When the Bay’s brightest wetland scientists and planners parted the waters back in the 1990s – laying out a bold vision for 100,000 acres of tidal wetlands to save endangered rails and mice – little did they know what awaited them on the far shore: more water. But as the next generation of wetland warriors wades into an ever deepening and widening Bay, the work done in the last 20 years to reach the Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals has certainly given our shorelines some wiggle room. And it’s also given those who manage and protect them a lot of field experience and bright ideas about how to tackle the next set of challenges — which they shared in an afternoon conference session on future solutions.
“It’s a growing body of water, not a static thing like a mountain,” said first speaker Robin Grossinger, who has reconstructed its historical ecology and transformation for the San Francisco Estuary Institute.
The Bay was born when Pleistocene glaciers melted and the sea invaded coastal valleys. After a century of human tinkering shrank it by a third, it’s getting bigger again, he explained. As the oceans swell with melted ice and the sea level rises, people and marshes will need to move inland, but “The marshes have mechanisms for that,” he said. “And we do have higher land — we’re not Southern Florida — but we’ve restricted or restrained most of what would make this a resilient system.” Grossinger urged the audience to set aside the mindset of ‘fixing’ our shorelines, which has usually been accomplished with concrete, in order to make them adapt. Strength can also be found in flexibility, and in finding new ways to use nature’s palette, he said. “We need integration between nature and engineering that we’ve never had before. No standard approach will work everywhere, “ he said.
Certainly the original goals report took a far from standard approach. “The Goals are more than a cookbook,” said the second speaker, geomorphologist Jeremy Lowe of ESA PWA and a member of the team crafting the Goals update. “We’re not going to design the Bay in one go. Instead, we hope the revised Goals will start a dynamic discussion about a dynamic system. Otherwise we’ll just end up putting in a lot of concrete.”
First and foremost, Lowe said, we need to figure out what restoration is appropriate where in the Bay, taking into account not only historical ecology but also future possibility. It’s not just a matter of geography, he said. It’s also about location, space, sediment, water, permits, and money, all of which constrain restoration. “We need to think about not only where are, but also where should there be, a beach, a delta, a creek on our shore? We need to look for opportunities to trap sediment and use wastewater, and for places where we have land bayward of the levees. We need to enhance wetlands and transition zones, and realign infrastructure,” he said, clicking through slides showing local demonstration projects and shorelines where the opportunity for experimentation awaits. Lowe also suggested that everyone in the room had to broaden their job description and become “renaissance shoreline managers.” Only by being engineers, geomorphologists, ecologists, insurers, investors, and planners all at once, he said, can we take on unprecedented tasks like moving neighborhoods and cities out of the way of an encroaching Bay.
After the two bigger picture perspectives, scientist Letitia Grenier got into the details of how the updated Habitat Goals – slated for release later this year– can inform planning and debate in the decades ahead. “This is how we want this race to go, and how we want to win it. We’re trying to come up with the science to help people solve problems,” she said. Grenier serves as coordinator for the hundred-plus scientists and resource managers who are working on updating the Goals.
In her presentation, Grenier recapped the dramatic successes since the original report in 1999: 8,000 acres restored to tidal action, another 30,000 in the planning stage, significant increases in funding, policy changes. The scale of individual projects has also expanded, she said. Pre-Goals, the largest restoration was 350 acres; now it’s 15,000. The new goals acknowledge drivers of change like sea level rise and shifts in precipitation, sediment supply, freshwater inflow, salinity, and nutrients. New goals will include place-based specifics and the evolution of habitats over time, with science chapters building on conceptual models of landscape change and addressing risks to native wildlife.
With the help of onscreen charts and lists, Grenier covered the overarching recommendations in the Goals update. These include maximizing use of sediment and freshwater as resources for resiliency; building heterogeneity and gradients into restoration design; coordinating implementation of the Goals’ vision via adaptive management; planning for catastrophic events so responses will address ecological interests; and partnering with educational organizations to get the message out to the public. As we race against time and tide to restore baylands, she said, we have to remember it’s important to plan for many possible futures. “Uncertainty in some of the science shouldn’t hold us back. If you’re uncomfortable with the uncertainty of the future, this report will help,” she concluded.
Following Grenier, some of the participants in the Goals update took part in a panel discussion on ways to increase ecosystem resilience as environmental conditions change. “Sea level is going up and the bay sediment supply is going down, so we need our watersheds to deliver sediment to the marshes,” said John Bourgeois, manager of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. “Lots of the decisions we’ll face are going to be tough, so we need a lot of lead time.”
Wildlife will need lead time too. Climate change is going to make other stresses on wildlife more intense. “We need to prioritize what’s going to get hit, what we do about it, and get the fire trucks ready,” warned scientist and panelist Bruce Herbold, formerly with USEPA. “But it’s not just about fighting fires. We need a vision of what wildlife we want to live here, and what can live here.”
Living here will depend, of course, on the state and extent of habitats for birds, fish and other wildlife in the future. Point Blue Conservation Science biologist Nadav Nur advocated a landscape scale perspective encompassing habitat connectivity and corridors for wildlife. “We can’t just look at habitats in isolation. We have to look at adjacent habitats, and allow for the movement of plants and animals.This means providing refugia in the short term and increasing the resilience of wildlife populations in the long term,” he said.
One critical factor in any fight for resilience will be the existence of transitional zones between baylands and uplands, and between old and new habitats — a zone now dense with human population. “There’s a whole lot of infrastructure packed into the transition zone, so there’s not much of the historical zone left,” said panelist Josh Collins of the San Francisco Estuary Institute. “We may need to get out of the way. We may need to fill in part of the Bay to save the Bay.”
