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Dishing the Dirt During the Holidays

When you sit down at the table to celebrate the holidays, along with giving thanks for family and health, be sure to give thanks for the rich agricultural soil that produced your dinner. I learned this from Anne Stauffer, co-organizer of the Sierra Club's Loma Prieta Soils Committee and the recently formed Sustainable Agriculture Committee within Sierra Club California.

Stauffer grew up in Bakersfield, went to school with farmers' kids, and majored in biology in college. But it wasn't until she read Kristin Ohlson's book, "The Soil Will Save Us," that Stauffer became dedicated to soil health and the new field of regenerative agriculture.

Healthy soil has many benefits — it stores carbon and other necessary elements, absorbs and holds onto water, provides sustenance to the myriad of microorganisms needed for plant health, and overall provides a happy growing medium for plants.


If the microbes that nurture soil productivity die, what is left is infertile, dry dust – the kind that covered the Southern Plains during the 1930's Dust Bowl .... But agriculture can also be harnessed to restore the land while solving another serious problem: global warming. "

Soil becomes healthy through the power of photosynthesis. Plants use the sun's power to absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. The absorbed carbon combines with water and other elements and passes into the plant's root system as a sugar; this sugar is used by soil microbes as food. In return, microbes provide necessary nutrients to the plants. When the microbes die, they release carbon into the soil for other microorganisms to use. This ongoing process gradually builds up soil organic matter.

Carbon is so important that soil organic matter typically contains at least 50% carbon. Walking through a redwood forest, you can feel a spongy soil under your feet. That is the result of a long-term build-up of organic matter full of millions to billions of microbes.

Unfortunately, conventional agriculture has been responsible for the degradation of much of the agricultural soil. For example, synthetic fertilizers decrease soil microbial activity. Plants treated with synthetic fertilizers don't need to interact with soil life-forms as much and, instead, increasingly depend on the fertilizer. As these soil life-forms die off or move elsewhere, soil health declines.

Conventional agriculture also uses repeated tilling, which breaks up the structure that holds soil particles together and releases carbon into the atmosphere. The carbon combines with oxygen and becomes carbon dioxide (CO2).

Soil exposed to air by tilling soon dries out, and the nutrients blow away. If the microbes that nurture soil productivity die, what is left is infertile, dry dust – the kind that covered the Southern Plains during the 1930's Dust Bowl. Other contributions to poor soil health include growing the same crop over and over, and using pesticides and herbicides.

But agriculture can also be harnessed to restore the land while solving another serious problem: global warming.

Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an alarming report that stated it would take a vast, unprecedented global effort to limit the devastating effects of climate change. Part of that effort would be to limit the burning of fossil fuels; another part would be to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. One place to store that carbon is by using soil as a carbon sink or a reservoir for carbon, a process called carbon sequestration.

Globally, over one third of arable land is used for agriculture. Think of the impact, if we can employ regenerative agriculture worldwide to increase soil carbon in agricultural soil!

Stauffer outlined some of the proposals for regenerating soil and sequestering carbon.

1. Use non-till farming. Non-till farming preserves the soil structure that helps to lock carbon into the soil.

2. Grow cover crops. Non-food crops grown during the off-season can put down roots that sequester carbon, slow down erosion, and promote better soil health.

3. Leave the cover crops in place. Leave the green matter on the surface and the roots in the soil, to decay and enrich the earth.

4. Grow crops with deep roots. The deeper the roots, the deeper the carbon is placed and the longer it stays in the ground.

5. Plant diverse crops. Crop rotations using different plants may contribute higher soil carbon and soil microbial biomass than less diverse systems.

6. Spread compost on top of the soil. Even a thin layer will enrich the soil beneath it.

7. Use less synthetic fertilizer. This encourages stronger root development.

8. Plant perennial crops. If the same plant produces a crop year after year, an extensive root system can develop.

9. Plant hedgerows. Dense rows of trees and shrubs provide protection from wind erosion as well as a rich habitat for wildlife.

