Sundown for an Era on San Francisco Bay

In the face of climate change and sea-level rise, regulators are rethinking long-held attitudes toward bay fill.


Photo by Paul Haggard

Save the Bay was born in the early 1960s when Esther Gulick, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Kay Kerr learned about the city of Berkeley’s plans to fill and develop 2,000 acres of San Francisco Bay. The bay had already lost about a third of its surface area as development sprawled across marshes and mud flats and cities built peninsulas just to accommodate their garbage dumps. Seeking to prevent further shrinkage, the new organization helped to create the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a government entity specifically dedicated to protecting the bay from such degradation.

So why did the commission’s staff recently support regulatory changes that would allow the use of fill dirt in San Francisco and San Pablo bays? And why did their recommendation attract the support of various other government and community agencies, including even Save the Bay itself?

“This effort is long overdue; we’ve been pushing for it for years,” noted David Lewis, the executive director of the organization created by Gulick, McLaughlin, and Kerr. “This is even more important with climate change and sea-level rise to get this started because the longer we wait, the harder it will be.”

The dirt on dirt is that a new threat to life in the Bay Area has emerged. The onset of sea level rise means that many bay area cities face potential inundation in the next century. As a result, friends of the bay have come to recognize the potential of using fill dirt in ways that benefit the local ecosystem and safeguard communities.

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission is considering a policy change that would allow the widespread use of fill dirt in habitat restoration projects in San Francisco and San Pablo bays. If approved, the commission would be able to regularly approve projects that use more than a small amount of fill for the first time in the agency’s 54-year history.

In the East Bay, most land west of 580 in Oakland is built on fill, as well as the upper northwest section of West Oakland. Alameda and Bay Farm Island were much smaller until developers added fill to the mud and sand there. Foster City, a city located entirely on filled land, had risen from the marsh of the south bay.

“Previously we had thought of fill as primarily detrimental to natural environments, but now we’re recognizing that it can be beneficial to natural environments,” noted Megan Hall, the lead commission researcher behind the proposal.

In recent years, scientists and communities at large have started to understand the role of healthy, intact tidal marshes in protecting shorelines from the effects of sea-level rise. Marshes, made up largely of soil and plants, act like sponges, absorbing wave energy and diminishing the destructive power of advancing seas.

But the Bay Area has lost an estimated 80 percent of this habitat in the decades since European colonization. Marsh habitat plummeted from 200,000 acres at its height to just 40,000 acres in the 90s, Lewis said. Thanks to a handful of subsequent restoration projects, the amount of marshland in the bay currently stands at 50,000 acres. But in a 2016 report, Bay Area scientists outlined an even more ambitious goal — getting the bay back to 100,000 acres of marshland by 2030.

A handful of projects have worked toward this goal, such as the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, which is returning old salt harvesting ponds into marsh habitat. And Bay Area voters passed Measure AA in 2016 which will direct $500 million over 20 years to restoration projects in the bay, which can include marsh restoration projects. But doing these kinds of projects is largely contingent on using fill dirt, which the San Francisco Bay Plan has not generally allowed.

Yet back in 1999, one project was given the go ahead to use sediment — quite a lot of it. Located on Port of Oakland land, the Middle Harbor Enhancement Area was created when the commission reworked its policies to allow the Port of Oakland to place sediment in Middle Harbor to restore an eelgrass ecosystem, as well as bird and fish habitat. The sediment came from excavation of the port’s main channel from a depth of 48 feet to 50 feet.

But there was one major caveat. The revised section of the bay plan — known as Dredging Policy 11b — said that no additional projects using more than a minimal amount of fill could happen until the Middle Harbor project was completed successfully. And that project is still not done. “At the time, ” Hall said, “nobody would have known that that project would have taken 14-15 years to complete.”

The project, overseen by the port and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has encountered a multitude of difficulties — including trouble getting eel grass plants to take root. The port staff just replanted 101 acres in June and is hoping at least 15 acres will take root. Lewis of Save the Bay said he opposed the project from the beginning because of how difficult it can be to do eel grass restoration projects. Meanwhile, planner Jan Novak, who is working on the project, said several other challenges remain to be resolved. An area that was supposed to be beach-like is a bit muddy, 3 to 5 acres that was intended to be marsh needs to be raised because it is too low for marsh plants to grow, and some islands created for bird roosting need to be raised to provide sufficient habitat during high tides.

“These challenges are due in part to re-creating natural habitats in what was once a deep harbor,” Novak said in an email. “We are working with our partners to determine how to complete these aspects.”

Future restoration projects aren’t likely to encounter such obstacles because future deep-water projects like Middle Harbor would most likely not be permitted under the revised plan. But in the meantime, the delays at Middle Harbor have stalled progress on other habitat restoration projects.

“I don’t want to say it’s holding projects hostage,” Amy Hutzel of the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency that oversees coastal projects and access to the coasts, said at a recent commission meeting. “But a project that … the Coastal Conservancy or the Restoration Authority has no involvement in is then preventing projects that we do support from getting permitted.”

The challenge then, is revising the commission’s guiding document in a way that would permit other restoration projects to use bay fill while still holding the Port of Oakland and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accountable for completing the Middle Harbor project. In exploring how to change the bay plan, the commission staff started a separate amendment process to decide what should happen to the Middle Harbor project guidelines. They’ve proposed replacing the part that says Middle Harbor must be completed before other projects can use fill dirt in favor of language that describes the project and its objectives. But that idea doesn’t sit well with everyone.

“Along with other stakeholders, we’re concerned with the delays in the Middle Harbor project in achieving its goals,” said Rebecca Schwartz-Lessberg, a San Francisco Bay program director with Audubon. Her chief concern is that a change would decrease the commission’s enforcement ability.

The commission chair, Zachary Wasserman, agreed.

“We know in Middle Harbor that we are dealing with two applicants who at times appear not to hear us and who we know are extremely difficult to deal with,” he said, referring to difficulties working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Port of Oakland. “I believe that anything they could take as a weakening is a mistake.”

Though there is no date set for the completion of the Middle Harbor project, the park surrounding it is open to the public. Visitors can walk and bike the shoreline and see a variety of birds, including least terns and brown pelicans, that visit the park and its surroundings.

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