Thinking Green: Our California Wetlands

The dense, sweet scent of fennel drifts across the landscape. It grows in thick clumps along the side of the bike trail. As we ride past the final stretch of trailer parks, houses and office buildings on the side of the trail, the wetlands open up before us dark briny streams cutting curving paths through large swathes of green and ruddy reeds, a loose V of brown pelicans winging through the sky, yellow sunbursts of blooming monkeyflower, songbirds perched on lone shrubs.

These are the wetlands and marshes of the Bay Area: havens for both wildlife and humans, fragments from a time when city sprawl and smog was only a distant dream.

Not to wax too poetic, but these wetlands are a critical part of the ecosystem of both California and the world as a whole. And they are in danger. It’s estimated that since the 1600s, the US has lost 50% of its total wetlands. According to the EPA, just from 2004 to 2009, about 400,000 acres of coastal wetlands were lost from both ocean and lakeshores – a higher rate than ever before.

The Facts

These wetlands are invaluable to us; if you can recall the concept of ecosystem services from freshman Bio, you’ll understand part of the reason why. And if not, don’t worry – we’ll do a little reviewing. Let’s take a look at the facts.

Coastal wetlands are located where freshwater rivers enter the saltwater systems of oceans and other large bodies of water. Their unique position at the edge of two very different habitats means that they play an important role in the global ecosystem. During high tides, floods, or storms, the plants and marshes absorb salt water and prevent it from causing damage further inland – for example, in human settlements. They can also remove a limited amount of chemicals, heavy metals and other pollutants from the water table. And, as with any habitat, they provide food and shelter for wild animals, from the lowly shellfish to endangered animals such as the salt marsh harvest mouse or the Western Snowy Plower.

However, their position also means that they are subject to stresses like erosion from waves,  high concentrations of pollutants that are swept to them from upstream, and events such as oil spills. Also, while they can act as a barrier between oceans and freshwater systems, sea level rise may lead to them getting completely flooded over.

Local Life
Elkhorn Slough, an estuary ecosystem  near Monterey Bay. (Photo used with permission of Daria Syskine)
Elkhorn Slough, an estuary ecosystem near Monterey Bay. (Photo used with permission of Daria Syskine)

 

Here in the Bay Area, the challenges our wetlands face are of a varied nature, making it impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. As Andrew Goldenkranz, an MVHS AP Bio teacher, put it, “It’s a big metropolitan area, it’s a more diverse pattern of problems historically […] here you have a lot of different things that happened over the course of history.”

As he explained, different areas near the San Francisco Bay have had different areas of industry over the centuries: salt mining in the East Bay, agriculture in the Central Valley, sewage treatment plants in Alviso, oil refineries in the North Bay, cargo shipping around San Francisco and Oakland.

Each of these activities has different waste and runoff, and each has a different effect on the ecosystem. Agriculture uses nitrogen-heavy fertilizers that enter the system through rivers, salt mining turns the briny, tide-controlled equilibrium of marshlands into excessively saline ponds, sewage treatment causes an excess of fresh water, shipping stirs up sediment that clouds the water.

And don’t think that we’re not part of the problem just because we don’t live right next to the Bay. Permanente Creek flows down to the Bay from Black Mountain; if you’ve ever taken a walk in Rancho San Antonio, you may have even crossed a bridge over it. The Lehigh Cement plant – the one just up Stevens Creek road – reached a settlement with the EPA last year. It is confirmed that the plant has been discharging quarry waste into the creek from 2009 to 2014, and it is considered possible that the dumping dates from even earlier. The amounts of selenium, sediment, and mercury in the discharged water were all in excess of the Clean Water Act.

This pollution harmed species that depend on the water systems in the Bay, including the threatened California red-legged frog. And though Lehigh Cement has agreed to spend $5 million to fix its wastewater management, as well as pay off $2.55 million in civil penalties, it doesn’t change the damage that has been done.

Then there’s the age-old Californian challenge of dividing up scant water between Central Valley farmers, the bustling Silicon Valley cities, and the already hard-pressed estuaries. We might be heading into our sixth year of drought, one of the worst ones in California history. The effects of any climate anomaly can be hard to predict, but there’s a few things that seem likely in the short- and long-term. The reduction of waterflow through the system will mean less resources for animals that depend on streams, ponds, and wetlands. Not only will there be less water entering the system, but less of it will be put aside for maintaining habitats, as humans will still want to use the same amount as before. The quality of groundwater may worsen, as sea water begins to enter the system on the parched coastline, increasing salinity levels. Either way, it’s clear that wetlands are the losers in the drought.

What all of this means is that Bay Area wetlands are at risk on many levels, from chemical pollution to climate change. The one thing that these issues have in common is that they disrupt the delicate balancing act that is a wetlands ecosystem.

The Bright Side

Admittedly, it’s not all doom and gloom; on the whole, things have been changing for the better in the Bay. Marshlands destroyed by salt mining have been partially restored, and the dumping of trash into the Bay has been severly restricted. Organizations such as Save the Bay and the San Francisco Estuary Partnership are working to replant lost habitat and protect that which remains. For those that are interested, there’s plenty of opportunities around to volunteer with collecting litter, removing invasive species, and otherwise aiding the defense of our wetlands. For those inclined to simply enjoy them, places such as the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge and Stevens Creek Trail allow the public to come into contact with the wetlands.

This access to the wetlands provides one of the most poetic arguments for preserving and restoring our marshes. MVHS students and teachers alike speak of the sense of peace that they encounter there. Junior Manav Shah, who enjoys biking and boating at Shoreline, said, “It’s just really calm […] And it never ends. It’s like nature all around you.”

Junior Keerat Singh’s perspective is a little more pragmatic – “The few times that we’ve gone [out on the trails in Shoreline] it’s been really foggy and cold. And that’s why we went there – because it looked interesting – but it was very foggy and cold.” However, she adds that seeing the birds in the wetlands “was really cool,” and acknowledges that “if you go out on the trails, it’s quieter, and it’s peaceful, which is nice.”

For Mr. Goldenkranz, it’s about taking the time to connect with both family and the wild side. Speaking fondly about walking Newark’s salt flats with his Sunnyvale cousin, he said “[They’re] odd… it’s kind of like a little giant kid pulled just a sandbox, like  a Crayola box, and started filling in with all different colors. Kids can watch nature shows all day long, but […] you’ve gotta get it with all your senses.”

If nothing else, the recreational and aesthetic value of wetlands is valuable enough that their continued survival ought to be ensured.

It’s Our Turn

So wetlands aren’t just soggy patches of undeveloped ground; they’re places that offer us an escape from the bustle of Silicon Valley life, homes for thousands of animals that depend on their unique habitat and a measure of protection from both natural and manmade disasters. Wetlands are all this and more for us – as long as they are treated with respect. But it’s unclear what their future is, facing the triple threat of land loss, pollution, and climate change.

If you care about the Bay Area, get out there. Volunteer at Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge. Pick up the piece of trash you notice lying by a storm drain. Sign a petition to extend their protections.

And if you can, please take a stroll in one of our wetlands. See the tundra swans, the gray foxes, the salamanders, the great blue herons. Breathe in the salt-cured air, the particular aroma of tide-swept coast. Feel the boardwalks or sand or mud shifting beneath your feet. Hear the gentle rippling of the waves, the rustle of thigh-high grasses in the wind, the call of seagulls and the warbling of sparrows.

Because only then will you understand why we need to protect our wetlands.