10. Rotate farm animals on the land. Instead of muddy, lifeless feed lots, rotate cattle or sheep through a series of pastures. The native forage grasses have a better chance to survive and can even thrive, as the critters massage and fertilize the soil by doing what they do naturally after they digest their dinner.

Our state has started to try some of these new approaches to farming. California has established a Healthy Soils Program as part of its Climate Smart Agriculture program. Since California has over 43 million acres of agricultural land, this could result in an enormous amount of carbon being sequestered in California's soil.

For Stauffer, the changes needed for agriculture are not that complicated. Her biggest challenge is figuring out how to get people to change. Except for farmers, most of us don't think about soil — we just walk on it. And yet, as Stauffer says, "soil is the reason we are all here."

In a future article, we will talk about how you can apply the principles of regenerative agriculture to your own garden. Meanwhile, enjoy your holiday feast and give thanks to the web of life that produced it.

Join Stauffer in her efforts at:

Learn more about regenerative agriculture at:

Learn more about California's agriculture programs at:

Watch fun videos here:

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

December 2018

Kathy Logo

As the crows — and other birds — fly

We tend to think of birds as very similar, but, according to Eddie Bartley, they can be as different from each other as a giraffe is from a mouse. Bartley is a docent at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Marin and teaches Master Birder classes in migration at the California Academy of Sciences.


If you like looking at birds, San Francisco is the place to be … almost one-half of all species of birds in the United States have been seen in San Francisco. ”

This difference in bird species is especially true when it comes to migration, a stressful and risky venture for birds. We still need to learn a lot about the how and why of migration. We can deduce that the birds are searching for plentiful food, for a climate conducive to raising young, and for safety from predators. Overall, birds are like people— they are looking for a good income and a safe neighborhood in which to raise the kids.

There are many kinds of bird migration, and the type of migration can even vary within a species. Some birds migrate thousands of miles and others just hop over to a nearby nesting area. However, within a given species there is a typical pattern. According to Bartley, "Every species has its own story."

For example, the Orange-crowned Warbler lives high in the Sierras in the summer and drops down in elevation in the winter. This is an example of elevation migration — birds moving uphill and downhill, according to the season.

The delightful Sooty Fox Sparrow is a mid-distance traveler. The mid-distance migrants can move from southern Alaska to British Columbia or even as far as the Bay Area.

The neo-tropical migrants, such as the North American Warblers, can move from the northern boreal forests and tundra to Central America or even South America. Wilson's Warbler breeds in the Bay Area and then journeys to Mexico for the winter.

Swainson's Hawk
Swainsons's Hawk / Photo Eddie Bartley

Swainson's Hawks breed in Northern California and then fly off to Argentina for the winter.

Some birds don't migrate. They are the permanent residents or sedentary birds. The California towhee likes to hang out around home, as does the Wrentit. In fact, the Wrentit is such a couch potato that it rarely travels more than a mile from where it first fledged.

Although migration is stressful, not migrating can also present survival problems for a species. At one time, Wrentits were common in San Francisco. They have since been almost eliminated from the City (or extirpated, in bird lingo) due to loss of their preferred habitat.

Some birds within the same species migrate differently from each other. Our Anna's Hummingbird can be seen zooming around San Francisco year-round, but some Anna's fly off to winter in the desert and then return to San Francisco in the summer. Other Anna's breed high in the Sierras and drop down to the desert in winter.

Wren tit
Wren Tit / Photo Eddie Bartley

And then there is post-breeding dispersal. It is not really a migration but rather the kids moving out of the house to find a new place to live, court, and produce grand-birds. They won't return home, to live in that spare room. Many raptors raised in Northern California end up dining on rodents in the Salinas Valley for their first winter and fan out from there to find new territory.

And some birds are either independent minded or just get lost, usually in their first year. They are the vagrants. These are the birds you read about in the newspaper, with photos of large groups (flocks?) of people with giant, long-lens cameras gathering for a glimpse of the bird of a lifetime. Vagrants may act as pioneers, looking for a new home to extend the range of their species.

