Articles by

Joe Eaton
About the author

Joe Eaton writes about endangered and invasive species, climate and ecosystem science, environmental history, and water issues for ESTUARY. He is also "a semi-obsessive birder" whose pursuit of rarities has taken him to many of California's shores, wetlands, and sewage plants.

Articles by Joe Eaton

Two Urban Estuaries Soften Shorelines

For two cold clear days in February, scientists, engineers, and other specialists from all three North American coasts gathered at the Oakland Airport Hilton, in what a local speaker called “the least interesting part of Oakland,” for the second national Living Shorelines Technology Transfer Workshop. The event, co-sponsored by Restore America’s Estuaries, the California Coastal Conservancy, and Save the Bay, featured talks and interactive sessions on this emerging approach to coastal protection that went well beyond technology. Referred to by...
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Not the Last Word on Buckler

Cold water, essential for the life cycle of Chinook salmon, is all too often in short supply along the Sacramento River. A primary cause: California’s massive water conveyance system, using reservoirs, dams, and hydroelectric plants to divert water and deliver power to farms and cities. “When we started releasing water in spring, we let cold water out too early. None was left by fall, when salmon really needed it,” says USBR hydraulic engineer Tracy Vermeyen. Two clever innovations have been...
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In Humboldt County’s coastal dunes, a multi-agency partnership is restoring the native plant community to build resilience to sea level rise.

The project, along with four others in the Bay Area and Southern California, is featured in a new report, Case Studies of Natural Shoreline Infrastructure in Coastal California. Much of the state’s dunescape was built over or hauled away before its value as habitat for unique species and a buffer against climate change was recognized. San Francisco’s dunes are long gone, and with them the endemic Xerces blue butterfly. Humboldt’s 32-mile stretch still shelters endangered plants like the Menzies’ wallflower...
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The battle of Point Buckler Island isn’t over yet.

In January the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board appealed decisions by a Solano County Superior Court Judge voiding $3.6 million in fines and cleanup and restoration requirements that the agencies imposed on the island’s owner for dumping excavation spoil in Suisun Bay and draining tidal wetland without authorization. The agencies held that due to the failure of previous owners to maintain levees, the interior of the island had become tidal...
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Smart Plover Predators

The South Bay’s salt pannes, bleak unvegetated flats left behind by commercial salt works, seem inhospitable to life. To western snowy plovers, though, they look like home. Still, the plovers are in trouble themselves. Considered a California species of special concern, the Bay-wide snowy plover breeding population sits at about 250. As Karine Tokatlian explained in her State of the Estuary Conference presentation in October 2017, efforts to boost their breeding success in the remaining salt pannes have encountered unexpected...
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Buckler Brouhaha

There’s a big dispute over a small island at the edge of the Suisun Marsh. John Sweeney, the current owner of Point Buckler Island via a limited liability corporation, faces enforcement action by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board for diking and draining a tidal wetland and dumping excavation spoils in Suisun Bay. The extensive work he did was subject to regulation by state and federal agencies, and no authorization...
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Bay Belle Retires; Catamaran Carries On

Side by side at a Redwood City marina, two vessels await their very different destinies. The Research Vessel Polaris, a classy 96-foot yacht, was built in 1927 as a pleasure craft for a Los Angeles tycoon. Beyond a few streaks of rust, her age isn’t showing. After a series of owners, she spent decades as the workhorse of the US Geological Survey’s San Francisco Bay science program, carrying researchers on transects across the Bay and into the Delta. Much of...
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No Drought of Dirt

With its massive environmental and economic costs, it’s hard to see a bright side to the California drought. Consider mud, though. According to US Geological Survey scientist David Schoellhamer, the long dry spell may be giving tidal wetland restoration efforts an unexpected boost by promoting the buildup of sediment in the South Bay where former salt ponds await conversion to tidal marsh.
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Tracking Tiny Toxins

