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$52 million in new funding to restore San Francisco Bay

Posted on July 4, 2023

Federal officials on Wednesday announced $52 million in new funding for two dozen projects around San Francisco Bay to restore wildlife, expand wetlands and reduce the amount of trash and other pollutants going into the bay.

The 24 projects from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency include restoration of marshes in the East Bay, clean ups of homeless encampments in San Jose creeks, and removing 1,000 old toxic creosote-treated timber pilings along the Richmond waterfront.

The funding, approved by Congress, is an increase from the past 20 years, when total federal spending for such projects has averaged about $5 million per year.

“It is getting us closer to a level of annual funding we should be getting for the bay, but also making sure all parts of the bay are getting projects,” said Martha Guzman, administrator for the U.S. EPA’s regional office in San Francisco. “It’s really something to celebrate.”

Environmental groups have pushed Congress for years to provide more federal money for Bay Area projects, including efforts to protect shoreline communities against sea level rise by expanding tidal marshes.

They have noted that other parts of the United States, such as Puget Sound in Washington and Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast, have typically received $30 million to $60 million a year from Congress for similar projects. Repeated efforts by former Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who retired in January, have raised the profile in Congress of San Francisco Bay restoration work.

“It’s exciting and long overdue that federal investment in San Francisco Bay is finally increasing,” said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, an environmental group based in Oakland. “With climate change and pollution threats, the bay needs enormous investment over the next decade.”

Wednesday’s EPA grants include $4 million to restore 2,100 acres of former salt ponds at Eden Landing in Hayward. Another $3 million was approved to create a new tidal marsh along the Burlingame shoreline; $3.7 million to connect Calabazas and San Tomas Aquino creeks to restored salt ponds near Alviso; and $4 million to build 17 stormwater treatment facilities in Marin County. The grants will also help multiple efforts to capture trash in stormwater systems before it flows to the bay, reduce PCB pollution and fund school programs involving creek restoration and watershed protection.

EPA officials planned an event with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland at Arrowhead Marsh on Wednesday morning to highlight the new investments, which include projects in all nine Bay Area counties, with special emphasis on low-income areas at particular risk of pollution and flooding.

Last week, President Biden visited the Baylands Nature Preserve in Palo Alto to announce a $575 million grant program through NOAA to help coastal communities nationwide confront rising sea levels.

“When I think of climate, I think of jobs,” he said. “When I think of climate, I think of innovation. When I think of climate, I think of turning peril into progress.”

Ocean levels have risen across the world in recent decades as glaciers and polar ice sheets have been melting, and warming sea water has expanded. San Francisco Bay has risen 8 inches since the mid-1800s, increasing flood risk during big winter storms.

Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientific organizations estimate that the bay will rise up to another 2 feet by 2050 and up to 5 feet or more by 2100.

In some areas, projects involving concrete have already started. San Francisco International Airport officials are moving ahead with a $587 million plan to build a sea wall 10 miles around the airport to stop runways from flooding during storms. San Francisco has begun work on a $5 billion project to rebuild the massive Embarcadero seawall.

In other parts of the bay, scientists are restoring old industrial salt ponds and other bayfront sites back to tidal marshes to absorb rising storm surges and waves.

“The two options are concrete and mud,” said Warner Chabot, executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute. “And in many cases mud is more cost effective, more efficient and more adaptable over time.”

Wednesday’s funding is contained in competitive grant program called the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Improvement Fund, created in 2008, and run by the EPA. About $5 million this year came from the $1 trillion in bipartisan infrastructure bill that Biden signed in November 2021.

Local residents also have been contributing.

In 2016, voters in the nine Bay Area counties approved Measure AA, a $12 annual parcel tax, to fund wetlands restoration and flood control projects around the bay. The measure, which will raise $25 million a year for 20 years, or $500 million total, already has funded dozens of projects.

One of the largest is the ongoing effort to restore former industrial salt evaporation ponds back to natural conditions. In a landmark deal in 2003 brokered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Minneapolis-based Cargill Salt sold 15,100 acres of its salt ponds, which stretch from Hayward to San Jose to Redwood City, to state and federal agencies for $100 million. That sale also included an additional 1,400 acres near Napa.

The idea was to take the ponds — used for a century to harvest salt for food, medicine and road de-icing — and return them to natural conditions over 50 years, bringing back birds, fish, harbor seals, leopard sharks and dozens of other species that have struggled in the bay because of development and a burgeoning human population. As sea level rise has become more pressing, the restored wetlands also are seen as a way to reduce flood risk and improve water quality.

So far, work on about 3,750 acres is already finished, with another 625 acres scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.


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