If you like looking at birds, San Francisco is the place to be. The Bay Area is located along the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migratory route extending from the Arctic tundra to South America. According to Bartley, almost one-half of all species of birds in the United States have been seen in San Francisco.

Many birds raise their young here in the spring and summer, and so autumn is when we have the most birds. Sadly, the first winter for young birds is when they are most likely to expire. Some species have only a 30% survival rate! They are lost over the winter mainly due to starvation, predation, and disease.

You can help the birds who are just passing through on their arduous journeys as well as those who stay for the winter (or the summer). Bartley advises that you can "paint your garden" with birds by growing those plants that attract the birds that you want to see. Keep your housecat indoors (better for the cat, too), provide fresh water, keep your bird feeder clean to prevent the spread of disease, and don't use rodenticides, herbicides, or pesticides. Songbirds, in particular, rely on insects. As Bartley says, "They don't call them flycatchers because they eat fruit."

Support legislation on "bird-safe" windows and the Lights Out for Birds campaigns. Many birds navigate by the stars, and artificial light can be a big problem for them. We'll cover the "how they do it" of migration in a future article.

And the crows - how do they fly? Well, according to the Cornell bird website, some migrate, some are resident, and sometimes both behaviors take place in one population of crows.

Want to learn more?

Both migrating raptors and the raptor dispersal can be seen from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Marin, which hosts birdwatching during the migration seasons.

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of theSierra Club.

You can reach Eddie Bartley at: eddie at

November 2018

To dam or not to dam?

oroville Dam spillway
Oroville Dam Spillway

As we look forward to the hope of winter rains, we still have to remember that much of California is a desert. Newspapers will editorialize about how to save all that rain for use in future droughts. Sooner or later someone will declare that California must build more dams. And yet those same newspapers featured terrifying photos of the Oroville Dam spillway failing and outlined the enormous costs involved not only if the dam failed but also if it just needed repairs.

To learn the dam facts (sorry), I contacted Sierra Club California Water Committee Co-chair Charlotte Allen. Allen became interested in water issues after reading “Cadillac Desert” in 1986. She found water policy to be fascinating - analyzing big systems, figuring out how they work, and applying environmental principles to improve the systems. Allen met her biggest challenge when she waded into researching California’s water system - the largest engineered water system in the world.


... rather than dams, the answer lies in solutions such as water conservation, recycling waste water, increasing agricultural conservation, and banking today’s rain for future drought years.”

Allen is dubious about building more dams to prepare for drought. Dams are not environmentally beneficial; in fact, they often destroy stream ecology. Reservoirs lose a lot of water to evaporation, which will increase as world temperatures rise. Dams can fail if there is too much rain or if there are structural problems. If a dam fails, the potential for destruction downstream is enormous.

Allen concluded that, rather than dams, the answer lies in solutions such as water conservation, recycling waste water, increasing agricultural conservation, and banking today’s rain for future drought years.

Yes, water can be banked! Just as you put your hard-earned dollars into a savings account for a rainy day, water can be stored underground and withdrawn on a ‘dry’ day.

How is water banked? “Spread and sink,” says Allen. Let the water flow slowly over permeable soil and the water will soak into the underground aquifers. It will be waiting for you when you need it.

Yolo Bypass

One example of “spread and sink” is the Yolo Bypass. You may have driven to Sacramento on Interstate 80, passing over a long causeway that looks out over usually dry fields. The Yolo Bypass was created in the early 1930’s as a flood plain to protect Sacramento and the surrounding areas when water rushes out of the Sierras and down to the Bay. An unplanned benefit of the bypass is that the water spreads out over the open land and slowly soaks into the soil, replenishing the aquifer below. The Yolo Bypass also provides habitat for hundreds of species throughout the year. Birds literally flock to it. It has become a major habitat area both for resting and nesting along the Pacific Flyway.

