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In The News

Warming, pollution, development threaten bay
SF Chronicle - Editorial page 7/24/09

San Francisco Bay is more than just a body of water. It's the lifeblood of our region, providing our most striking geographical feature, our biggest economic engine, even our name.

For most of the past century, the bay was overtaxed and underappreciated. Canneries used it as a dump. Local jurisdictions pumped raw sewage into it. Many of the heavily industrialized businesses that used to thrive here allowed it to wash away their toxic chemicals and pollutants. Cities and counties filled it so that they could build more houses and add to their tax base. By 1961, when three determined Berkeley women founded a nonprofit organization named Save the Bay, the entire bay was at risk of shrinking into oblivion.

Fortunately, that's no longer the case. After many years and many battles, Bay Area residents have a much better understanding of the bay's crucial impact on our quality of life. Every year, thousands of local volunteers dedicate their time and effort to cleaning and restoring the bay. Development along the shoreline is carefully scrutinized by the state-supported Bay Conservation and Development Commission. And the bay's shrinkage has been halted - for now. The bay is roughly 40,000 acres larger now than it was in 1961.

But the bay's new era has brought new challenges. The Bay Area's tremendous economic dynamism - and tremendously high cost of living - translates into continued development pressure on all sides of the bay. There is pollution - an estimated 464 pounds of mercury is loaded into the bay annually from the Central Valley alone. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission may fall victim to state budget cuts. And climate change will cause the bay to rise many feet in the coming decades, threatening residents and wildlife.

"Our quality of life depends on the bay and its health," said Florence LaRiviere, a bay activist since the 1960s and co-founder of Citizens' Committee to Complete the Refuge, a bay preservation group. "The people of the Bay Area have fought for many years to preserve it, but those values are still under threat."

In 2009, there are two kinds of threats: short-term and long-term. In the short-term, increased environmental awareness hasn't stopped developers from wanting to pave over the bay with new, sometimes massive, construction projects. A good example is the proposed development at the Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City.

The huge project would pave over Cargill's salt-making operations, which sprawl over 1,433 acres on the edge of Redwood City. Cargill's plan is to build a small town - 12,000 housing units, 25,000 residents, schools and playing fields. It has the support of the City Council, but environmentalists rightly point out that the site was once wetlands and that it will be subject to flooding in the coming decades. The construction plan will be below sea level - and scientists expect the bay to rise as much as 16 inches by 2050.

Smaller developments make big impacts, too. There's a pending development plan for the Patterson Ranch area in Fremont - at around 1,500 homes, it's much smaller than the Redwood City proposal. But it's one of the few remaining nesting and foraging areas for important migratory birds that add to the bay's biodiversity.

In the long-term, the one-two punch of climate change and the state's chronic budget shortfalls mean it's only going to get more difficult, more expensive and more important to protect the bay. Local governments, strapped for cash, may be tempted to let developers fill in the bay with new houses, leaving later administrations to worry about sea rise. Protection agencies may not have the money or the personnel to defend the bay from dumping.

All this means that local residents will have to recommit themselves to its defense.

"The most crucial thing is making sure that we don't start building on lands that are going to be underwater in 100 years," said Arthur Feinstein, a board member of Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge. "The problem is, the state is broke now." The problem is, the state is likely to be broke for a long time to come.

That's why the bay needs the local community more than ever. We never could afford to take it for granted, but in the months and years to come, it will have to become a top priority. The nine counties will have to find new ways to cooperate on questions of development, pollution, water quality and restoration. Local citizens will have to take on a bigger role in protecting the bay from all of these threats.

It won't be easy. But the fate of the bay is too important to be left to chance.

The major threats

Development: The biggest long-term threat to the bay. Infill development shrinks the bay, causing havoc to wildlife and air quality, but even careless development on the fringes can have a big impact. The paving of wetlands removes a natural protection against sea level rise.

Trash: The San Francisco Bay Water Quality Control Board estimates that there are three pieces of garbage along every foot of tributary.

Chemical pollution: Mercury runoff remains the largest threat to fish and wildlife in the bay, and pesticides are a growing problem.

Climate change: Scientists predict that the bay will rise by as much as 16 inches by 2050.

Oversight: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had recommended turning the Bay Conservation and Development Commission into a regional entity rather than a state one. That plan was not in the budget deal reached this week, but the financial problems at the state and local levels still could result in cutbacks on regulators.

 

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