A Giant Step from Species to Landscapes

A Giant Step from Species to Landscapes

Joe Eaton

Oct Cover - Thumbnail

Download: Estuary News, October 2013 PDF

Not so long ago, San Francisco Bay was a cornucopia of wildlife. Ducks and geese covered the water and filled the skies. Sea otters cavorted in the Bay. On the shorelines, grizzly bears and California condors scavenged the carcasses of beached marine mammals. Nineteenth-century market hunters supplied the finest restaurants of San Francisco with California clapper rails and red-legged frogs.

By the time the CCMP’s framers sat down to consider the state of the Estuary’s wetlands and wildlife, 90 percent of the Bay’s tidal marshland was gone, and other habitat types critical to wildlife—seasonal wetlands, riparian forest, grassland—had been greatly reduced. Soon afterward, the clapper rail population hit an all-time low of 300 to 500 individuals. Some 60 other wetland animal species were listed as endangered or threatened, or flagged for monitoring between 1975 and 2006.

meadow-300Before the CCMP, little was done in a consistent manner to protect and restore wetlands. Save the Bay had led a successful campaign to prevent wetland and bay fill, but back then locals were still more likely to consider their baylands malodorous swamps than rich ecosystems. Developers still regularly perched office parks and subdivisions on shores, and cities and counties viewed such schemes as “improvements.” Tentative steps had been taken, however, to save a handful of sites with presentable wetlands and conspicuous birdlife, and to restore others. The San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, subsequently renamed for US Representative Don Edwards, had been established in 1974, although it was still a work in progress. A few small tidal marsh sites had been restored, but habitat protection and restoration was ad hoc, piecemeal, and reactive, often initiated as mitigation for habitat lost elsewhere. There was no overall restoration strategy or philosophy.

“When I started, wetlands were perceived as wastelands—places you could develop,” Arthur Feinstein of Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge recalls. “Over the last few decades we’ve made an incredible cultural shift. The idea of filling wetlands now is almost like smoking in public.” Carl Wilcox of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of a few living Bay Area residents with his own eponymous marsh, concurs: “When I came to the Bay in 1986, people were still fighting over whether or not we were going to develop rather than restore the wetlands. People need to keep that in mind. A huge amount has been achieved.”

Much of that achievement traces back to the CCMP, where business, environmentalists, wildlife managers, landowners, and regulators all sat down to create a new vision for the future and hammer out their differences. They set goals of stemming and reversing the decline of the Estuary’s plants and animals, including endangered or special status species. That went hand in hand with restoring the ecological productivity of wetland habitats and rebuilding the Estuary’s wetlands portfolio, both in quantity and quality.

The 100,000-Acre Goal

The years after 1993, when the CCMP was finally approved, saw the pace and scale of wetland restoration transformed, and stepped-up attention to the plight of wildlife.

Crucial steps in this process included agreement on the Baylands Ecosytem Habitat Goals Report (1999), the first scientific consensus on restoration targets (100,000 acres of tidal wetlands, among others); new recovery plans from the US Fish & Wildlife Service for endangered species and habitats; the formation of the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture, bringing together government agencies, nonprofits, and business on behalf of wetlands, and the adoption of its 2001 implementation plan; more oversight of restoration and mitigation by regulatory agencies, notably the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board; and funding and land-acquisition leadership from the California State Coastal Conservancy. With those pieces in place, the arena changed from pocket marshes to vast, complex bayscapes crafted out of former salt production ponds. The result: a sea change in the quantity and quality of the Bay’s wetlands.

As of today, sixty-eight percent of the Joint Venture’s baylands acquisition goals have been met. “South of the Bay Bridge you have almost all publicly-owned shorelines from Oakland to Milpitas, most of it undergoing restoration,” says Feinstein. “The extent of it is staggering.” In total, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife acquired 16,500 acres of bayland from the Cargill Salt Company, and the massively ambitious South Bay Salt Ponds Restoration Project was launched in 2003 in partnership with the Coastal Conservancy, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and other agencies. So far, over 3,000 acres have been restored or enhanced, and miles of trails have been opened.

Second only to the South Bay salt ponds effort in scope, another 10,000 acres of Cargill property in Napa and Sonoma Counties was purchased by the state in the early 90s. With the help of the California Fish and Wildlife Department, the Coastal Conservancy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Sonoma County Water Agency, half of those acres have been restored to tidal wetland and another 1,700 acres enhanced for shorebirds and waterfowl with help from Ducks Unlimited.