But how much water can we really store with water banking? Amazingly, a lot! Right now, above-ground water storage in California is only 50 million acre feet. (An acre foot is one acre of water, one foot deep, or 326,000 gallons.) California needs storage exceeding an additional 50 million acre feet. In other words, we need what we have now -- more than doubled! There is nowhere in the state to build enough dams to meet this need. But estimates of available groundwater storage range from 850 million acre feet to as much as 1.3 billion acre feet!

To achieve this storage, in addition to bypasses, water can be encouraged to percolate into aquifers by restoring mountain meadows, creating levee set-backs, and getting rid of the concrete in river channels.

These ‘spread and sink’ methods can replenish the groundwater basins better than dams, provide more habitat than dams, save more water than new dams, cost less to build than new dams, and are cheaper and easier to maintain than dams. And last, but certainly not least, they avoid the danger of having a dam collapse and flood out your town.

There is an additional benefit with encouraging groundwater storage. Much of California’s existing ground water is suffering from over-pumping. Over-exploitation of groundwater can result in devastating impacts such as salt-water intrusion into the groundwater and even compaction and eventual collapse of the aquifer in which it is stored. Both conditions are irreversible.

Farmers in the Central Valley, who depend completely on groundwater, are experimenting with groundwater recharge. For example, almond farmers are flooding their fields in the winter; the trees don’t seem to mind, and the depletion of the groundwater can be slowed down and, hopefully, eventually reversed.

Both the State and the various groups who need California’s water recognize the problems and are working to come up with new solutions — without dams. But there is still a lot to do!

What you can do:

To learn about the range of water issues - including groundwater banking - and what you can do to make sure that all Californians can count on a safe and reliable water future, contact Allen at the Sierra Club California Conservation Committee (CalConsCom)

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

October 2018

Grim Reality - Recycling Can't Fix This

beach clean-up

Coastal Cleanup Day is the world's largest volunteer day to protect our environment. Golden Gate National Park organizes efforts in the SF Bay Area and invites you to take part on Saturday, September 15, 2018. Photo: National Ocean & Atmospheric Administration

To gain insight into the complexities of environmental health, I sat down with John Rizzo, a member of both the SF Group and Chapter Executive Committees of the Sierra Club. Rizzo is also a technical adviser to various environmental non-profits. We talked about his work around decreasing pollution in our oceans and waterways. Rizzo had just returned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Sixth International Marine Debris conference in San Diego.

At the end of our discussion, my head was spinning from the scope of the problem of plastics in our oceans. Impacts range from the now-famous Pacific Gyre, a floating mass of garbage that is twice the size of Texas, to small bottle caps that sea birds feed to their chicks (who then die), and all the way down to microplastics, tiny partic les which are infecting everything in the world and whose impact has yet to be fully studied and understood.


As much as some folks might complain about more rules, regulation is one way to ensure not only compliance but also a level playing field for the businesses involved. Why should an environmentally-conscious business have higher costs than one that foists the cost onto the rest of us by polluting the planet?”

Perhaps the best place to start is somewhere in the middle.

As an example, let's study the life of a plasticized coffee cup from a coffee shop in Chicago. If that cup were thrown into the Chicago River, it could float down to the Mississippi and from there into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Current could carry it across the Atlantic Ocean as far as the coast of Ireland. That is, if it didn't break down into tiny microplastics. In that case it might end up on the ocean floor and be scooped up by denizens of the deep. Or algae could attach to it, and the plastic would be eaten along with the algae. (Maybe we should skip the seafood for dinner and go for the veggie special.)

What is certain is that our earth is being overwhelmed with debris, and, in the case of plastic, it is not going to disappear on its own. Plastics can not only poison and injure marine life but they can also disrupt human hormones, litter our beaches, and clog our streams and landfills.

Recycling is not going to take care of this massive problem. Even with concerted efforts at recycling, only about 9% of plastics are recycled worldwide, and that is only in the countries that have developed the infrastructure to do it. Poor communities just don't have the resources to develop recycling programs. At the NOAA conference, one speaker showed pictures of beaches in poor communities littered with plastic garbage, while the wealthier areas enjoyed pristine coastlines.

