Bringing Back the Bay: Efforts to Clean Up Protect and Restore San Francisco Bay Are Creating an Inviting Refuge for Wildlife-And People. (Making a Better West)

By Taggart, Lisa | Sunset, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Bringing Back the Bay: Efforts to Clean Up Protect and Restore San Francisco Bay Are Creating an Inviting Refuge for Wildlife-And People. (Making a Better West)


Taggart, Lisa, Sunset


* The salty sparkling centerpiece of the San Francisco Bay Area is such an essential element of the region that most of us who live here take it completely for granted. Of course, we shouldn't.

From San Jose to Suisun City, San Francisco Bay has a profound influence on the more than 7 million people who live and work around it. It shapes our weather our economy, and our traffic patterns; it dictates where we collect in cities-where we live and where we work. It inspires us with its many-colored waters, temperamental fogs, wildlife, and fresh air. In short, it defines us.

The bay is also increasingly, our collective backyard, the place where we go for an hour or so to escape the workaday world. Here we can burn off tensions with a hike, a jog or a bike ride and we can reconnect with the natural world by enjoying the graceful flight of passing birds or the sometimes comic antics of barbor seals. And always, the bay is a place of subtle, but incomparable beauty.

January is a great time to visit the bay's shores to appreciate just how Important--and magnificent--the estuary is. Winter bird populations are at their peak, and storm-scrubbed skies offer brilliant views. Grab your binoculars and bit a trail, rent a kayak, or hop on a bicycle; there's more to see and do here than you might imagine.

A refuge for wildlife

The bay is the most important West Coast stop on the Pacific Flyway Some birds come to nest; others just to rest. But birds aren't the only wildlife you'll find here. High winter tides temporarily flush endangered salt-marsh harvest mice from their burrows. Last spring, visitors at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge spotted gray whales spouting near the Dumbarton Bridge.

The rich variety of wildlife draws scientists too. North of San Jose, Janet Hanson and Anna Clarke, who monitor birds for the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, have set up their spotting scope at salt ponds edging a trail along Alviso Slough in the refuge. On this sunny day the salt ponds are the silvery blue of the moon at twilight. Family groups of black-necked stilts chatter, the calm water reflecting their long red legs and black-and-white bodies. Western sandpipers flitter and turn together across the water, a ballet of tiny brown wings and light.

"We call this lazy birding," says Clarke, pointing out the thousands of brown and white pelicans, the curlews, godwits, and avocets around us. "It's just too easy"

Hanson and Clarke agree that the bay's vast diversity is often under-appreciated. "If I say 'Take me to the Peninsula's wilderness,' why don't people think of going to the bay?" says Clarke. "People talk about wildlife up in the hills. But compare the number of species right here."

Protected baylands acreage may soon expand. Cargill Salt, the company that owns the salt-mining rights in these ponds, plans to sell off as much as 17,000 acres of its salt-making operation. Federal and state agencies are hoping to buy them, and many areas may be re stored to tidal marsh.

Though price negotiations are ongoing, arguments have already sparked about how the ponds should be managed--one good example of the bay's environmental and political complexities. Some want to restore as much as possible; others say recreating tidal marsh could potentially disturb more birds than it helps.

The problem is that we just can't predict the impacts of change on such an involved, little-understood system.

An altered landscape

Change is nothing new to the 450-square-mile bay For one thing, it used to be much bigger. Since Gaspar de Portola's scouts sighted the estuary in 1769, the waterway has shrunk by a third (see maps on page 18). Now, it's enveloped by urban development: 80 percent of the bay's tidal marsh has been lost, and only 7 miles of the original 23 miles of sandy beaches remain.

Construction, agriculture, water diversion, and diking have sucked away at the waterway since settlement boomed here in the 19th century By the 1960s, 4 square miles of bay were being filled each year. …

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