Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 2, 2014

Off Deadline: Counting victories in the 'Battle for the Bay and Baylands'

by Jay Thorwaldson

It is rare for a speaker at a community presentation to announce "breaking news!" in the manner of TV's sometimes over-excited newscasters.

I had that chance last week when speaking to a full-house audience at the Museum of American History, just south of downtown Palo Alto.

My topic was the "History (and Future) of the San Francisco Bay" — its vast baylands, salt ponds and adjacent grasslands. It is a topic that has been of both personal and professional interest to me for most of my life.

My news was the announcement that arrived in my email that morning (Wednesday, April 23) from the federal Environmental Protection Agency's San Francisco Bay Water Quality Improvement Fund.

The agency announced $5 million in new grants for environment-related projects, including an $850,000 planning grant for restoring up to 1,000 acres of mostly South Bay salt ponds to living marshlands.

No precise sites were listed, and it seems a trickle-down from the vast federal budget, even as part of a $5 million package.

But the significance is in the big picture. Instead of endless battles over proposals to fill and develop the baylands, including tidal mudflats and adjacent upland-meadow habitats, the bay is being restored, cleaned, replenished. Bay fill once was occurring at an estimated 2,000 acres a year, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to predict the South Bay would "become a river" if that continued. Today, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) has halted that.

Now, instead of each city operating independently with no overall plan or vision of the bay — as was the case for most of the last century — there are collaborative partnerships throughout the region.

So the $5 million may go far, due to linked government and private entities.

The other four grants in this round illustrate the collaboration: (1) $800,000 for removing mercury from the Guadalupe River Watershed in collaboration with the San Francisco Estuary Partnership and Association of Bay Area Governments; (2) $1.5 million to create or restore a 164-acre marsh/upland habitat at Point Pinole Regional Shoreline in Richmond, with the East Bay Regional Park District; (3) $1.2 million to restore the Napa River in a public-private partnership; and (4) $500,000 to reduce nutrients flowing into the bay from several wastewater treatment plants, in partnership with the East Bay Municipal Utilities District.

But there's a bigger context. Since 2008 the Bay fund has invested more than $32 million in 53 projects across the region. And those investments have been matched with another $105 million from 71 partner entities.

That's noticeable.

My presentation went into the deeper history, dating back more than 10,000 years — the depth we reached in a college archeological dig in an East Bay tomato field. We'd climb out of our assigned 10-foot-square holes looking like coal miners from the blackish peat-bog dust.

Climate and food supply (acorns, fish, shellfish, deer, elk, buckeye) created a relatively dense population: An estimated third of all Native Americans resided in California. Climate and economy — then as now.

But when the Spanish conquered the land the estimated 200,000 indigenous people were reduced to something like 15,000, through mistreatment, disease and murder. Then followed Mexican rule and the American takeover.

My personal relationship with the baylands dates back to early teenage years in Los Gatos, taking a Peerless Stages bus to Alviso to explore marshes and hike levees (we knew that touching the water would make us sick); paddling, rowing and later sailing (with a 24-foot crank-up-keel sailboat) into sloughs; reporting on the bay for the Palo Alto Times for 15 years; helping spearhead a battle to "save Bair Island" circa 1980-81, after I retired from the Times; and negotiating land options with Utah Mining Co. and Leslie Salt Co. for historic Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto, making public purchase possible later by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

Historically, the bay region would be a vastly different place had certain plans materialized.

In the surging post-World War II years, when conquering nature and developing natural areas was the dominant philosophy, a former theatrical producer named John Reber proposed building two huge dams, from San Francisco to the East Bay and along the line of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The dams would capture fresh water and be connected by a fresh-water channel behind a new island of 20,000 acres of developable land.

Reber's table-thumping enthusiasm sustained interest until the late 1950s, when the federal government built the still-existing Bay Model in Sausalito. The model's water-flow tests proved the plan wouldn't work, and it became a footnote.

The late Pete Uccelli, owner of Pete's Harbor in Redwood City, proposed an even grander plan: to build a dam over the shallow "Potato Patch" crescent outside the Golden Gate Bridge, thus converting the entire bay to a fresh-water lake.

Huge battles included the unsuccessful Save San Francisco Bay Association's "Save the Bay" effort to block Gov. Ronald Reagan's State Lands Commission giveaway of title to most ponds to Leslie Salt Co., now Cargill-owned.

Mobil Land Co. proposed 3,000 homes and commercial areas for 12,000 jobs on Bair Island off Redwood City. A badly outspent (13-to-1) referendum blocked the plan, passing by 42 votes, 43 on a demanded recount. A Cargill proposal is currently being debated.

A venture called Westbay Community Associations proposed filling in the shallow bay between Coyote Point and the San Francisco International Airport. But Bruce Brugmann's Bay Guardian newspaper exposed the plan with a leaked artist's rendering showing a huge conveyor belt carrying San Bruno Mountain over state Highway 101.

Local skirmishes still occur, such as Palo Alto's greens-vs.-greens debate over a composting/energy-production facility in its baylands.

But the big battles belong to history. The future, it now seems, belongs to restoration and cleanup, creation of new marshlands and collaborative partnerships.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com and/or jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

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