Compostable bags and utensils are also, apparently, not the answer - at least not yet. Rizzo learned that there are no standards for biodegradable bags or utensils as there are for, say, organic vegetables. Some materials break down easily, others do not. Some bio-degradable bags were even found to have microplastics in them! The conscientious NOAA conference provided metal forks, cloth napkins and china cups. Come to think of it, for all of us tired of eating off of plastic, this is a pleasant solution to a serious problem.

Plastics are all around us - a complex problem with many moving parts that must be addressed on multiple fronts, including governmental regulation. As much as some folks might complain about more rules, regulation is one way to ensure not only compliance but also a level playing field for the businesses involved. Why should an environmentally-conscious business have higher costs than one that foists the cost onto the rest of us by polluting the planet?

We can each have an impact on this growing environmental crisis: start limiting the amount of plastic we use; ask businesses we patronize to do that same; support legislation that reduces or eliminates plastics; and participate in clean-ups.

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

Volunteer for International Coastal Cleanup Day

clean up dayBring their own reusable water bottle/coffee mug, reusable gloves, and/or bucket

SAN FRANCISCO—WEST Contact: Golden Gate National Parks (415) 561-3077 or

Aquatic Park and Fisherman's Wharf

Site Captain: Aquarium of the Bay, SF Maritime National Historical Park

Crissy Field at Stilwell Hall

Site Captain: Presidio Trust

Baker Beach

Site Captain: National Park Services

East Beach and Crissy Marsh

Site Captain: National Park Services

Fort Funston

Site Captain: UC Davis SF Alumni Chapter, NPS, Parks Conservancy

Lands End

Site Captain: Parks Conservancy

Marina Green and Small Craft Harbor

Site Captain: San Francisco Recreation and Park Department

Ocean Beach at Balboa & Sutro Heights ParkFULL

Site Captain: San Francisco JROTC

Ocean Beach at Fulton

Site Captain: CA Coastal Commission, NPS, Parks Conservancy

Ocean Beach at Judah

Site Captain:

Ocean Beach at Noriega

Site Captain: Surfrider Foundation, San Francisco Chapter

Ocean Beach at Sloat

Site Captain: Surfrider Foundation, San Francisco Chapter


See our cleanup site map for this year's locations.

In coordination with a statewide and global movement, together we'll make a big dent in removing trash and debris from the environment. During Coastal Cleanup Day 2017, volunteers removed 800,000 pounds of trash and recyclables from California's coast and inland waterways in only three hours.

There's power in numbers. Are you looking to take part in Coastal Cleanup Day on a deeper level? We have tons of ways you can participate this year.

Sept 2018

Lisa Owens Viani is on a mission to save wildlife.

White-tailed kite with preyPhoto: Dave Harper

A few years ago, Owens Viani experienced a life-changing moment — two young hawks that she had been observing in a nest near her home were found dead, drowned in a swimming pool. Their deaths were the result of eating prey that had been lovingly fed to them by their parents. The prey had been poisoned by rodenticides, poisons used to rid homes and businesses of pests but with disastrous impacts on wildlife and sometimes even pets and children.

Owens Viani vowed to halt this senseless destruction of such magnificent birds. She started locally, asking stores not to carry the worst kinds of rodent poison. However, going from store to store was just not making that much of a difference. So with assistance from Allen Fish, the Director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Owens Viani took the leap and started an organization, "Raptors Are the Solution" or R.A.T.S. Raptors, such as red-tail and Cooper's hawks, are nature's own pest-control officers.

The fight has been long and difficult. Poison manufacturers and many businesses have a vested interest in being able to use rodenticides extensively.

How rodenticides work

Rodenticides are mostly anticoagulants; they block the Vitamin K cycle which is needed for certain blood-clotting proteins. When an animal ingests a lethal dose of the poison, it can slowly - or quickly, depending on the poison - bleed to death internally. This is an excruciatingly painful way to die.

Before it dies, the poisoned animal becomes desperately thirsty and may go out in the open to search for water. In a weakened condition, the animal becomes easy prey to larger animals that are in turn poisoned. When a mouse dies of rodenticide poisoning, that is a primary poisoning. If your cat eats mice with poison in their systems and dies, your cat has died of secondary poisoning. If a coyote eats a lot of mice and is then eaten by a mountain lion, who has also eaten other poisoned critters, then the death of the mountain lion is tertiary poisoning. And yes, it happens - a lot. A wildlife report in 2014 stated that in the Santa Monica Mountains, "11 of 12 mountain lions tested positive for exposure and two died from poisoning, 93 of 105 bobcats tested positive for exposure and 70 died from related secondary disease, and 20 of 24 coyotes tested positive for exposure and 12 died from poisoning." (National Park Service, National Wildlife Federation Blog)

Even if the poisons do not kill the animal, they can make it seriously ill. For example, a new study shows a strong link between anti-coagulants and immune system impacts such as mange in bobcats.

How NOT to poison nature

The simple fact is that when we use rodenticides, we are poisoning the food web. We are killing the very creatures who could help to control the rodents we are trying to eliminate. Owens Viani suggests different approaches that are not only better for the ecosystem but also more effective long-term in controlling rodent pests.

The approach I like the best is putting up a Barn Owl box. One Barn Owl can eat up to 1,000 rodents a year. During breeding season, a family can consume over 3,000 rodents. You can imagine the fast build-up of poisons if only a fraction of those rodents have been chomping on rodenticide-laden food pellets. As a result, Owens Viani cautions that you talk to your neighbors first, so that they don't use rat poison and inadvertently poison the owls you have so carefully attracted to your Barn Owl box. In fact, if you live near Golden Gate Park, you might still ask your neighbors not to use rat poison, as there are often other owls nesting in the park.

Other anti-rodent suggestions include removing plants such as ivy that rodents can hide in, not leaving pet food outdoors, using snap traps where other animals cannot be caught in them, tying garbage bags securely, and keeping dumpsters closed at all times (duh). You might wonder if this really works. According to the Marin County IPM (Integrated Pest Management) guide to controlling rodents, "Eliminate food and rats will relocate."

If you use a pest control company, ask them not to use poisons — if they say their baits are not poisonous, one wildlife expert suggests that you ask them to lick the bait in front of you. That should answer that question!

With help from like-minded wildlife conservationists and over 40 wildlife organizations, R.A.T.S. now has an extensive website ( and chapters in other parts of California.

It has been a long struggle but not without rewards. Owens Viani was just inducted into the World Owl Hall of Fame.

At the end of our interview, Owens Viani stated, "I am not giving up this fight."

What you can do

Don't use rat poison! Follow the Marin IPM guide (Marin County Pest Specific IPM Plan for Rats). Write to your state assembly person and ask them to support AB 2242 (Bloom) to get poisons out of nature's system! Sierra Club has a site dedicated to wildlife protection - sign up! Sierra Club California CNRCC wildlife Committee

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

April 2018

San Francisco Estuary - love it or lose it

Photo: Eddie Bartley

San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary on the western coasts of both North and South America. For those of us new to this terminology, an estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea. In other words, a great deal of the land/water interface in San Francisco Bay is Estuary.

At the State of the San Francisco Estuary Conference at the Scottish Rite Center in October, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership presented one-time-only Legacy Awards to two people who have spent years on protecting the Bay — Arthur Feinstein and Barbara Salzman. I sat down with Feinstein over tea and bagels before a recent Sierra Club meeting. (He is on the Executive Committee for the SF Group and the SF Bay Chapter as well as the State Conservation Committee.) Feinstein has been involved in Bay conservation work for over 40 years. During our conversation, it became clear that his knowledge of both the Bay and its wildlife is, to say the least, extensive.


