Ariel Rubissow-Okamoto
About the author

Ariel Rubissow Okamoto is both today’s editor-in-chief and the founding editor of ESTUARY magazine (1992-2001). She enjoys writing in-depth, silo-crossing stories about water, restoration, and science. She’s a co-author of a Natural History of San Francisco Bay (UC Press 2011), frequent contributor of climate change stories to Bay Nature magazine, and occasional essayist for publications like the San Francisco Chronicle (see her Portfolio here). In other lives, she has been a vintner, soccer mom, and waitress. She lives in San Francisco close to the Bay with her architect husband Paul Okamoto.

Articles by Ariel Rubissow-Okamoto

A Century of First Responders

When the August 16 lightning strikes started forking from the sky to the ground in the Bay Area, Sarah Lenz was driving back from the scene of a vehicle accident and fire. It was pitch dark in the 23,000-acre Crystal Springs watershed in San Mateo County where she is a watershed keeper and supervisor, or what you might think of as a water ranger—something like a park ranger but who protecting source watersheds for drinking water not parks.  Lenz’s main...
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A team of scientists is close to chasing down every last thing that happens to nitrogen in wastewater as it passes through the soils and plants of a horizontal levee.

Not only is 97% of the nitrogen removed, but also trace pharmaceuticals. “You just have to focus on where the water is going,” says environmental engineer Aidan Cecchetti, referring to the UC Berkeley-Stanford-ReNUWIt team’s experimentation with three components of flow through the levee system—under the surface, over the surface, or into the air (through evapotranspiration). “In the wastewater pumped to the subsurface, you see full removal of every contaminant except phosphorous.” What’s most astonishing is how much of the work...
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The parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change—threat, shelter, sacrifice, inequity, resource limits, and inaction despite strong science—are striking, and that may be good news.

“We’re seeing profound changes in habits and behaviors, the mobilizing of massive resources and a level of global coordination that we haven’t seen before,” said Otto Scharmer, a social change advocate and lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a recent radio interview for PRI’s The World. “This is highly relevant to climate action.” Since nobody is going anywhere, carbon emissions from transportation are down worldwide, giving us a very real glimpse of a greener feature. Some world leaders, meanwhile,...
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Jan Thompson has always been most interested in what happens down at the bottom of the Bay.

The zone of interaction between the critters in the oozes and the water column above—where specks of sediment, nutrients, and fish food cycle through clam siphons into the Estuary—is the particular specialty of this US Geological Survey scientist. “I’m most proud of the research I’ve done establishing a solid connection between bivalve grazing and phytoplankton growth,” she says. When USGS first hired Thompson, who retired in October 2019, most women in the Menlo Park office were secretaries. She’s since trained...
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A recent test found more than 250 chemicals in the Delta’s Cache Slough, but “Dr Doom” says figuring out what they all are, and their concentrations, is beside the point in our efforts to understand stressors on native fish resilience.

“Knowing the effect on the fish is more informative than knowing which chemicals may be causing it,” says UC Davis’ Richard Connon (whose colleagues gave him his sinister title), referring to taking an ecological rather than regulatory perspective on fish health, and also to the less obvious sublethal effects of contaminants on fish behavior and reproduction. Connon is the lead author of a wide-ranging journal article in the December 2019 issue of SFEWS on how to better focus contaminants research...
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Bay Not BPA-Free

By Ariel Rubissow Okamoto “BPA is globally detected in human urine,” says scientist Ila Shimabuku of the San Francisco Estuary Institute. BPA, one of a chemical group called bisphenols, is a clear, stable, durable ingredient in plastic bottles, can liners, cash register receipts and many other things we use and touch every day. In 2017, the RMP collected and analyzed 16 bisphenols (including bisphenol A, or BPA) in 22 water samples from around San Francisco Bay. Concentrations of BPA found...
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California Sun Podcast Interview with ESTUARY’s Editor Dives into All Things Bay & Delta on the Front Burner Today

This August the California Sun’s Jeff Schechtman interviewed ESTUARY magazine’s editor in chief Ariel Rubissow Okamoto, also a long-time Bay Area science writer, about her personal opinions on the resiliency of the largest estuary on the West Coast, the challenges facing the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, and the potential impacts of climate change and sea level rise on the San Francisco Bay.  Listen to the 20-minute podcast here. Mentions: Nutrients, Toxics, Giant Marsh, Adaptation Atlas, Resilience, Sea Level Rise impacts, BCDC...
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Super-Shore: A Multi-Habitat Experiment at Giant Marsh

Interview anyone of any stripe about the Giant Marsh living shorelines project and the same two words will be in every other sentence: high tide. Each construction step of this California Coastal Conservancy-led effort to build new native oyster reefs interspersed with eelgrass off the Contra Costa County shore must consider the timing of tides. High enough to float a barge or Boston whaler into the shallows, do a day’s work, and get back out again on the next cycle....
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Sandra Scoggin has the qualities the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture needs in a leader at what she calls a ‘pivot point’ for the partnership.

In the early days, when the wetland protection and restoration landscape was less complex, the JV “could be everywhere and do everything.” Now it needs to be more strategic. “I’m a listener, a synthesizer, and I’m pretty good at herding diverse interests toward shared goals,” says Scoggin, who is taking over the 20-year-old wildlife habitat venture after 16 years in second seat. “The JV is built on deep and lasting relationships,” she says, both awe and pride in her voice....
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Louise Conrad sees the Delta Stewardship Council’s science program, which she now leads, as poised to shift into a new gear – from breaking down the science landscape and building a new foundation for Delta science to actually doing it.

