Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
Pacific Southwest Region: Facing Rising Sea Levels, Refuge Restoration Project Creates Habitat for Wildlife, Flood Protection for People and Industry in San Francisco Bay
California-Nevada Offices , June 30, 2010
Print Friendly Version
Former commercial salt ponds, now part of Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge (on the left) are directly adjacent to Silicon Valley (on the right). In place for nearly 100 years, the salt pond levees have become the only barrier between the bay and Silicon Valley. (photo courtesy South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project)
Former commercial salt ponds, now part of Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge (on the left) are directly adjacent to Silicon Valley (on the right). In place for nearly 100 years, the salt pond levees have become the only barrier between the bay and Silicon Valley. (photo courtesy South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project) - Photo Credit: n/a

by Scott Flaherty, Region 8 External Affairs
A warming climate and increasingly variable weather are putting parts of California on the front lines in the battle against climate change.  Shifting weather patterns in recent years have reduced rainfall and the Sierra snowpack, which provide most of the water needed by the State’s 38 million people and its multi-billion dollar agriculture industry.  Water is also vital to the survival of the State’s fish and wildlife resources, including several threatened and endangered fish species. In a state where the majority of people live within an hour’s drive of the Pacific coast, significant challenges posed by rising sea levels loom large.

In San Francisco Bay, sea levels have risen more than 8.6 inches over the past century, and the consensus among scientists is that it will likely rise between 20 and 55 additional inches by 2100.  The potential inundation of low lying areas around the Bay has serious economic and ecological implications for millions of people who live and work in the area. 

The San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex is a collection of seven National Wildlife Refuges, three of which are located within the San Francisco Bay:  Don Edwards San Francisco Bay NWR, San Pablo Bay NWR and Marin Islands NWR.  All will be impacted by rising sea levels.

At the southern end of the Bay, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is engaged with federal, state and local partners to complete a multi-year South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, which will restore an area the size of Manhattan, 15,100 acres of former commercial salt ponds, to a mix of ponds managed for wildlife and tidal salt marsh.  The refuge manages 9,600 acres as part of the refuge.    The refuge’s primary focus is restoring healthy habitat for wildlife without increasing flood risk to neighboring communities in the highly populated area of the bay known as Silicon Valley.  The former salt ponds were created decades ago by piling bay mud to form an extensive system of levees.  As these ponds were created, vast stretches of tidal marsh were destroyed.  Over time, much of Silicon Valley subsided due to ground water withdrawal leaving many areas below sea level, some as much as 8 feet, and leaving these levees as the only line of defense against coastal flooding.

 “People ask me why we’re spending money restoring coastal marshes in the face of projected sea level rise,” said Mendel Stewart, project leader at the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.  “But research is showing that sedimentation rates should keep pace with sea level rise in the south bay, particularly if we can get the marshes established early because healthy tidal marsh will capture and retain sediment, thereby keeping up with rising water levels.  And these marshes will provide a natural buffer against wave action that could erode the true flood control levees that are being planned for future construction. ”

The South San Francisco Bay Shoreline Study being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a follow up to a 1992 Corps’ study that showed significant infrastructure is located within the nearly 4,700-acre tidal floodplain, including 5,179 structures and roads, highways, parks, airports, and three wastewater treatment plants.  The study estimated flooding of the heart of Silicon Valley would cause damage of more than $87 billion (in 2007 dollars). Both direct impacts of flooding to facilities and its secondary effects would impact newer facilities built since the 1992 study. “Infrastructure impacts by flooding are anticipated to be considerable,” according to the Corps’ study report.

“Looking at this project through the lens of climate change, we see how restored tidal marshes and engineered levees will provide critical flood protection to a significant portion of the south bay which is already below sea level,” Stewart said.  “Restored tidal marshes in combination with new levees add significant flood control to communities, industry and infrastructure adjacent to the refuge,” Stewart said.

“The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is a prime example of climate change adaptation,” says Rick Kearney, Assistant Regional Director for Climate Change and Science Application in the Service's Pacific Southwest Region.  “Instead of trying to directly fight the results of climate change, we are adapting our management efforts to minimize its adverse effects on natural resources.”  

“Climate change will be with us long into the future,” Kearney added, “Those involved in conserving natural resources will need to find new ways of doing business.”

 One of those new ways is the development of new regional partnerships among public and private groups involved in conservation.  These new partnerships have been given the name Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, or LCCs.

“While the name is new, the idea has been around for some time,” said Kearney.  “Government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and even some businesses have worked together in the past to achieve remarkable benefits for fish and wildlife.  LCCs build upon these efforts to focus on broad, landscape-scale challenges.”

In the California LCC, groups such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, Ducks Unlimited, Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and others have committed to work together in crafting a more effective, coordinated approach to climate change.  “Climate change is a 21st Century issue that requires a 21st Century solution.  LCCs are definitely part of that solution,” said Kearney.   


Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov
Find a Field Notes Entry

Search by keyword

Search by State

Search by Region

US Fish and Wildlife Service footer