Every time a duck is disturbed and has to fly away, that duck is using up precious energy that it needs for the return trip up north. For those of us who have seen park ducks, their actions are a little different — many return to the same area and become accustomed to disturbances. But the birds in the open Bay do not."

The health of our Estuary is vital to the survival of water-dependent wildlife. Many shorebirds go to the Arctic to breed in summer, but in winter they return south. As shorebirds migrate, often distances of 1,500 or 3,000 miles and some even 12,000 miles, many stop to feed and replenish their energies at various sites along the west coast. SF Bay attracts the largest number of the west coast group over the migrating season - sometimes as many as a million birds over the course of a year.

The birds are attracted by the abundant and varied food supply available in the estuary. As fresh water flows from streams into the Bay, it meets the salt water that has entered due to tidal action. Brackish water results where the two meet and mix. Each type of water - fresh, brackish and salt - creates a unique habitat that provides both food and shelter for the birds.

Over 40 years ago, Feinstein found himself involved in the lives of the Bay's water birds. It was the mid-1980's and Feinstein was volunteering with the Golden Gate Audubon Society. He learned of the serious need to expand the SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Uplands. His intense interest in the Bay resulted in a job with the Citizens' Committee to Complete the Refuge. Over the course of seven years, he met scientists and staff from California Fish and Game. As he learned more about the threats to habitat, he became passionate about protecting the Bay and its wildlife. He then spent years working with various groups and public agencies in an effort first to stop the additional loss of wetlands, and then to mold new development to protect the existing habitat and expand the wetland areas.

Feinstein still finds that there is much to do to protect the wildlife in our Bay. For example, large development projects are currently proposed for San Francisco's India Basin area. The current India Basin Environmental Impact Report (EIR) recognizes that more recreational users, such as kayakers and kayak launches, could "affect foraging, roosting, and nesting shorebirds..." and that " such an increased human presence in tidal marsh and open water habitat at India Basin could affect shorebird behavior, thereby reducing breeding success. ." However, the EIR then goes on to say that since the existing habitat conditions are already so poor, and since the new development may restore some tidal marshland and add new tidal marshland (less than one acre), this will "offset any potential impacts on nesting birds from recreational users." (EIR, part II, page 280.)

One problem with the report is that it ignores the impact on ducks. Ducks are particularly sensitive to any disturbance of their surroundings. Every time a duck is disturbed and has to fly away, that duck is using up precious energy that it needs for the return trip up north. For those of us who have seen park ducks, their actions are a little different — many return to the same area and become accustomed to disturbances. But the birds in the open Bay do not. Feinstein described 'dead zones' around ferry landings and regular boat routes across the bay, which ducks avoid out of self-preservation.

Another problem is the short-term view in the EIR. We need to plan not only for replacement habitat for what is destroyed, but also for greatly increased habitat to offset past damage to wildlife populations, as well as the upcoming sea level rise. Sea level rise estimates keep, well, rising — to where the possibility of a 10 foot sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay is now being discussed.

What will be the impact on existing wildlife populations, how can we protect them and provide adequate habitat, and how is that balanced against the needs to protect the communities surrounding the Bay? These are complex issues that Feinstein has been working on for years, and will continue to do so.

If you would like to help, you can:

Write to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission ( Ask them to please consider ducks and shorebirds in the India Basin Plan and support winter closure for kayaking and other recreational activities that make it harder for the wildlife to thrive. Contact Arthur Feinstein if you would like to learn more: (415) 680 - 0643.

Katherine Howard is an open space advocate who is also on the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

December 2017

Smart housing policy must include public input and taking care of the environment

Sunset puzzle

For the last year, legislators have been debating new housing legislation —both state and local —to meet the pressing needs of California's growing population. One of our local newspapers regularly features articles (and even political cartoons!) beating the drum in favor of building as much housing as possible in San Francisco.

Yes, it is important to face the state's affordable housing crisis head-on — having a decent home for everyone is critical. But as we work to meet that need, it is also important to ensure that the environment is not harmed and that the community has a say in projects that will impact them.


