TOPICS > Science > Coping with Climate Change

Restored wetlands welcome wildlife and protect against future floods in San Francisco Bay Area

October 9, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
Climate change and resulting rising sea levels threaten a number of dwindling species in the San Francisco Bay Area. A new restoration project transforms industrial salt ponds into thriving marshland habitats to provide a new home for rodents, birds and fish. The NewsHour’s Cat Wise reports on another benefit: increased flood protection for human residents.

GWEN IFILL: Much of our reporting on climate change has focused on the impact it could have on people or on the environment in which they live.

But one area that tends to get less attention is how climate change will affect wildlife. There’s a major habitat restoration project in San Francisco Bay that’s trying to address that very issue.

The NewsHour’s Cat Wise has our report.

RACHEL TERTES, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: So, welcome, everyone, to our first morning of trapping.

CAT WISE: On a recent morning, a small group of volunteers clad in rubber boots gathered at a park on the edge of the San Francisco Bay.

RACHEL TERTES: So when the animal walks in, he sets the trap off.

CAT WISE: They’d come to help U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials gather traps in a restored tidal marsh to determine if an endangered species, found only in this area of the bay, is making a comeback.

Wildlife biologist Rachel Tertes carefully opened the first trap and out spilled a tiny creature, just what they were hoping to find.

RACHEL TERTES: This cinnamon belly would tell us pretty much right away that this is a salt marsh harvest mouse.

CAT WISE: The endangered harvest salt marsh mouse is, well, pretty cute. It’s lost about 90 percent of its habitat due to human development along the bay, and now, according to Tertes, it faces a new threat: climate change.

RACHEL TERTES: The mouse is really tied to this habitat of pickleweed. They live on this plant. They move up and down the plant throughout the tide cycles.

One of the concerns with the climate change is really going to be the sea level rise portion of it, so, as the tide increases, you have more water covering more plants, and so they have less areas for those — for the mice to move up.

CAT WISE: While the odds are stacked against it, the harvest salt marsh mouse and several other endangered and threatened species in San Francisco Bay may have a fighting chance, thanks to a large-scale ecological project now under way.

It’s called the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, and it’s the largest tidal wetland restoration effort on the West Coast.

JOHN BOURGEOIS, South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project: We’re at over 15,000 acres, which is an area about the size of Manhattan.

CAT WISE: John Bourgeois is the project’s executive manager. He’s heading up a multiagency collaboration to turn former industrial salt ponds back into thriving marshland habitat for wildlife and fish.

The ponds, which have lined San Francisco Bay’s southern shores for more than 100 years used to be owned by the Cargill Corporation. In 2003, the state, the federal government, and several private foundations acquired them for $100 million, and turned them back into public lands.

Since then, 3,500 acres, about 25 percent of the overall project, have been restored.

JOHN BOURGEOIS: We’re going to show you how much the habitat has come in.

CAT WISE: To see the results firsthand, we hopped on a boat with Bourgeois and traveled several miles to one of the first salt ponds that was opened back up to bay waters.

JOHN BOURGEOIS: Were entering into what used to be an industrial salt pond. We actually had to cut through this narrow strip of marsh and through this giant levee here. And what used to be here in was a vast salt flat. It was white, barren, looked like a moonscape, hard pack, dense salt.

And eight years later, with these natural processes coming in and allowed to take over, we have got several feet of mud that’s actually accumulated, and with this a new marsh.

CAT WISE: The restored marshes have quickly been repopulated with wildlife. Native bird populations have doubled and fish are thriving. Leopard sharks and other predators have returned, a sign, scientists say, of a healthy ecosystem.

While it may seem like a typical wetlands restoration, open up the levees and let Mother Nature do her thing, this project is actually charting new ground in restoration science. And officials here say, with climate change looming in the future, they are taking a very hands-on approach.

JOHN KRAUSE, California Department of Fish and Wildlife: As these marshes are creating sediment and keeping pace with sea level rise, we’re also trying to put other enhancements into the landscape.

CAT WISE: John Krause of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife showed us one of those new features specially built into the restored areas to help the harvest salt marsh mouse and other wildlife adapt to rising sea levels.

JOHN KRAUSE: There’s a mound out in the marsh, and what that has is higher ground that’s still within the marsh plain, and away from the developed edge where there are predators or people, and providing a place for them to seek refuge, and have a place to hide when there are high-tide events.

CAT WISE: In addition, the sides of existing levees are being widened, and planted with native grasses. Krause says scientists are closely monitoring how wildlife and fish react to these changes.

JOHN KRAUSE: Adaptive management is a term of art and science where you are incorporating change in the landscape, and watching those changes over time to learn how you might apply that into the future.

CAT WISE: Some species of birds actually flourished in the former salt ponds. So project managers have decided some areas will remain as ponds, but with less salinity and newly added nesting grounds.

Project manager JOHN BOURGEOIS:

JOHN BOURGEOIS: This pond in particular has been called a Disneyland for birds. Were really trying to maximize the amount of habitat that’s available to them in a novel way.

CAT WISE: While the focus of the restoration has been to help wildlife, people will also benefit from new recreation opportunities and, most importantly, from increased flood protection.

Seven million people live near the edge of San Francisco Bay, which is expected to rise between 16 and 55 inches over the next century. And many Silicon Valley companies, including Facebook and Google, are a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. Scientists say the restoration of these marshlands, which can dampen storm surges and prevent tidal erosion, may be the best hope some communities have at mitigating the impacts of sea level rise.

CHARLES TAYLOR: We consider ourselves the St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans, in the Bay Area.

CAT WISE: Charles Taylor is a high-tech worker who lives in a small community called Alviso at the southern end of the bay. The town has sunk about 13 feet over the years due to groundwater depletion. Flooding is a common occurrence. And now Taylor says residents are worried about what might lie ahead with climate change.

CHARLES TAYLOR: Tidal marshlands, of course, are the best prevention for flooding. So — so, yes, we’re definitely hanging our hats on — on this project.

CAT WISE: But while the community is embracing the restoration of the salt ponds, Taylor says residents feel the effort has been too focused on wildlife. They want project leaders to help them open up seven acres of slough near the town which has grown over in recent years.

CHARLES TAYLOR: We’d like to see the Port of Alviso restored. They’re concentrating on the wildlife. They’re saying it’s a wildlife habitat. But it was human habitat prior to that, so at what point do you decide — how far back do you restore?

CAT WISE: The project’s billion-dollar price tag has also been criticized. And some House of Representatives Republicans took issue with federal funding to protect the harvest salt marsh mouse during the 2009 stimulus debate.

MAN: We will be paying taxes and interest on this $30 million dollar mouse.

CAT WISE: In recent years, the project has been hampered by budget cuts, but Bourgeois says he’s doing the best he can for everyone.

JOHN BOURGEOIS: The folks that are very wildlife-orientated are concerned that were providing too much public access. The people that are really concerned about flooding are concerned that we’re spending too much time on habitat, and vice versa.

So it’s all a balancing act. And I figure, in my role, if everyone is just a little bit upset with me, I’m probably walking the right line.

CAT WISE: The project is expected to take another 30 years to complete. The planning is now under way for a new levee breach, which will bring back bay waters to several hundred acres for the first time in more than a century.

GWEN IFILL: Online, we have an even better view of exactly how much is left of the tidal wetlands in San Francisco Bay. You can find that video at