San Francisco Bay and the region’s other water bodies have an unfortunate legacy of human pollution. But we’re not the only culprits: beyond the mercury and PCBs, the Bay contains toxins produced by phytoplankton—photosynthesizing microorganisms classified as blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria), dinoflagellates, and diatoms. Under conditions still not well understood, these tiny organisms secrete chemicals that can enter aquatic food webs and impact human health. Funded by the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality...
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Scaled-Down Plans to “Fix and Restore”

Surprising many observers, Governor Jerry Brown announced late in April that the Bay Delta Conservation Program, which had embraced the new water conveyance popularly known as the Twin Tunnels and a broad program for restoring the complex and heavily impacted Delta environment, was being split into two new entities: Cal WaterFix and Cal EcoRestore. This was followed
by the release of a Partially Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report/Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement spelling out the changes: on the conveyance side, reduction...
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No Scapefish in Drought Wars

According to the Biblical book of Leviticus, the ancient Israelites designated a goat to bear the weight of their sins. Nowadays, the scapegoat is not required to be a goat. When it comes to assessing blame for the worsening California drought, a scapefish will suffice. Some media outlets, notably the Wall Street Journal in a recent op-ed piece, point to the hapless Delta smelt as a culprit in the state’s water crisis, as well as a prime example of the...
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Cullinan Finally in the Fold

Real estate developers often name their projects for what they’ve displaced: Quail Acres, Live Oak Estates. Egret Bay would have been another such necronym. The 4,500-home development proposed for the former Cullinan Ranch on San Pablo Bay in 1983 would have left little room for egrets, or other birds. A citizen’s group, Vallejoans for Cost Efficient Growth, supported by Save the Bay and other environmental organizations, helped kill Egret Bay, and, in a deal brokered by Congresswoman Barbara Boxer, the...
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Copper Effects on Salmon Influenced by Salinity

A decade of research by David Baldwin of NOAA’s North
west Fisheries Science Center 
and other biologists has shown
 that in some situations, very 
low levels of dissolved copper interfere with a salmon’s ability to detect smells. This can 
be a matter of life or death: 
salmon rely on their olfac
tory sense to avoid predators,
 locate prey, and home in on
 their natal streams when they 
return from the ocean to spawn. Earlier studies involved juvenile fish in freshwater settings. Baldwin’s...
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Offers They Can Refuse

The numbers are daunting: 8,000 acres to be restored to fish-friendly tidal habitat in order to comply with federal wildlife agencies’ Biological Opinions; another 65,000 if and when the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan is implemented; more still if you add in mitigation for levee operations. Where will that acreage come from? State agencies and other public entities already own some parcels suitable for restoration, but not nearly enough: the rest will need to be purchased from its current owners or covered...
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Wild River Lands in Suspense File

Remember that chart showing how a bill becomes a law in your high school civics textbook—all those boxes and arrows? Odds are it didn’t include the Suspense File of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, a legislative limbo where bills can expire without ever coming to
a vote. That was the fate of Senate Bill 1199, a measure introduced by State Senator Loni Hancock (DBerkeley) in April to add portions of the Mokelumne River to the California Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Supported...
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Freeing Fish While Locking Up Mercury

The restoration of the South Bay salt ponds to tidal wetland has, from the very beginning, been an exercise in adaptive management: take an action; monitor the results; make any indicated fixes; repeat. There’s no better example than Pond A8, where the Guadalupe River enters San Francisco Bay via Alviso Slough. Restoration planners were worried that connecting the former salt evaporation pond with the Bay could introduce long-dormant mercury to the wider ecosystem, and initial studies of levels in water...
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The Island That Came in from the Cold

For years, Skaggs Island was a tantalizing blank in the map of San Pablo Bay wetlands restoration. Renee Spenst of Ducks Unlimited says it was “one of those places in a strange limbo.” Two-thirds of it was owned by the US Navy, which had operated a top-secret listening post there; the rest was privately-owned farmland, where the Haire family grew oat hay. Converting any of the 4,400 acres back to tidal wetland was out of the question. “The agencies doing...
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