Elsewhere around the Bay, in Contra Costa County, the East Bay Regional Park District exercised the right of eminent domain to block a development and allow future restoration of Breuner Marsh. Other restoration projects ring the Bay: Bair Island, Hamilton Field, Bel Marin Keys, Bahia, Cullinan Ranch. At Hamilton (a joint Coastal Conservancy/Corps of Engineers project) and other sites, dredged sediment—once considered a waste product but now viewed as a valuable resource—is being used to recreate the marsh plain. Suisun Marsh, the Estuary’s eastern anchor, continues to sustain duck clubs and ‘managed wetlands’ but has a target of restoring up to 7,000 acres of tidal marsh sometime in the future.

“We’ve made great strides forward on the wetland restoration front – a lot of land that we need to restore is now in public ownership, or already in some stage of restoration,” says the State Coastal Conservancy’s Amy Hutzel. She notes that the public has invested almost $400 million in state bond dollars for San Francisco baylands projects over the past 15 years, and almost $150 million in federal funds over past seven years. “We have the potential now to double the amount of tidal marsh habitat in the Bay in just the next few decades.”

At the time the CCMP was written, however, few imagined the grand-scale transformations described above. The CCMP instead focused on completion of the Don Edwards Refuge, a challenging task that has yet to be accomplished. Despite the original vision for refuge extent, privately owned bayside properties in the City of San Mateo are currently unavailable. Cargill’s Saltworks Project in Redwood City is still in contention, and the Mowry Slough area in Newark, formerly managed by duck clubs, has been proposed for development. In the North Bay, several large parcels in Marin County are still in private hands, and the San Pablo Bay wetlands are a mosaic of public and private ownership.

Even with those gaps, what has been achieved is extraordinary. “Twenty years ago there was a raging legal and regulatory battle between developers and environmentalists over protection of wetlands around the whole Bay,” recalls water consultant Barry Nelson. “The development pressure that was once rampant on every shore seems to now be focused on one last crystallizer pond in Redwood City.”

Tools for Tweaking the Habitat Mix

The CCMP called for solid science and strong planning tools to guide wildlife recovery and habitat restoration, and that approach has clearly paid off. For one, the regional consensus around the 1999 Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals gave restoration a coherent framework. Wilcox says the report helped resolve differences among state and federal agencies about strategy and priorities: “Fish and Game and Fish and Wildlife started working on how restoration could balance seasonal wetlands for waterfowl and shorebirds with tidal marsh restoration for species recovery. That’s led to the adaptive management approach we’re using with the South Bay Salt Ponds: conducting the restoration and tracking what the effects are on shorebirds and waterfowl, while intensifying management.”

All wetlands are not created equal in the eyes of a migratory shorebird or a diving duck. There’s growing recognition that restored wetlands should be a complex of habitats for species with different needs, not just unbroken marsh. The fate of non-tidal habitats, notably seasonal wetlands and riparian zones, is still unsettled, and wasn’t addressed in the Baylands Goals or called out for particular attention in the CCMP, says Feinstein.

According to Barbara Salzman, seasonal wetlands can be difficult to restore and manage: her organization, Marin Audubon, tried to create unvegetated seasonal habitat for shorebirds at Bahia, but the plants grew right back. “Managing seasonal wetlands is an expensive undertaking, requiring a lot of maintenance,” adds Wilcox.

This is one of many areas where GIS and other mapping technologies have helped inform decision-making. According to the Joint Venture’s Beth Huning, mapping of seasonal wetlands is complete and the venture is now working on prioritizing those areas of great habitat value or potential restoration value. She notes that the East Bay Regional Park District has been focusing on one special type, the seasonal alkali wetlands near Byron in Eastern Contra Costa County. The State Water Resources Control Board has also moved toward developing a protective policy for freshwater wetlands.

Protecting riparian wetlands has its own hurdles. “A lot of riparian habitat crosses private land and has multiple jurisdictions,” Huning says. It’s not like the Baylands, where a few public and private entities manage large parcels. “Riparian restoration is happening more on a project-by-project, small-reach-by-small-reach basis, run by small dedicated citizens’ groups,” says Huning. The Napa River project is the great exception.

Some upstream waterways have also seen remarkable progress. Multi-partner projects have enhanced habitat for riparian songbirds along the undammed Cosumnes River and for the endangered riparian brush rabbit on the San Joaquin. And more recently, computer modeling and field biology have combined to improve maps of wildlife corridors, in hopes of better connecting bayshore and upland habitats.

Beyond tools focused on the restoration of habitats on the ground, planners and resource managers tasked with protecting sensitive species also need legal and policy tools to guide management. In this realm of accomplishments, the federal recovery plan for five tidal marsh species including the rail (plus the salt marsh harvest mouse and three plant species), which has been in its current draft form since 2010, should be finalized later this year, according to Josh Hull of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A plan is also in place for the western snowy plover.

