Now Playing

History Written in Water

We profaned the bay, then tried to save it. Now we’re learning that it has a mind of its own.

The San Francisco waterfront around the turn of the nineteenth century.

The San Francisco waterfront around the turn of the nineteenth century.

(1 of 5)

The San Francisco waterfront around the turn of the nineteenth century.

A swimmer from the South End Rowing Club (established 1873) heads for the Farallon Islands, 28 miles offshore. (2 of 5)

The San Francisco waterfront around the turn of the nineteenth century.

A derelict structure at Pier 70. (3 of 5)

The San Francisco waterfront around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Bundled-up beach-goers below the Cliff House, 1902. (4 of 5)

The San Francisco waterfront around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Less formally attired plungers brave chilly Ocean Beach waters on the 2012 winter solstice.

(5 of 5)

The death of the old Port City transformed San Francisco forever, in many ways for the worse. Yet this figurative sea change was accompanied by a literal one that was entirely positive. Ironically, it was precisely at the moment that San Francisco ceased to be a working port and a food source for large numbers of residents that the people of the Bay Area learned to see the bay as something more than a highway for shipping, a waste of prime real estate, or a dumping ground.

Until 50 years ago, Bay Area residents simply took this natural miracle for granted. As Ariel Rubissow Okamoto and Kathleen M. Wong point out in their 2011 book, Natural History of San Francisco Bay, the bay covered 787 square miles at the time of the gold rush; by 1960, only 548 square miles remained. Incredible as it may now seem, people had virtually no access to the water: Of the bay’s 276-mile circumference below the delta, only 4 miles were open to the public. The bay was seen as private, polluted, and unsafe, and the image became self-fulfilling. Raw sewage and industrial waste poured into the water from dozens of unregulated sites. The water stank and was unsafe to swim in, a state of affairs that inspired the musical satirist Tom Lehrer, when he played San Francisco in 1965, to sing, "The breakfast garbage that you throw into the bay, they drink at lunch in San Jose."

The citizen’s movement that would change all this was kicked off by three Berkeley women who became alarmed when they observed trucks filled with debris rumbling down to the bay every day. After they learned that the city was planning to fill in several thousand acres of the bay without community input, they decided that they had to act. When leading environmental groups wished them well but offered no help, they started their own group, which would become Save the Bay. Soliciting $1 contributions from ordinary citizens, they got an overwhelming response. In 1965, the state legislature created the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. The first coastal zone management organization in the nation, BCDC must sign off on everything that goes into the bay. (Most recently the commission put the kibosh on the so-called Google Barge docked at Treasure Island—a landmass of untold mysteries). Save the Bay not only stopped the desecration of San Francisco Bay, but also helped change the mindset that regarded the natural world as fodder for human exploitation. Another sea change had occurred. And the bay, in turn, got much, much cleaner.

Which brings us all the way back to the paradoxical sediment situation of today. To refresh: The loss of gold miner–era silt in the bay has led to two major, and unexpected, problems. First, and most seriously, it has threatened the restoration of the bay’s marshes. The wetlands were originally seen as unhealthy swamps standing in the way of progress and were mercilessly filled in: By 1999, only 40,000 of the original 190,000 acres of tidal wetlands remained. Today we know that wetlands are vital to the health of the bay: Not only are they essential to preserving endangered plants and animals, but they are also the first and best line of defense against rising sea levels. In 1999, a coalition of scientists and agencies set a goal of restoring 100,000 acres—among the largest wetlands restoration projects in the nation.

But marshes need sediments, and the sediments created by heedless gold rush miners are no longer there—they’ve been washed out to sea or are impounded behind upstream dams. Under normal circumstances, marshes are capable of responding to sea level rise, says Robin Grossinger, a senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, a bay think tank. They can move inland, and they can grow vertically. “But we’ve put obstacles in the way of both these things,” Grossinger says. “We’ve built up around the bay so there’s not much room for the marshes to move. And will there be enough sediment in the water to allow them to grow?” The answer to that question could decide the fate of many low-lying parts of the Bay Area.

The second problem has less apocalyptic long-term repercussions, but poses a greater short-term threat. As the bay’s water becomes clearer, more photosynthesis-enabling sunlight can penetrate it, increasing the amount of nutrients that it carries. It sounds like a positive development, but in this case it isn’t. High nutrient levels cause excessive algae growth that can ultimately lead to “dead zones” incapable of supporting fish and other marine creatures. The shallow, tepid south bay has seen a 105 percent increase in algae since 1993, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. If algae blooms continue to increase, sewage plants may have to start reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus (substances that act as fertilizers) they release into the bay, which could cost billions of dollars.

And then there’s another roiling controversy over bay-floor sediments. As it turns out, for more than 80 years, mining companies have been extracting vast quantities of sand from the bottom of the bay— the largest mining site is between Angel Island and the San Francisco waterfront—which they use to make concrete. But scientists with the USGS have published a series of papers asserting that the sand mining is contributing to beach loss at Ocean Beach, which is eroding faster than any other site on the California coast. The beach, the scientists say, is slowly being starved of its natural replenishment of bay-borne sand, sand that first found its way to the bay through the ceaseless hydraulic action of those long-dead gold miners. Despite those findings, in 2012 the State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over the bay floor, approved an environment review granting two mining companies’ request to remove more sand than ever—two million cubic yards a year. Asked about the new research, the executive director of the SLC said that the environmental review had been thorough, that the science was inconclusive, and that the commission had to recommend what was best for the state.

Soon after the SLC’s decision, a watchdog organization called the San Francisco Baykeeper filed a lawsuit against the state. “This issue has been kind of overlooked,” says Ian Wren, the staff scientist at Baykeeper. “But from Noriega south, the loss of sand on Ocean Beach is noticeable. The edge of San Francisco is being eaten away.” Wren says that the underpublicized issue may start to get traction when bills to fix the problem land on city hall’s desk. “There’s a draft plan to reroute the Great Highway as a result of erosion, and the city will have to foot the bill.” If the USGS and Baykeeper scientists are right, sediment loss is not only harming marsh formation—it’s also leading to a very real, and potentially very expensive, problem that will one day impact everyone who uses or even looks at our coast.

This final act of the 161-year-old hydraulic mining horror story illustrates that the bay is an astonishingly complex entity. What we do to it does not always have the effect that we think it will. The estuary is a self-regulating system, but only up to a point. Human interventions can be destructive, like the heavy metals and raw sewage that we poured into it for decades, or beneficial, like the water treatment plants that we created. They can also be both at once—like the sediment created by mining.

The fact of the waterfront’s unconquerable complexity is grounds for concern: How do we know we’ll take care of it properly? The narrative of the human relationship with the bay in the last half century is overwhelmingly one of success, but there are new challenges: emerging contaminants, sea level rise, algae growth, marsh formation. Going forward, we must be as vigilant as the stewards who preceded us. But in a deeper sense, the fact that the bay is still mysterious is profoundly reassuring.

The waters that surround us are an incomparable gift. We have desecrated them and squandered them and covered them up, and we still fight over them. But the knowledge that at any moment, on any hilly street corner, you can look up and see a piece of something blue and moving and bigger than we are is like having a personal mental canoe. Our waterways are one of the reasons that we live here. They define the Bay Area literally, but they also define it in less tangible ways. They moisten our spirit. They remind us that an undiscovered, rippling world waits just downstream. They invite us to push off.


Originally published in the April Issue of San Francisco.

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Gary Kamiya at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag