Wetlands

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Rough Waters for Sea Level Rise Planning

Salt ponds in Redwood City where the new Saltworks development is proposed. Photo: Lauren Sommer.

What do Bay Area airports and some big Silicon Valley companies have in common? They sit right on the edge of San Francisco Bay, where sea level rise is expected to have a big impact by the end of the century.

That may seem far in the future, but state agencies are preparing for climate change now by writing new rules for construction along the bay’s shoreline. As you can imagine, developers and environmentalists aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye.

That’s evident on a patch of land at the edge of the bay in Redwood City. For more than a century, it’s been home to one thing: salt. Continue reading

Federal Budget Pressure on Rivers, Wetlands

Witnesses tell an Assembly committee that looming federal cuts would leave state programs adrift

The Yolo Bypass, with Sacramento in the background. (Photo: Craig Miller)

An array of state programs to protect and restore rivers and wetlands is endangered by current plans to cut funding on Capitol Hill. That’s what a string of witnesses told the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee in Sacramento this week.

At risk are programs that have leveraged federal money to restore hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat in California, according to speakers for environmental and outdoor groups.

For a nearby example of how federal funds have been used, waterfowl advocate Bill Gaines pointed to the Yolo Bypass, almost within sight of the state Capitol. Gaines, president of the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, said that over ten years, $5 million in federal money has fueled restoration of 4,300 acres of wildlife habitat. Continue reading

King Tides Could Preview Sea Level Rise

Photo of Distillery Point near Half Moon Bay, a contribution to the King Tide Photo Initiative. (Photo: jsutton8, Flickr)

This week, seasonal high tides, known as “King Tides” will roll into the Bay Area, providing a preview of what the region might face if sea level rises over the coming decades as predicted.

So the organizers of the Bay Area King Tide Photo Initiative want you to grab your camera and help document the tides.  The San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) has set up a Flickr site for the photos, where participants can upload their “before, during, and after” shots. Continue reading

Californians Who Rely on Delta at “Severe Risk”

Here’s a shocker: Yes, action is necessary on the San Francisco Bay Delta

(Photo: US Fish & Wildlife)

State and federal authorities provided an update Wednesday on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which is tasked with restoring the damaged ecosystems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and safeguarding California’s water supply.

“The 25 million Californians who rely on the Delta for clean drinking water are at severe risk,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, on a call with reporters. Continue reading

Rebuilding a Buffer Against Climate Impacts

Hear our radio feature on wetlands restoration in San Francisco Bay, to be aired Friday afternoon on The California Report.

As my colleague Paul Rogers reported this week, earth has begun to move in the biggest wetlands restoration ever undertaken on the West Coast. This week I took a brief tour of the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, near Hayward.

What is and what will be: Hundreds of acres of salt evaporation ponds, in the background, are being restored to tidal wetlands, as seen in the foreground of this scene from Eden Landing in Hayward. (All photos: Craig Miller)

Scanning much of the scene, “Eden” wasn’t exactly what came to mind. Vast, white expanses of salt and gypsum deposits are more reminiscent of Utah than a bay estuary. These are the remnants of a once booming salt harvesting industry.

But fueled partially by federal stimulus funding, bulldozers and backhoes are now reshaping levees there as part of the larger South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, which will eventually return 630 acres of abandoned salt flats into tidal wetlands at Eden Landing, and thousands more in an arc around the south end of San Francisco Bay. Continue reading

Planning Questions Persist Over Sea Level Rise

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Speakers at this week’s sea level planning conference in Oakland cited everybody from H. L. Mencken to Yogi Berra (“You can observe a lot just by watching”). But the primary insight from the event may have been courtesy of Robert Frost: “…miles to go before (we) sleep.”

About 225 representatives from industry, government and academia gathered at the behest of the non-profit Bay Planning Coalition.  The effort was to push forward a planning agenda to help prepare the Bay Area and coastal California for rising sea levels due to the changing climate. There is considerable uncertainty surrounding how much sea level rise we should expect in the decades to come. There were indications at the conference that planners were starting to coalesce around predictions of 16 inches by 2050, and 55 inches by 2100, projections embraced by the state’s formal climate adaptation plan.