 “With the update of the Delta science plan done, we can now can sink our teeth into some topical issues our scientists can be passionate about, such as aquatic invasive vegetation, microcystis and climate change, for example,” says the former Department of Water Resources (DWR) fish biologist. Conrad grew up in Philadelphia and developed an interest in conservation on summer road trips to western national parks in their family’s Dodge Ram. “My mom sewed us individual seat covers with pockets...
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New Video: USGS Investigates 50-Year Mystery of San Francisco Bay

Between April 1969 and March 2019, USGS conducted 1,167 boat-based sampling cruises to better understand changing conditions in San Francisco Bay — producing data used by scientists around the world. Meet four scientists and the captain of the March 14, 2019 cruise, and watch them plumb the Bay depths, drag nets, filter samples, and explain their work.
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Feds Coastal Research Crew Bucks Headwinds

Jim Cloern looked out of an airplane window one day and saw red streaks in the water; crimson patches darkening the grey-green shallows that are San Francisco’s South Bay. A superscientist with the US Geological Survey, he knew something big was happening. As soon as the plane landed he called his crew. “You will not believe the explosion we’re seeing on the surface,” he heard back from his crew leader Tara Schraga. A quality control freak who sticks to the...
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Haggles over the what, where, and when of Delta conservation got a reset this January with the state’s release of a new collaborative framework focused on opportunities, not species.

The California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s new Delta Conservation Framework tries to fill the vision vacuum left by former Governor Brown’s early pivot away from the 2013 Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, a plan that touched in some shape or way on 160,000 acres of the Delta. “It was too big and too unwieldy for people to manage, and there were too many questions about its effects, and how it would be implemented – particularly as it related to the Delta...
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Reflowing the Sierra to the Sea

A fall flight over the Mexican coast where the Colorado River meets the Sea of Cortez offered me a gut-punching, eye-screwing, visual on the results of impaired flow. The semantics of ‘unimpaired’ and ‘impaired’ flow have laced the language of California water management debates since some engineer invented these politically ‘neutral’ terms long ago. The terms refer to our alteration of freshwater flows from snowmelt and runoff by dams and diversions. But whatever the labels, or whichever estuary you’re referring...
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Alameda Creek: Harnessing a Watershed for Public Sediment

In Resilient by Design team Public Sediment’s effort to unlock Alameda Creek, the key lies in sediment--raw material needed to build levees and raise marshes so shorelines can withstand sea level rise. “We’re designing a suite of special structures, a mix of living and constructed features, to move more sediment and create a dynamic new equilibrium for the creek,” says team leader Gena Wirth. To get a conversation about sediment going, Wirth’s teammate Claire Napawan will often start by talking...
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Supply Side Synthesis

“Small sensors are the foundation of big science,” says Phil Trowbridge, director of the Bay’s Regional Monitoring Program which has just released a new synthesis report on sediment science. The report, combining the results of eight bodies of work, yielded some surprises concerning how much sediment moves from the Sierra and Bay watersheds to the Golden Gate. “The system is calming down after two huge disruptions,” says David Schoellhammer of the U.S. Geological Survey, referring to hydraulic gold mining and...
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Though a tiny and low-lying treatment plant on the San Leandro shore is facing increasing regulation of nutrients and rising sea levels, it’s got a path to adaptation thanks to the region’s taxpayers.

This April, the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority awarded the first round of Measure AA grants, including $539,000 for San Leandro’s water pollution control plant. The plant, which is surrounded by blue- and white-collar communities, recently completed upgrades that allow the repurposing of a retired treatment pond. The money will pay for plans, designs, and permit applications necessary to convert the pond to a wastewater treatment marsh and buffer zone between the plant and the advancing Bay—a critical improvement, since...
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An easily overlooked slough is pointing a finger of uncertainty at Oakland’s plans for ballpark redevelopment, transit safety and resilient neighborhoods.

From the pedestrian bridge between the Oakland Coliseum and the BART station, the view of Damon Slough–a 25-foot-wide canal of muddy, litter-choked water–belies its increasing prominence in the flood-futures of east Oakland. A study by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission did the math, adding the impacts of rising sea levels on these Oakland flatlands to predictions of more frequent, more extreme storm events and urban runoff. “That’s when water starts coming out of manholes,” says Kris May, a coastal engineer who...
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Nudging Natural Magic

“Miraculous” isn’t a term that comes easily to the lips of scientists and engineers. But the word, along with a quickly quelled gulp of incredulity, cropped up more than once in interviews concerning the preliminary results of the horizontal levee experiment on the San Lorenzo shore – including off the charts levels of removal of nitrogen and pharmaceuticals from wastewater passed through the system and growth of willows, cattails, and wet meadows. This pilot sea level rise adaptation project, led...
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Bridges - public shore

Public Sediment Favors Mud

“We’re finally seeing a change in paradigm,” says Brett Milligan regarding how sediment is treated in the Bay Area. What was once considered waste is now considered a resource, and a group called “Public Sediment,” part of the Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge, are proposing mud rooms, mud berms, mud pathways, and top-to-bottom mud management to better build up Bay Area shorelines and keep them above rising water.
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