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

Green Cement Blues

For the last three years, an environmental storm has been brewing in the North Bay city of Vallejo. Some elements of the story are familiar: grassroots activists pitted against a multinational corporate developer, environmental justice versus the lure of new jobs. Add historical preservation, iconic wildlife, political shenanigans, and the unexpected involvement of the California Attorney General’s office, and the mix becomes more complex. An Irish cement company and its local partners want to build a processing plant and a...
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The Nature Conservancy’s venture in growing food crops for wintering cranes on Staten Island is under fire from an unexpected source—the Wetlands Preservation Foundation.

The nonprofit, headed by Stockton tomato packer Dino Cortopassi, is suing TNC and the California Department of Water Resources, which holds a conservation easement on Staten Island, alleging farming practices that cause soil subsidence and threaten levee integrity, and misuse of revenue from farm operations. The 9200-acre farm, acquired by TNC in 2001, is a major destination for migratory greater and lesser sandhill cranes (the latter a California endangered species) as well as Aleutian cackling geese and other birds. As...
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Big Restoration Experiment for the Delta’s Dutch Slough

Development agreements were already in place for three parcels of land around Dutch Slough when John Cain first took a hike in this West Delta area in the spring of 1999. “It was clear as day to me that removing the levee would be a great way to restore freshwater wetlands at the mouth of Marsh Creek,” says Cain, who now works for American Rivers. Almost two decades later, earthmoving equipment is now preparing 1,178 acres for conversion to marsh...
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Kitchen Sink Update on Every Last Invader

On multiple fronts, with multiple forces and weapons, California’s battle against invasive aquatic organisms continues. Notoriously, San Francisco Bay is the world’s most invaded estuary. The state’s lakes, rivers, and other freshwater wetlands have their own problematic exotics. Keeping them out, and preventing their spread once established, requires coordination among agencies and levels of government. At best, meshing jurisdictional gears can be a challenge. Legislation pending in Congress could make treating ships’ ballast water to remove invasives yet another source...
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California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers System expanded for the first time in 13 years in June when Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed legislation protecting 37 miles of the upper Mokelumne River.

It was the culmination of a long struggle for the Jackson-based Foothill Conservancy and other river advocates. Four years ago, a Mokelumne bill was approved by the state Senate but killed by a parliamentary maneuver  that blocked a vote in the Assembly. Despite significant support in Calaveras and Amador counties, the bill was opposed by local water agencies concerned about the potential impact on their water rights. In 2015 Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals) successfully proposed a state study of the...
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Innovative stormwater management strategies throughout California are pioneering new ways to capture and use stormwater to augment local water supplies and prepare for climate change, according to a new report.

“Stormwater has traditionally been considered a nuisance or danger in terms of flooding and water quality,” says the Pacific Institute’s Morgan Shimabuku, lead author of Stormwater Capture in California: Innovative Policies and Funding Opportunities, “But we’re starting to see it as more of a resource with potential for water supply.” Shimabuku notes that stormwater capture is also “a great strategy for adapting to climate change, alleviating the impact of high-intensity rainstorms and reducing dependence on other water sources in times...
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Islais Creek: Hyper-Creek Mediates Hazard Sandwich

Situated between trendy Dogpatch and struggling Bayview-Hunter’s Point, the Islais basin is, according to Bry Sarté of Sherwood Design Engineers, “the biggest watershed in San Francisco and home to the city’s most disadvantaged community.” These days, Islais creek is mostly invisible, culverted and paved over between Glen Canyon upstream and its outfall near Third Street. Tasked with restructuring and reimagining the basin as a part of the Resilient by Design Challenge, Sarté and team BIG + ONE + Sherwood began...
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Permitting Made Easier?

“Bay Restoration is a race against time,” says San Francisco Restoration Authority Chair Dave Pine. “That’s why it’s so important to bring the regulatory agencies together to fast-track the permitting process.” The Restoration Authority, overseeing projects funded by Measure AA, took a step forward this June by approving funding for a Regulatory Integration Team. BCDC and six other organizations, including the US Army Corps of Engineer, the US EPA, federal and state wildlife agencies, and the state Water Board, joined...
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Eighteen years after local stakeholders adopted the Putah Creek Accord to guarantee minimum flows and other enhancements, birdlife is flourishing in the Creek’s Riparian Reserve, highlighting the restoration of what was once a dried-up ditch.

Former U.C. Davis post-doc Kristen Dybala and her colleagues recently reported in Ecological Restoration on a project that monitored populations of breeding species, mostly songbirds, at the Reserve and 13 other sites along lower Putah Creek from 1999 through 2012. Some sites had seen active restoration efforts to benefit native fish; others had not. Overall, birds seemed to respond to the modified flow regime, with positive trends for 27 species and greater community diversity. Seven riparian-dependent species showed increases in...
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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

In January, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board appealed December decisions by a Solano Superior Court Judge concerning Point Buckler and its owner John Sweeney. The decisions voided $3.6 million in fines and cleanup and restoration requirements that the two agencies had imposed on Sweeney for dumping and excavation in Suisun Bay, and draining tidal wetland, without authorization. “If this decision sets precedent, we’re in real trouble,” says Erica Maharg...
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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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