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.

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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Although the Covid-19 pandemic and attendant economic cataclysm have tripped up some ambitious plans for funding climate resilience in California, other measures to integrate adaptation and planning are still on track.

In July, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments released the draft of Plan Bay Area 2050, a 30-year plan to guide growth in the nine-county region. “The biggest new integration in the plan is a set of investments to protect our Bay and ocean shorelines from rising sea levels,” says MTC’s Dave Vautin. The plan calls for just under $20 billion in investments ranging from seawalls and traditional levees to horizontal levees and wetland restoration...
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Parks and Cities Seek Shore Resilience

By Joe Eaton For Alameda County, climate vulnerability is no abstraction. King tides push the waters of San Leandro Bay into parking lots at Martin Luther King Regional Shoreline. When Diablo winds rattle the eucalyptus, Berkeley and Oakland hill-dwellers recall the conflagrations of 1923 and 1991 and dread the next one. The county feels the bite of both edges of the climate sword: fire and flood. With highways, BART, a major airport and seaport, business parks, and sports complexes, the...
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Greener Fatter Levees Boon to Richmond Resilience?

By Daniel McGlynn In May, despite the now normal issues of groups gathering for video calls and virtual PowerPoints, the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority voted unanimously to fund the early stages of a massive new infrastructure project along the North Richmond shoreline with a grant of $644,709. The shoreline is now one step closer to becoming home to a horizontal, or living, levee that provides both flood protection and habitat. The proposed project, in the planning stages since 2017,...
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San Francisco Prepares for Water From All Directions

By Isaac Pearlman “Even a city with as many resources as San Francisco has can’t do this [alone],” says the director of the Port of San Francisco’s Waterfront Resilience Program Lindy Lowe, speaking of the climate change threats looming over the City by the Bay. “It’s too big.” The perils San Francisco faces include three-to-ten feet of sea-level rise this century, a sharp increase in extreme heat days, and more severe floods and drought. As city officials grapple with today’s...
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Time Travel on the Bay

By Aleta George “In day-to-day life we look at the world in a three-dimensional view,” Liam O’Donoghue, host and producer of the award-winning podcast East Bay Yesterday, says, “but when you know history, you can look at it through four dimensions because you can see into the past using your imagination.” On a recent boat tour of the East Bay shoreline led by O’Donoghue, Captain Andy threaded his vessel Pacific Pearl through the Berkeley pier as if it were a...
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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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After nearly 30 years in refuge management on public lands, Anne Morkill is leaving government, but not wildlife, behind.

Following her February 2020 retirement from managing the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which she led for nearly a decade, Morkill is taking the helm at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, a nonprofit that stewards one of the largest freshwater wetlands complexes on the northern California coast. Morkill believes that San Francisco Bay provides unusual potential for restoring habitat for wildlife in a highly urban environment. “That’s what makes it so special,” she says, citing the Bay...
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“The Bay is a jewel ― can you imagine if it stunk like it did in the ’50s or if it was green with algae?” asks retiring Executive Director of the Bay Area Clean Water Agencies (BACWA) David Williams, reflecting on his work over much of the last decade to address nutrient pollution.

Working with the 37 wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the Bay, as well as with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, Williams helped establish a science-based regional permit for nutrients from the plants. The forward-thinking permit includes nature-based solutions like using wastewater to nurture horizontal levees or create wetlands, buffering the Bay shore from crashing waves as the sea rises. “We have a very enlightened Water Board,” Williams says, “because of that, instead of fighting, the...
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Good Policy, More Tests for Living Shores

By Ariel Rubissow Okamoto While more sea walls may soon be necessary to adapt to rising seas, softer, greener, nature-based shorelines will also be important buffers for our cities and waterfronts. Wetlands, oyster reefs, eelgrass beds, and other natural features of shores and shallows figure largely in a number of ambitious, multi-partner restoration projects over the last decade. To date, more than 10 such projects have been or are being restored around the Bay, encompassing more than 200 acres of...
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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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Invasive clams and freshwater exports from the Delta have created dramatic and unsustainable changes in the San Francisco Estuary’s foodweb over the past 50 years.