Greater still is the uncertainty surrounding how governments, businesses and public agencies will respond to the challenge. Estimates are that rising seas threaten $100 billion of “economic assets” statewide, half of which are in the Bay Area. While most speakers seemed to agree on the urgency of mobilizing a coordinated planning effort, few seemed certain where to start.

The palpable frustration in the room was voiced  by, among others, Calla Rose Ostrander, Climate Action Coordinator with the City and County of San Francisco. “I think we’ve set ourselves up to need certainty, to make decisions,” she told me, saying that public agencies in charge of roads and development feel paralyzed. “When we apply for funding for these things,” explained Ostrander, they (potential funders) say ‘How are you planning for it?’ And we haven’t been advised yet on how to plan for it.” That dilemma was echoed by Paul Thayer of the California State Lands Commission: “You can’t engineer for a range of sea level rise,” he said. And yet that would appear to be the task.

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrustructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrastructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Funding is another area that remains fuzzy, amid all the inter-agency discussions, and one that was not substantively addressed at the conference. It is expected that rising seas will require billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades. The Port of Oakland, for example, is awaiting the outcome of a study to determine what “perimeter defenses” will be needed to keep runways at Oakland International Airport above water.

Several speakers raised concern about rallying public support to confront a threat that is so diffuse. Will Travis, who heads the San Francisco-based Bay Conservation & Development Commission, predicted that “bringing it home” to households with more immediate worries will be the biggest challenge. And yet we can’t wait, warned Travis. “The longer we wait, the worse the problem becomes.”

Scientists as well as policymakers are pondering how to respond to rising sea levels. Nicole Heller of our content partner Climate Central recently attended a conference aimed at that end of the issue, and wrote about it in the Climate Central blog.

Delta Dawn

Scientists and policy wonks seem to be in general agreement on this: that it’s time to close out the current management epoch on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and begin anew. There’s less accord on how to proceed.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Policy makers have assembled “blue ribbon” panels to study the options and make recommendations. Volumes of studies and proposals line the shelves in Sacramento and elsewhere.

Last week a new idea surfaced for moving water through the Delta: Instead of channeling around it, tunnel under it.

This week the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California released its recommendations for a mechanism to fund the enormous fixes that will be required: Those who benefit pay (ecologists use the term “ecosystem services” for all those bennies we get from natural resources and tend to take for granted).

Whatever the outcome, one thing seems inevitable, with or without human intervention. Driven by warming ocean temperatures, rising sea levels will continue to push saltwater farther upstream, changing the Delta’s character and the “services” it provides.

Recently a team of students at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism produced a Flash presentation on some of the issues raised by advancing salt in the Delta. The multimedia report: Delicate Balance was produced for Climate Watch by Amanda Dyer, Martin Ricard and Jeremy Whitaker. We’re grateful to them for their time and creativity.

delicatebalance

Methane Takes its Turn in the Spotlight

No sooner had I posted a piece about “The Other Greenhouse Gases,” than more new data bubbled up about one of them; methane.

Benicia Refinery

According to a study published by researchers at MIT, there was a global spike in atmospheric methane last year. The increase, on the order of millions of metric tons, was uniform around the world, not concentrated around major methane emitters, as one might expect. In other words, “background” methane levels are up all over, so that the atmospheric concentration is nearly 1800 parts per billion.

That’s a much lower concentration than carbon dioxide, which stands at about 385 parts per million. Methane also breaks down faster in the atmosphere. But it worries climatologists because it is far more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas; anywhere from 25 to 50 times more harmful, depending on how you measure it. Researchers Matthew Rigby and Ronald Prinn say atmospheric methane levels have more than tripled since the Industrial Revolution but has held steady in recent years. Recently something has thrown it out of balance but the MIT team could only speculate about possible reasons.

Methane escapes from a combination of both natural and human-induced sources. It leaks from oil & gas industry infrastructure and landfills, and is produced by livestock (and human) digestion. It’s also released by marshes and rice paddies. California is a major rice producer but the rice fields’ share of total U.S. methane emissions is relatively tiny.

Climate Watch is preparing an upcoming feature on  methane and climate change. Listen for it on The California Report in November.