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When San Francisco Bay Was a Stinky Mess

| September 20, 2011
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SF Bay from space. (Photo: NASA)

Over the weekend, I went camping on Angel Island, which was gorgeous and hot. But we almost never got there. Traffic on the Embarcadero was so packed with bicyclists, farmers’ market customers, bicycle cabs, tourists and joggers, that we almost missed the ferry.

Today, I realized that people flocking to the bay for fun is actually a modern problem. Because 40 years ago the goal was to avoidthe San Francisco Bay as much as possible.

That’s because it stank, says Andrew Gunther, executive director for the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, in Oakland. He’s the lead author on the State of the San Francisco Bay, (PDF), released on Monday. Gunther and I talked just before the opening of the 2011 State of the Estuary Conference.

Do you remember what the Bay was like before the Clean Water Act was passed, in 1972?

I moved here in 1980, so I don’t. But my wife’s family is from the Bay Area, and she told me that when she was a girl, they used to drive from Mountain View to visit her grandmother in Berkeley. When they approached the Bay, they’d roll up their windows. In her family the Bay was called Lake Limburger, because of the aroma.

Ah, the sweet smell of raw sewage…

I ran across a reference that in the 1950s, in the Alviso area, near San Jose, if you were to walk by the shore with silver coins in your pocket, they’d turn brown in a matter of minutes, because of pollutants in the atmosphere that would interact with the metal.

You can just use your imagination and figure out what was flowing directly into San Francisco Bay. The Bay shoreline was not a pleasant place to be around.

And now, only 40 years later, it’s safe (most of the time) to actually swim in the bay, according to the report. It’s amazing to me how far we’ve come, in so little time.

I ran across a reference that in the 1950s, in the Alviso area…if you were to walk by the shore with silver coins in your pocket, they’d turn brown in a matter of minutes…

I agree. In our modern era, where everything happens so fast, people don’t tend to realize that we’ve only been restoring the San Francisco Bay and controlling pollution for 30 to 40 years, whereas — if you start at the Gold Rush — we’ve spent a hundred years degrading it. When you look at that time scale, you can see we’re making amazing progress.

But some problems, according to the report, are getting worse. For example, the amount of fresh water in the Bay.

It’s a dynamic. The central bay, by the Golden Gate Bridge, is always a fairly oceanic, salty environment. Then as you move upstream, you move into what we call brackish water environments, and then you get into fresh water. In the spring, that fresh water extends farther into the Bay. Then, in the fall, like right now, the fresh water recedes because there’s less flow from the rivers.

So an estuary has this dynamic pulsing of salt across the year. But as we divert fresh water (for drinking and irrigation, for example) we have a situation where we have less of that dynamic pulsing, and also less total fresh water coming into the estuary. That affects all of the ecological processes and the resident organisms that have evolved for that dynamic system.

Jack Ward Thomas says “Ecosystems aren’t more complicated than we think, they’re more complicated than we can think.” We’ve seen significant decline in the fish populations, particularly in the Suisun and San Pablo Bays. And we’re pretty sure that’s due, at least in part, to the loss of this dynamic of fresh/salty water. And then there are the animals that would eat those fishes, too, so you get this cascade of effects through the food chain.

The 2011 State of the San Francisco Estuary Conference runs through Wednesday, in Oakland.

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine. Reach Amy Standen at astanden@kqed.org.

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