Choosing a Future for the Bay

Choosing a Future for the Bay

Ariel Rubissow Okamoto

Clean Water History, Climate Change, Shellhammer Award
See-Session-PowerpointsSOE2013-cover100px2Andy Gunther opened the 11th Biennial State of the Estuary Conference by calling a spade a spade. “Many elected leaders are in complete denial about climate change, supported by a misinformation campaign,” said Gunther. His comment kicked off a conference where nearly every session included remarks on the challenges global warming poses to the San Francisco Estuary. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” said Gunther, who coordinates a collaboration of scientists and resource managers called the Bay Area Ecosystems Climate Change Consortium. This group has been warning that it will take far more than ruby slippers to rescue our wetlands, wildlife and water supplies, not to mention our airports and freeways, from the twin witches of rising seas and shifting snowpack. “Expectations based on the past are no longer enough. The entire meaning of conservation and restoration is changing. The future we get is going to be the future we choose,” said Gunther.

Two decades of efforts to clean up the bay and revive its shorelines are paying dividends in the form of thriving South Bay marshes. image credit: courtesy Ellie Cohen
Two decades of efforts to clean up the bay and revive its shorelines are paying dividends in the form of thriving South Bay marshes. Photo: courtesy of Ellie Cohen

But local elected officials aren’t sure how to choose without stepping on the toes of cities and counties long used to making their own land use decisions. Indeed, the region has struggled for decades to strengthen regional planning, especially on environmental fronts such as clean air, clean water, and public transit. The specter of climate change could spur more support for regional cooperation, said the second speaker Julie Pierce, Mayor of Clayton and Vice President of the Association of Bay Area Governments. “We must adapt now to protect our way of life, our economy, all we hold dear,” she said.

A lot of what we hold dear, in terms of our water supplies and aquatic resources, has been protected by the efforts of Bay guardians: the San Francisco Estuary Partnership, two Regional Water Quality Control Boards, and the Bay Conservation & Development Commission, in addition to federal and state agencies charged with environmental protection and natural resource management. Working with business interests, non-profits, and citizen groups, these regulators and collaborators have helped the 12 counties around the estuary save fish, protect water supplies, restore wetlands, and curb pollution over the last 20 years; all hope to achieve much more in decades to come.

The next two conference speakers reflected on the conference’s theme of 20/20 vision on the past and future. “When the public thinks about San Francisco Bay, they think of it as being protected,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s protected by the people in this room. It’s not up to the next generation, it’s up to us.” Blumenfeld observed that while environmental protection may be moving slowly in Washington, DC these days, in the 1970s the federal government passed important national legislation to protect our air, water and endangered species in quick succession. “The Clean Water Act is still the law of the land,” he said.

One of those landmark laws, the Clean Water Act, includes a tool that has been used to admirable effect in the Bay and Delta regions: TMDL, or total maximum daily load. Water quality regulators and polluters use TMDLs to implement regional limits on the discharge or runoff of contaminants. TMDLs help regulate substances ranging from eroded sediment and plastic trash to trace metals and pesticides. The Bay Area has some of the strongest TMDLs in the nation, with 27 TMDLs approved in the Estuary watershed, and 15 more in progress, according to Blumenfeld.

The public has rediscovered and taken up responsibility to care for local watersheds, as has this group working to restore Chileno Creek.
The public has rediscovered and taken up responsibility to care for local watersheds, as has this group working to restore Chileno Creek.

The region has also invested in some of the best water quality monitoring programs around, and in the environmental literacy of the public, said Blumenfeld. He encouraged the audience to support the State Water Resources Control Board’s current efforts to update California water policy: “We don’t want to be the skunk at the party. We need bring up the Clean Water Act early and often. We need to think about it as the floor, not the ceiling, of what can be done.”

The next speaker also reflected on successes in estuarine planning and management over the last 20 years, especially those envisioned by the San Francisco Estuary Partnership’s 1993 Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP). Steve Ritchie—who in his career has worn federal, state, local and regional hats—was better equipped to take stock than most. “I’m one of the few signatories of the original CCMP who’s still around,” he said. Only a smattering of other folk in the room that day, most white-haired, could claim the same. Ritchie was head of the Regional Water Board at the time but now works for the S.F. Public Utilities Commission, which spent the summer battling wildfires around the city’s reservoir in Yosemite. “The Rim Fire was an important reminder of the connection between our homes and our watershed—it threatened the quality of drinking water in San Francisco,” said Ritchie.

scouting the rim fire
Scouting watershed effects of the Yosemite Rim fire of 2013. Photo: Bill Sears

Ritchie gave a succinct review of significant achievements since the fateful signing of the CCMP. First came the 1994 federal-state Bay-Delta Accord, which paved the way for new water quality standards to protect estuarine health and native fish. After that, a whole series of statewide bond measures dedicated $16.5 billion to California’s water quality, wetlands, and conservation programs. As a result, “Conservation is an ethic urban water agencies now live and breathe every day,” said Ritchie. Most notably in the Bay Area, the Santa Clara Valley Water District “took the bull by the horns” in water recycling, he said. And he reminded his audience that the face of the Bay shoreline has been transformed by the habitat restoration of 16,500 acres of former salt ponds.

