Bill to provide $1 billion for San Francisco Bay restoration moves forward
By Paul Rogers and Mike Taugher
Posted: 04/22/2010 05:42:25 PM PDT
Updated: 04/22/2010 10:13:47 PM PDT
A Bay Area lawmaker has introduced legislation in Congress that would elevate environmental restoration of San Francisco Bay to the heights of efforts in Chesapeake Bay, Lake Tahoe and the Florida Everglades.
The bill, scheduled to be unveiled at a news conference today by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, would authorize $100 million a year for bay restoration by 2021 — $1 billion total.
If approved and signed by President Barack Obama, the money would be overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Funding could be used to restore wetlands, clean up mercury pollution from old mines in South San Jose, filter storm water runoff, eradicate invasive plant and animal species and restore thousands of acres of former Cargill salt evaporation ponds that line the South Bay shoreline.
"The bay has suffered 150 years of degradation," said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, an environmental group based in Oakland. "We have spent a decade putting together excellent plans to restore it to health. But to put them into action will require this major federal investment."
San Francisco Bay and the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta make up the largest estuary on the west coasts of North and South America. Since the Gold Rush, the bay has shrunk by one-third, due to diking, filling and development. Although most filling ended in the 1970s with modern environmental laws, the bay lost 79 percent of its tidal wetlands between 1800 and today — from 190,000 acres to 40,000 acres. Wetlands are critical habitat for hundreds of bay species.
There are at least 40,000 acres of pending wetland restoration projects around the bay that lack funding, including the former Cargill salt ponds and former salt evaporation ponds at Napa-Sonoma Marsh, as well as Hamilton Airfield in Marin County and Eden Landing in Alameda County.
State and federal officials estimated three years ago that the Cargill restoration alone would cost $987 million over the next 50 years, with roughly three-quarters of that money needed to upgrade vast systems of earthen levees that control flooding in South Bay communities.
Over the past 15 years, Congress has approved several billion dollars to address long-standing environmental problems at Lake Tahoe, the Florida Everglades and Chesapeake Bay. Although Cargill sold the former industrial salt ponds in the South Bay to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state Department of Fish and Game in 2003, only about $20 million to $30 million has been raised since then from private, state and federal sources to fund engineering and environmental studies and complete actual construction work.
That money has paid not only for studies and scientific research, but also for projects to install more than 50 tidal gates on existing levees. Those have brought water in the former ponds — which made salt for roads, food and medicine — to the same salinity as the bay, a key first step in restoring them to marshes. Already bird numbers have begun to increase.
"This the largest wetland restoration project on the West Coast. The benefits to the citizens of the United States, not only in job creation, but for the health of the bay, are at least as big as the benefits of restoring Lake Tahoe and the Everglades," said John Bourgeois, executive project manager for the South Bay Salt Restoration Project, overseen by the California Coastal Conservancy.
Apart from wetlands, the bay faces pollution challenges. Runoff from city streets, industry and occasional sewage spills foul its waters.
And special jobs, such as removing dozens of old military ships in the "Mothball Fleet" in Suisun Bay, loom.
"Cleaning up the bay is a critical undertaking," said Speier, the lawmaker who introduced the restoration measure. "We have to curb the harmful effects of pollution while conserving our water resources, restoring the natural landscape, protecting our fish and wildlife, and rebuilding our local communities."
The bill, HR 5061, is co-sponsored by 10 other Bay Area lawmakers, including Anna Eshoo, Mike Honda and Zoe Lofgren.