In my work as conservation chair for the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter, I often ask myself: Is there actually hope that our society will recognize in time the need to protect and preserve the shoreline in the face of rising sea level? Or will we descend into fantasy and pretend that technology and engineering can solve all of our problems?
Will the urge to develop every available acre mean that new communities face inundation and/or a shoreline consisting of high levees that hide the Bay from view and destroy the mudflats and tidal marshes that sustain aquatic life? Or will we, as a society, recognize that we need to provide room for wetlands to move into adjacent uplands wherever possible as sea level rises and existing wetlands disappear?
Well there’s HOPE! Here are two recent instances where logic prevailed and the natural world was given a shot at survival — and one case where your advocacy is sorely needed.
Oakland’s Coliseum City
Recently, the Oakland City Council approved the “Coliseum City Specific Plan” project. This project proposes to develop over 800 acres of land including the site of the present Oakland Coliseum and the San Leandro Bay shoreline. The original proposal put dense housing right on top of a thriving seasonal wetland that was itself a mitigation project for the loss of wetlands at the Oakland Airport. It also proposed high-rise housing on the Oakland Business Park, a site immediately adjacent to the Bay and contiguous with one of the richest tidal habitats in the Central Bay, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Regional Shoreline Park. All of this would have had significant impacts on Bay wildlife.
But thanks to the efforts of our volunteers, community members, and groups like the East Bay Regional Park District, the City rezoned the mitigated wetland (now called the Edgewater Wetland) and the immediate shoreline as open space. The city also kept the Oakland Business Park area zoned for business, not residential (business uses can be much more compatible with the adjacent Bay and its wildlife).
We extend a large thank you to Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who authored the zoning decisions.
This is just one victory in a long and ongoing struggle. Despite the favorable zoning decisions, the actual Coliseum City Specific Plan was not changed, and it still calls for the destruction of the Edgewater Wetland and for building dense housing right on the Bay (all in areas that are predicted to be under water in 2100 or before). And the Plan still proposes to bury Elmhurst Creek. We have not seen a living stream culverted in the Bay Area for decades, as we now recognize that they play a crucial role in the health of our community and its aquatic resources. As this project progresses, stay tuned for opportunities to help protect our shoreline.
Redwood City salt ponds
In another victory for a healthy Bay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently took action in Redwood City to protect the 1,400 acres of shoreline used as salt ponds by Cargill Salt. These ponds are bay waters that have been surrounded by levees and used to concentrate the water as it is moved from pond to pond until it starts precipitating salt — and presto! There it is on your table. Cargill Salt claimed that the “liquid” in these salt ponds is too salty to be considered water, and thus should no longer be protected under the Clean Water Act.
While we’re all entitled to our opinions, this one fails the laugh test. So imagine our surprise and disappointment when the federal regulators of our nation’s waters and wetlands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, actually swallowed Cargill’s ludicrous argument and proposed to give up jurisdiction over these salt ponds. They ignored the fact that each winter these salt ponds swell with rainwater (yes, even this year) and provide aquatic habitat to tens of thousands of waterbirds.
Luckily, logic won out over Cargill’s army of lobbyists. In response to an outburst of protest over the Army Corps decision, the EPA stepped in and claimed jurisdiction over the decision of whether the salt ponds deserve protection. We don’t know when the EPA decision will be reached but we have faith that they will reach the obvious conclusion that water is water — even if it is behind a levee and even if evaporation has made it salty.
We thank Jared Blumenfeld, Regional EPA Administrator, and national EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for this brave action.
More great news out of Redwood City is that City Councilperson Ian Bain came out publicly against large-scale development on lands (or in this case waters) that may be underwater by 2100. Given that the Redwood City Council has consistently supported Cargill’s desire to build on the salt ponds, this is an encouraging development.
Newark Area 4 wetlands
And then there is Newark. If ever there was a city government that turned its back on the Bay and its wetlands, Newark may be the one. Despite massive logistical and regulatory hurdles, Newark has persisted in pursuing an ill-advised plan for a golf course and upscale housing development at the (unromantically named) Area 4 wetland. Area 4 was historically part of the bay before being walled off by levees in the 1960s. Yet even levees and regular pumping can’t keep the land dry; despite these measures, over half of the land is active wetland.
This April, the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge won a lawsuit over the city’s Environmental Impact Report (also opposed by the Sierra Club), which had found that the site was just fine for development. Unfortunately, winning a CEQA lawsuit does not magically stop bad projects. The City simply rewrote part of the document — changing essentially nothing — and the project starts up again.
But that struggle isn’t over. The developer and the City still need permits from many agencies. Now is the time for citizen activism. We’ll be working to get these lands absorbed into the adjacent Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge. If you are interested in helping you can call me at (415)680-0643.
— Arthur Feinstein, Conservation Chair