. We have to do the things we can do today to be able to get ready for four to six feet.

Kristina Hill (Photo: UC Berkeley)

FITZGERALD: Wetlands need time to develop, but, if you get them in place early enough, they could actually grow and keep pace with sea level rise. Kristina says that investing in ecosystems that will cut the costs of rising seas down the road is just smart economic policy. The longer we wait, the more adaptation is going to cost.

HILL: That’s why I try to emphasize to everybody, we’ve gotta spend the money now. We gotta borrow now, and we gotta spend now because, if we wait until there’s disaster all around the world all at once, money is going to be very expensive to borrow, and materials are going to be very much in short supply.

FITZGERALD: If we fail to get ahead of the problem, she says, future generations are going to be stuck shouldering much larger costs.

HILL: They won’t have the benefits. They’ll have all the costs, and they’ll have all the impacts, and I think that’s an intergenerational kind of inequality that we really should own up to.

FITZGERALD: If Measure AA passes it will be the first time that a major metropolitan area has voted to spend taxpayer money to prepare for sea level rise. With so many US cities along the coast and vulnerable to rising seas, it could be a model for the future.

For Living on Earth, this is Emmett Fitzgerald in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Links

South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project

Read an interview with Kristina Hill on architecture, urban design, and sea level rise

Save the Bay

West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project

 

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