Indeed we may need to do a lot of innovative things to save the cities and farmlands up and down the Estuary watershed from the big changes – intended and not – threatening the status quo. Among the known unknowns, according to panelist Wim Kimmerer of San Francisco State University’s Romberg-Tiburon Center, are the answers to these questions: When will levee failures happen in the delta? When will the twin tunnels get built? How will system behave afterwards? “It’s not predictable,” said Kimmerer. “In the delta, a big levee collapse could be the next big extreme event. So we need a robust system where we can undertake experimental actions and investigations. We need to figure out how much does it matter if the Delta gets a lot saltier than it is now?”
“If we could translocate some of what we’ve learned in the Bay, and in the Habitat Goals process, to the Delta, we could all win,” commented Herbold.
Panelist Donna Ball, from Save the Bay, echoed the value of education and learning in adapting to rising seas and new extremes: “We want to think of resiliency not just in the environment, but in people too. People are slow to accept change, so we need to help educate them.” But creating and sustaining a healthy ecosystem will demand more from people than acceptance. As panel moderator Matt Gerhart of the California Coastal Conservancy put it: “We’re still going to have to clean up our room, with or without climate change.”
After a break, conference presentations got into the nitty-gritty of how to save our hard-won wetlands from rising seas. Presenters explored ways to avoid constructing giant walls or monster gates to keep the water out, focusing instead on nature-based approaches to shoreline resilience.
Coastal ecologist Peter Baye and Bay Conservation and Development Commission geologist Sarah Richmond discussed various nature-based lines of defense against coastal flooding and erosion, ranging from wetlands to coarse sand beaches, transition zones and redesigned stream mouths. All of these rely on some human enhancement of natural processes to get a head start.
According to Richmond, sediment is the building block for marshes to stay high and wide, and marshes can still receive sediment from both Bay tides and upland streams, even if the Bay’s enormous legacy supply from hydraulic gold mining has washed out. “Marshes are sandwiched between dynamic estuarine and terrestrial processes,” explained Richmond. “We can restore these processes and maintain marshes through engineering.”
Marshes can also buffer shores from waves. Richmond described BCDC’s Innovative Wetland Adaptation Techniques Project, which studied how baylands reduce wave height and energy in Lower Corte Madera Creek Watershed. At low water levels, for example, a 1-foot high wave offshore may only be 0.2 feet high by the time it reaches the marsh edge, Richmond said. Deeper water diminishes the “mudflat muscle” to knock down waves, however, and requires a wider marsh to provide flood risk reduction.
Baye described how barrier beaches can occupy the same position as bayfront levees and address the ongoing erosion of Bay marshes. Yet, 1.5 million cubic yards of coarse sediment is mined annually, making it unavailable for marsh restoration. He used Aramburu Island in Richardson Bay – which was being eaten away by wind and wave energy — as a case study and outlined the restoration process there. “We decided to regrade the shoreline for natural beach processes, and the three-foot erosion rate ceased,” he said. Aramburu’s new beach was constructed with gravel, shell, cobble, and bay sand, and now provides habitat for Caspian terns and other birds. Baye also described natural and unintentional alluvial fans around the Bay that create transition zone landward of the marsh. He presented an approach pioneered by Lousiana State University researchers that uses sediment slurry from hydraulic dredging for building high marsh. Such results indicate potential wider application of these new engineering approaches in keeping ahead of marsh subsidence and wave erosion, he concluded.
The next speaker, BCDC’s Joseph LaClair, discussed the challenges of aligning regulations to restoration. “Environmental legislation has been reactive, not forward-looking,” he said. “No single agency is charged with protecting the Bay ecosystem. Collaboration is the key to avoiding siloed regulations for water, species, and other resources.” He cited examples of successful interagency collaboration, notably the Baylands Goals project; the Montezuma Wetlands, Hamilton Field, and South Bay Salt Pond restoration efforts; the Bay Restoration Authority; the Long Term Management Strategy for dredged sediment; the Joint Policy Committee on climate change; and the Adapting to Rising Tides project. The task now is to create strategies for shoreline resilience and infrastructure protection. One possibility: a restoration design review board to integrate monitoring data and scientific review. Since climate change is happening so rapidly, there’s also a need to define thresholds for policy changes in order to respond faster. “The Bay Area has been a leader in planning for climate change,” he concluded. “We need to retool our regulatory processes for responding to sea level rise while protecting the most important habitats, people, and places.”
Wrapping up the session, a second panel considered opportunities for, and barriers to, nature-based adaptation. “We need to focus on goals and how best to accomplish them, and to identify regulatory challenges early,” said San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board executive officer Bruce Wolfe. “It’s best to develop multi-benefits approaches and implement no-regrets projects.” One such approach, Wolfe pointed out, involves reusing wastewater in wetlands; another, widening flood plains on the Napa River by constructing high marsh and a more sustainable stream channel.
“Larger-scale conservation planning is better,” followed up US Fish and Wildlife’s Cay Goude. She assured the audience that one important policy level tool, a recovery plan for tidal marsh species, will be released soon. “FWS is about habitat, not single species,” she explained. “We focus on what we can do.” Goude went on to describe one success story: “At Antioch Dunes, we’re dumping sand from dredging the ship channel onto the dunes, building up the homes of endangered plants and insects.” Then Anne Morkill of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge described her agency’s role as stewards of diked baylands: “Our mission is wildlife first. Ecosystem restoration relates to wildlife conservation.”
Several panelists then mentioned that such missions are challenged by permitting and funding constraints, especially funding for monitoring. Speaking for the US Army Corps of Engineers, the San Francisco District’s Planning Chief Tom Kendall said the Corps had lifted restrictions on adaptive management and monitoring. “Times are tight in terms of funding,” Kendall said. “We have to find ways to do what we want to do more effectively.”