Such tools, coupled with good monitoring, can sometimes lead to happy outcomes for wildlife managers. Iconic species like the brown pelican and peregrine falcon have been deemed sufficiently recovered to be removed from federal endangered species lists.

In other good news, surveys indicate stable or increasing populations for several Baylands avian species. The 2011 State of the Birds report from PRBO and the Joint Venture reported upticks in numbers of snowy plovers and several other shorebirds and riparian species.

The Hard Part

Two things no one anticipated have those pushing for completion of the grand scheme to restore 100,000 acres around the Bay reassessing their priorities: a rapidly rising sea level, and a rapidly diminishing bank account.

For the last two decades, buoyed by generous state bond funding and continued EPA support, there was always hope that federal funding would increase in line with the groundswell of restoration work. That didn’t happen.

The Bay never received a line item budget like that awarded to Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, and the Great Lakes. “We were able to get quite a bit through the federal stimulus package in 2009, but that’s mostly gone,” says Huning. She credits Senator Dianne Feinstein for assisting with annual EPA appropriations of $5 to 7 million per year for a competitive grant program that is shared among restoration, water quality and other priority projects. A state water bond measure is on the horizon for 2014, but may include nothing specific to the restoration of the Bay. “We’re not able to do everything our partners have identified,” she adds. “We have to pick and choose, focus on some projects over others.”

Wilcox points out that acquisition is only a first step: “We’ve had the funding to acquire lands but not to staff and maintain the agencies that manage them. In San Francisco Bay, my department manages upwards of 50,000 acres. The resources we have to manage that are no different than when we had only 15,000 acres.”

Funding shortfalls also constrain monitoring. The FWS was only able to perform its annual midwinter waterfowl survey last year with financial help from the Joint Venture and other partners. The status of this year’s survey is uncertain. “There’s hardly any money around for specific programs,” says Salzman. Working collaboratively, various entities are trying to pick up the slack on wildlife and habitat monitoring.

While still feeling the pinch from the lack of money to complete projects, the region’s wetland and wildlife initiatives now face another game-changer: sea level rise.

In this new light, wetlands built to provide healthier habitats for wildlife now provide invaluable buffers for human developments. Rising seas, and storm surges like the one experienced by those in the path of hurricane Sandy, are better absorbed by soft, spongy wetlands than concrete levees. “We can’t afford to put a wall around the Bay,” Feinstein says.

We can’t afford not to step up our restoration plans either. Recent US Geological Survey computer models predict large-scale conversion of tidal marsh to mudflat by the end of this century. While these forecasts have alarmed marsh managers, they also suggest there’s still about fifty years of wiggle room before sea level rise rates accelerate and outpace marsh buildup.

Though none of this loomed very large on the radar when the CCMP was being written in 1993, it’s front and center now. Compared to many other areas of the country, however, our region has many wetland restoration projects poised to act as storm surge buffers. And there is still some space for wetlands to migrate inland. The obstacles, major freeways and transportation infrastructure along the shoreline, are more daunting in urbanized areas. “The suburban places will be the fighting grounds,” says Salzman. “There are really only a limited number of places where wetlands can migrate landward, and some are on private lands,” adds Huning. “There may be creative ways we can work with landowners.”

Scientists and resource managers, meanwhile, are responding proactively to this wetter playing field. The original 1999 habitat goals are now being updated with sea level rise in mind; and recent upland and subtidal goals reports have completed the profile of habitats starting from the shallows of the Bay and climbing slowly above the high water mark.

Regional managers have also agreed on sentinel sites in the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) for cutting-edge monitoring of changes in sea level and sediment supply over time. They’ve also started coming up with options for beefing up transition zones on both sides of the marsh – at the upland edge and along the shore. A new campaign recasting wetlands as “horizontal levees” offering cheaper and better flood protection than conventional levees was recently unveiled by The Bay Institute.

“Because of our past investment in baylands, we now have a unique opportunity to do innovative, nature based, multi-objective projects that involve restoring more wetlands, providing flood protection, completing the Bay trail, and protecting the wildlife we all enjoy seeing on the waterfront, says Hutzel. “It’s kind of amazing, and I may sound like Rosie the Riviter, but ‘We can do it.’ And we should do it now.”

Public support for wetlands and wildlife will be critical in the years ahead, as we struggle to adapt to the rising Bay. In the 2014 election, regional managers hope to see the public approve a parcel tax measure (not more than $10) in all 9 Bay Area counties to support the fledgling San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority (see p. 2).

“People love the Bay,” notes Huning. “The intrinsic value of the Bay polls well with voters. They appreciate having large national wildlife refuges in their back yards.”

Projects Implementing Wetlands & Wildlife Goals 1993-2013: 127

NEXT ARTICLE: Keep It Out or Clean It Up