Ian Kelmartin: The amazing, troubled San Francisco Bay

Author: Ian Kelmartin
Fellow Type: California Sea Grant State Fellow
Year(s) of Fellowship: 2018
Host Agency: San Francisco Estuary Partnership

The Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco behind. Photo by Rich Niewiroski Jr. via CC BY 2.5

The words “San Francisco” conjure a specific image to the minds of people around the world: the Golden Gate Bridge in the foreground, with the skyscrapers of downtown shining behind. Surrounding it all: water.

Water defines the region—the “Bay Area”. Rain and snowmelt from California’s vast interior meet the salty tide of the Pacific among the winding channels of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, slowly flowing and swirling through ancient flooded river valleys toward the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. An unimaginable volume flows in and out twice daily with the tides, enough to raise and lower 1600 square miles of water surface by more than five feet, scouring the seafloor to a depth which, if one of the bridge’s mighty art deco towers were placed in the center of the channel, more than half would be submerged. The water even seems to jump from the ocean into the air in the form of San Francisco’s famous fog.

Downtown San Francisco from the Bay. Photo by Ian Kelmartin

For years, the people of the Bay Area fought back the water: filling in almost a third of the surface area of the bay to build on, diking and draining wetlands for crops and salt production, building concrete sea walls, and discharging countless millions of tons of raw sewage and toxic waste directly into the waters.

Yet the Bay survives. Impaired, but still a bastion of immense natural beauty and biodiversity.

Work by countless individuals and groups over the past 40 years has started to reverse the damages of the past, but the Bay’s biggest challenges lie ahead. Rising sea levels threaten to reclaim the filled land and drown the precious remaining tidal wetlands. Unmitigated, the Bay could face an environmental catastrophe dwarfing the damages of the past. Work to improve the resilience of the Bay’s habitats and the surrounding infrastructure needs to be done in the face of rapid population growth and great inequalities within the region. And it needs to be done fast—before serious flood damage occurs—in as little as a decade or two.

Sharing information at the National Estuary Program Technology Transfer Meeting, hosted by the San Francisco Estuary Partnership. Photo by Peter Beeler, Metropolitan Transportation Commission

The challenges are daunting, but if you find that motivating, consider joining one of the Bay Area hosts for your fellowship: San Francisco Estuary Partnership, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and the State Coastal Conservancy. You’ll become part of the close-knit community working to improve the health of the Bay, and enjoy living, working, and playing among the Bay Area’s world-class food, entertainment, and natural beauty.

Ian Kelmartin is a 2018 California Sea Grant State Fellow placed at the San Francisco Estuary Partnership. He is working with federal, state, and municipal agencies, land managers, NGOs, and the scientific community to establish the Bay’s first regional wetland monitoring program.