San Francisco Estuary health report offers mixed review
The health of North America’s largest estuary, the San Francisco Estuary, is showing some signs of improvement, but much of the historic damage caused to the massive watershed has either not improved or worsened, according to a new report.
The 2019 “State of the Estuary” update, released Monday by the San Francisco Estuary Partnership, shows residents are continuing to conserve water. Meanwhile, there have been increasing efforts to restore the lost tidal wetlands that both provide habitat for wildlife and some protections from shoreline communities.
Caitlin Sweeney, executive director of the organization, said the report “does show that we have made great strides in some areas.”
“But I think where we are not seeing the same kinds of positive results are the areas such as freshwater flowing into the estuary; the idea that we need a certain amount of freshwater coming from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers for example flowing into our estuary in order for the estuary to survive and all of the animals that depend on it,” Sweeney said.
The San Francisco Estuary Partnership was created by the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1988 to lead restoration projects for the nearly 60,000-square-mile estuary that stretches from the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco Bay. The partnership puts out periodic reports updating the status of these restoration efforts. The last report was released in 2015.
The report on Monday provides an update based on more recent data. Fish populations within the bay, especially in San Pablo Bay, are showing long-term declines, though still faring well compared to fish in the Delta.
“To me there are two messages about the fish,” said Letitia Grenier, senior scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute. “One is that people in the Bay Area cannot pretend that all this stuff in the Delta doesn’t matter to you. It does. All of the problems in the Delta are affecting the full ecosystem and it’s not like there is a magical wall that is separating the Delta and the bay.”
Part of the impacts to fish may be coming from the lack of freshwater flowing into the bay from the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed. Chronic drought conditions in the estuary have persisted because of human development and agricultural operations, with dams and water diversions blocking the water from entering the bay. The report states the four lowest flow data points recorded over 79 years have occurred in the last decade: 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2018.
Tideland restoration in the bay is one the key positive aspects in the latest report. The partnership set a goal in 1999 to restore 100,000 acres of tidal marshes in both San Francisco Bay and the Delta, with about 53,000 acres restored so far, including 1,800 acres that occurred since 2015 in areas such as the Corte Madera Marsh and Corte Madera Ecological Reserve.
Several other projects are underway, including several along the Marin coast such as the 1,600-acre restoration project near Bel Marin Keys that is set to break ground later this month. Other local projects include 20 acres at Tiscornia Marsh, about 200 acres at McInnis Marsh and about 9,000 acres at Novato Creek Baylands, Sweeney said.
Mike Vasey, director of the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, said a significant benefit in the tidal restoration front is the 2016 passage of the Bay Area wide parcel tax, Measure AA, which will pay for bay restoration projects over 20 years. In addition, he said agencies are collaborating to monitor wetland restoration projects throughout the estuary that could be used to improve projects moving forward.
“Everyone is a part of this effort,” Vasey said. “That gives it a much better chance of success than if it was somebody’s pipe dream.”
In addition, the report also explores new issues such as subsidence of agricultural land and risk of flooding, shorelines’ resilience to sea level rise and a study about access to urban green spaces such as parks in communities both disadvantaged and otherwise. While more data is needed to draw concrete conclusions, these new aspects of the report are the first by the partnership to examine issues of social and environmental justice.
“We’re not going to achieve the health of an ecosystem without considering people as part of the ecosystem and their feedback,” Grenier said. “It’s not just that we’re affecting the ecosystem with our choices, but that the health of the ecosystem is affecting our health.”
More information about the report can be found online at bit.ly/2MwYiWn.