Other achievements Ritchie ticked off his list included the establishment of a robust science program around Delta native fish and water supply issues, which became known as CALFED; the push to get municipalities to better manage stormwater via establishment of the US EPA and Regional Water Quality Control Board; and state insistence on the development of more integrated regional water plans, or IRWP. These interdisciplinary, collaborative initiatives around science and watershed management are part of the wave of the future, according to Ritchie: “The idea of a single-purpose agency going off and doing its own thing doesn’t work anymore.” Ritchie remained circumspect, however, about whether the 2009 Delta package and subsequent planning efforts around the state’s coequal goals of sustaining both the ecosystem and human water supplies would fly.

When Ritchie spoke about the future, he said we still haven’t agreed on what “fixing” the Delta means. But he was hopeful about securing more money for estuarine restoration through a new water bond, and the fledgling San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority. He said he was reassured that water recycling was gaining popular support, and that we would all soon be “drinking well-treated sewage.” He argued that rising seas and falling bank balances would shift the region’s restoration and water quality priorities: “Change is inevitable. Regulations try to maintain status quo but you can’t. That’s the nature of evolution.”

Arctic ice, which serves as Earth’s air conditioner, reached the smallest extent recorded in three decades of monitoring in 2012. Image credit: NASA
Arctic ice, which serves as Earth’s air conditioner, reached the smallest extent recorded in three decades of monitoring in 2012. Image: NASA

Evolution, of course, also includes that most primal of all human activities: reproduction. The planet’s population exceeded seven billion in late 2011, said the next speaker, Ellie Cohen, before mentioning other assaults on the carrying capacity of planet earth: 43 percent of the planet’s land surface is now covered with agricultural and urban development; carbon dioxide levels reached 400 parts per million in 2013 for the first time in human history; Arctic ice reached the lowest extent and volume ever recorded in 2012; and extreme weather events are on the rise, as exemplified by Sandy’s 17-foot-high storm surge and, closer to home, California’s current drought and 2013 Yosemite Rim Fire.

All of these events, Cohen said, bear out scientific projections pointing to more droughts, more storms, higher seas, higher temperatures, and big ecological upheavals. “Are we at tipping point for the future of life on this planet?” asked Cohen, who directs Point Blue Conservation Science. “That depends on what we do in the next five, ten, or fifteen years. But we can’t forget that we are still utterly and completely dependent on nature’s benefits for our very survival.”

Nature provides food, fiber, energy, water, and air, with a value estimated at two times the global GNP ($72 trillion in today’s dollars). To sustain life as we know it, said Cohen, requires what she calls Climate Smart Conservation in land use practices, environmental protection programs, and natural resource management. This approach revolves around key concepts such as focusing on the future, designing within a watershed and ecosystem context, being flexible and adaptive, and giving priority to actions with multiple benefits. It also includes collaborating and communicating. “We need to break out of our siloed world,” she said.

Cohen offered numerous examples of climate smart actions ranging from prohibiting new development in places highly vulnerable to storm surges to restoring wetlands as buffers for urban infrastructure. She called for protecting food web hot spots in the ocean and Bay when considering the placement of shipping lanes or offshore wind farms, and scenario planning considering multiple possible futures in every organization tasked with land, water, and wildlife management. “Climate change is accelerating and exacerbating other environmental problems. We’re not going to have the money we need, or the time we need, so we have to test and experiment constantly, and apply what we learn. No more business as usual,” she said.

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Cohen Slides




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Small Mouse, Big Protector

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Shellhammer and mouseAt the conference, Howard Shellhammer accepted the Jean Auer Environmental Award for his contributions to improve environmental quality in the Bay-Delta Estuary. Carl Wilcox, Bay Delta Regional Manager with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, presented the award, recalling that when he came to Bay Area in the 1980s, the plight of the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse influenced many decisions about shoreline development and preservation.

Shellhammer accepted the award “on behalf of all the biologists who have done so much to understand the biology of marshes of Bay.” A former San Jose State biology professor, Shellhammer has spent half a century studying the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse. His careful work established that the mouse needs drier, higher upper marsh habitat to escape during extra-high tides. Connecting existing marsh fragments with restored, converted former salt ponds, he found, would enable populations to interbreed and restock once-isolated marsh remnants. In recent years, he’s been writing poems about the creatures and places he’s studied and loved.

The worth of salt marsh harvest mice?

What a wondrous experience
to sit at the edge of a salt marsh
and hold a beautiful little mouse,
small and docile, soft and shy.
Why worry about such a mouse
when markets are worrisome and gas is high?
It matters because when species disappear
they disappear forever and we have less.
I’ve worked to save the marshes
and to save this little mouse
so that in the future there will be
marshes down at the edge of the bay
and in them salt marsh harvest mice,
little mice that have the right to be there
no matter how small or hidden from sight.
You’d understand if you could see one
in a salt marsh in dawn’s early light.

–Howard Shellhammer

Image: courtesy of Howard Shellhammer


Bay Area Ecosystems Climate Change Consortium
Adapting to Rising Tides -Bay Area
California Landscape Conservation Cooperative
Climate Commons

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