 A study by UC Davis researchers found a 97% decline in phytoplankton, the microscopic foundation of the food chain. “Understanding the causes for the decline in the pelagic [water column] community is essential so that efficient solutions can be implemented,” says Bruce Hammock, a research scientist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Aquatic Health Program. The invasive clams (Potamocorbula amurensis), originally from Asia, have been over-consuming phytoplankton and zooplankton for more than 30 years, and have long been...
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While it’s been a tough year for marine mammals along the California coast, local San Francisco Bay conditions may have afforded scientists a unique opportunity to study emerging ocean problems.

The Marine Mammal Center participated in 12 necropsies of deceased gray whales in and around the Bay. Later in the year, malnourished Guadalupe fur seals stranded along the coast at a historically high rate. In June, a surprisingly early toxic algae bloom off the coast of San Luis Obispo caused a rash of cases of Domoic Acid Toxicity among pregnant and yearling California sea lions. Dr. Cara Field, staff veterinarian at The Marine Mammal Center, has some theories as to...
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Next Day Delivery: PCBs, Plastics, and Mercury All in One Package

By Alastair Bland The slow, downstream chemical migration of legacy contaminants like mercury and PCBs into the Bay is something that Lester McKee and his colleagues at the San Francisco Estuary Institute hope to cut short. Using funding from the Regional Monitoring Program, they’ve been sampling creeks that enter the central and southern San Francisco Bay for years, identifying the most contaminated waterways. “We want to short-circuit the conveyor belt that delivers the pollutants we’re concerned about into the food...
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Oakland green infrastructure vision.

Clock Ticking for Cities to Commit to Greening

Managing stormwater is a physics problem, and not a very glamorous one. In decades past, the main objective of managing stormwater was figuring out how fast it could be directed through the Bay Area’s built landscape via storm drains, culverts, and channels, and into the Bay. In decades future, however, the object will be to slow down the runoff, and sink it into greener, spongier surfaces sprinkled throughout our cities and counties, or to run it through more meandering, more...
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Jessica Fain got a crash course in resilience planning when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012.

Fain, Planning Director for the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) since October, was part of a three-person office in the Waterfront and Open Space Division of New York’s Department of City Planning. “We were doing a small study on adaptation options,” she recalls. “In the middle of that, Sandy hit. Suddenly all eyes were on us.” Fain brings that background to a setting unlike New York in many ways. Instead of five boroughs, for example, she’s dealing with a...
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Therese McMillan inherits huge challenges as the new Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

The Bay Area region is beleaguered by traffic, a crippling housing shortage, and growing inequality. MTC plays a role in all these areas. “We have a master coordinator role in being able to knit the region together through land use and transportation planning, and major dollar investments,” says McMillan of the MTC, which distributes billions of public transportation dollars collected annually by local, state and federal governments, although she notes that the agency doesn’t “have land use authority, or our...
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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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Getting a Bead on Table Salt

By Joe Eaton Microplastics are present in the San Francisco Bay, and at higher concentrations than Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes, according to a San Francisco Estuary Institute study led by Rebecca Sutton. There’s “a lot of uncertainty about potential impacts to people and wildlife,” she says.“[Miicroplastics are] a variable contaminant and challenging to interpret.” What we know is sufficient cause for concern: apart from their physical impacts, plastics can absorb other pollutants and some plastic ingredients are known...
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Saltwater Revival

“Swimming sustains me,” says Fran Hegeler of the South End Rowing Club. That’s the kind of enthusiastic language some Bay swimmers express, but sharing the water means sharing it in sickness and in health. Right now, Sausalito’s Marine Mammal Center is dealing with a large outbreak of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can cause fatal kidney damage in California sea lions. But it isn’t likely to affect swimmers, as the bacteria is not known to survive long in saltwater.
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