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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline: New report confirms first-hand knowledge of bay's health

Uploaded: Sep 21, 2011

For those of us lucky enough to have had intimate, first-hand contact with the San Francisco Bay over decades, a new report on the bay's health is encouraging, despite some disturbing aspects.

The report, presented this week at a conference in Berkeley, is a detailed, balanced analysis of the trends affecting the bay and its estuaries -- long known as the "air conditioner" for Palo Alto and the South Bay region.

One bit of really good news in the comprehensive report, two years in the making, is that one can now safely swim in most parts of the bay.

This was not always true.

It also says the bay and its marshlands and wildlife are generally healthier than they have been for most of the past century and a half, give or take a decade or two.

Yet it also warns of problems from some pollutants and a declining flow of fresh water due primarily to siphoning off water for agriculture in the Central Valley.

There's serious work to be done, it warns.

The report is entitled, "The State of San Francisco Bay 2011," appropriately. It was produced by the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration in cooperation with other entities under a coalition, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership. It can be accessed in full or executive-summary form at www.cemea.org .

The center uses a metaphor to sum up the report's core conclusion: "Like a patient out of intensive care yet still suffering aches, pains and the need for a lot of rehabilitation, San Francisco Bay is on the mend but far from enjoying a clean bill of health."

It also waxes poetic: "The broad blue-green water body in the center of it all -- San Francisco Bay -- provides Bay Area residents with their inimitable sense of place and iconic geography." Plus it's essential for wildlife and good for tourism, too, the report notes.

For the detail oriented, the report provides statistics: The bay and delta directly affect about 7.5 million Bay Area residents and indirectly about 30 million Californians. The latter is if you add in the delta water diverted to agriculture -- in addition to the huge habitat support for wildlife and plants, including migratory birds. The bay absorbs about 500 million gallons of treated sewage per day. It annually surrenders up to 2 million tons of sand for construction and about 65,000 cubic yards of oyster shells for their calcium, once used in cement under Utah Mining Co. ownership.

The report covers in comprehensive detail five areas: water quality, water quantity, habitats, ecological processes, and something called "living resources." It mentions the important role the bay plays in the region's economy, through migratory tourists, climate and other ways.

As someone raised in the Bay Area, I discovered the bay's magic as a boy in the early 1950s. From Los Gatos, I and a friend or two would catch a "Peerless Stages" bus that meandered to Alviso and back. We would wander for hours along the levees and marshlands.

But we knew full well the admonition: "Don't touch the water!" The result would be hepatitis or other infection. And on a hot day the marshes stank.

During the 1950s and into the 1970s, the shallow bay remained a target for filling for development. But encouraged (prodded and educated) by a group formed in 1959, called "Save the Bay," powerful state Sen. Eugene McAteer teamed up with popular KSFO disk jockey Don Sherwood in the mid-1960s to generate public support for creating the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), which halted the filling of about 2,000 acres per year. Both men are now deceased, but their legacy from the hard-fought battle remains.

The Save-the-Bay founders were alerted, and alarmed, by a pivotal Army Corps of Engineers report that warned that at the then-rate of fill the bay would become a narrow deep-water channel, essentially a river -- a disaster, in other words.

Prior to 1960, the bay already had shrunk by a third, from about 680 square miles to 430 square miles, due to diking and filling over 100 years or so, according to a Save-the-Bay estimate.

After years of sewage and industrial pollution, the water remained dangerous for decades. Years later, in the 1970s, when Marine World was based on the Peninsula, the Palo Alto Times staff competed in a media race, which I and canoeing partner Marc Salgado almost won until some clown -- a real clown in a small speedboat -- tipped us accidentally into the water, allowing some radio-station guys to claim the win they didn't deserve. A member of the water-ski show told us that any scratch had to be treated immediately to avoid a potentially serious infection.

I taught my sons to sail in El Toros, and later acquired a 24-foot sailboat with a retractable keel that allowed us to explore nearly every inlet and slough around the South Bay with just an 18-inch clearance and shallow-shank motor. With the Serendipity in 1980-81 (I left the Times in 1979) I was able to lead groups out to Bair Island to show them first-hand what a proposed Mobil Land Co. development would do to the marshes and premier bird-nesting habitat there. (I once had to swim under the boat in the cold, muddy water to jury-rig an attachment to the 600-pound keel while 14 people waited aboard in Corkscrew Slough off Redwood City.)

How shallow is shallow? Sailing out of the former Palo Alto Yacht Harbor late one night in the El Toro with one son, Perry, on our way back we surfed down the face of a swell in a stiff breeze and ran into the swell ahead of us -- bloop -- about a mile out. To our surprise, I was able to stand up and hold the boat enough out of the water to bail it, and we climbed in, re-stepped the mast and got safely (more or less) home before midnight.

As a reporter for the Palo Alto Times in the late 1960s through the 1970s, I covered virtually all the studies of the bay, and attended many meetings on its present and future. Once someone slipped me a draft of a report from the United States Geological Survey that (in the draft) described the South Bay as "a giant toilet flushed twice a day by the tides" but without any real circulation in terms of change of water. For some reason, that frank metaphor never made the final report.

There were continuing threats to the bay itself, both from untreated or poorly treated sewage and from efforts to fill portions of the bay or salt-ponds -- such as now confronts Redwood City officials in the Cargill proposal.

Sewage in the early 1900s killed off the thriving oyster harvests and put "oyster pirates" that Jack London wrote about (he was both a pirate and a policemen at different times) out of business. Oyster shells still cover vast areas of the South Bay, which I discovered one night and day when I let the Serendipity settle onto the bay bottom near an old target ship from World Was II bombing practice. We could actually hike across the bay bottom, crunch, crunch, crunch over the long-dead oysters.

So it's especially heartening to me that future explorers of our magical bay and marshlands need not be so worried about their immediate health, just about the long-term impacts of reduced fresh water for the delta marshlands and continuing pockets of pollution.

Anyone who doubts the value of the bay should walk out into the Palo Alto flood basin or marsh trails, as I and thousands of others have done, to experience the quietness, the life, the awesome loveliness of a blue sky over green marsh, a rising moon, a setting sun -- paying heed to after-sunset parking and access restrictions, of course.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] and [email protected]