The costs associated with dealing with the pollution will fall on taxpayers and local governments, instead of on the responsible parties."

Creating vibrant urban communities requires a strong commitment to protecting the quality of urban life. Some of the features shared by healthy urban communities include convenient public open spaces, parks, playgrounds, and natural "unimproved" spaces. Creating these communities must also involve a commitment to preserving existing affordable housing, preventing displacement of low and moderate income residents, protecting cultural heritage, providing efficient public transit, and sheltering existing communities from unreasonable economic and physical disruption.

But when there is a lot of pressure for one set of needs — in this case housing — there is the temptation to ignore other needs. There is a tendency to say that 'just for this project' it is acceptable for the developer to ignore the need to carefully consider the impact on the environment and the local community.

One such short-sighted idea currently being discussed is to allow projects to be approved "by-right" and, in the process, to bypass environmental review now mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The California Environmental Quality Act was passed in 1970 as part of a national wave of environmental protection legislation. CEQA requires project sponsors to disclose the environmental impacts of their proposed projects to the public, to accept public comments, and then to mitigate those impacts. Moreover, CEQA empowers members of the public to legally challenge the adequacy of the environmental reviews.

The Sierra Club strongly supports the power of the people to participate in the development of regulations, plans, and evaluation criteria at every level of decision-making for their communities. Public input under the environmental review process can actually make projects better!

San Franciscans have a right to know what is going on in their city and to have a say in local planning decisions. Legislation that lets housing projects bypass the CEQA process is not fair to our community, to our environment, nor to the very people for whom it claims to be providing housing. Bypassing environmental review can lead to greater congestion and associated increases in air and water pollution, loss of habitat, and loss of yet more species. Our new community members will be the ones paying the price of the resulting poor environmental decisions.

Thoughtful city and regional planning with environmental protections is the best way to provide housing for people now and for a planet we can all call home for future generations. In San Francisco, CEQA and environmental review must be a vital part of that planning.

What you can do:

Currently SB35 (Wiener) is before the California legislature. This legislation allows local governments to ignore CEQA and bypass environmental review for certain types of housing projects. This can potentially lead to increases in air and water pollution, increases in habitat loss, and prevent the public from having access to information about negative impacts to their health. The costs associated with dealing with the pollution will fall on taxpayers and local governments, instead of on the responsible parties.

Please write to your state senator and assemblypersons and ask them to amend this legislation to require environmental reviews under CEQA.

Katherine Howard is a parks advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club. Susan Vaughan is a public transportation advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club.

September 2017

Overcoming Ocean Obstacles

Malé, the capital of the Maldives and one of the most densely populated cities in the world


Ignorance is Paradise

Coral reefs, unbeknownst to many, are more than just beautiful rocks. They are living animals that protect coastlines, provide food and shelter for over 25% of marine organisms, yield $500M worth of protein, provide opportunities for biotechnology and energy, assist with nutrient cycling, and generate billions of dollars in tourism annually. They are teeming with diversity, and yet, most coral reefs remaining in the world are degraded and bleached due to ocean stressors such as increasing temperature, pollution and runoff, overfishing, and ocean acidification, to name a few. The Maldives often sparks imagery of pristine, sandy beaches and beautiful, secluded resorts – the "island life." However, what I discovered from our 2016 Expedition to the Maldives is that this image holds true to those that have not been exposed to – or choose to look away from – the truth, including wealthy politicians, visiting foreigners, and the rest of the outside world, including my former self. The disparate behavior and advantages of the wealthy and ignorant is crudely exposed when resorts are situated adjacent to islands inhabited by locals.

A barge brings waste to Thilafushi, nicknamed "Trash Island."

The many islands that make up the Maldives face serious challenges, especially related to climate change and human impacts. Sea levels are rising and so is the competition for space, with over 133,000 people living in an area of just 2.2 sq mi in Malé. I saw island governance struggle to obtain basic living needs to help their communities survive and maintain good health, while some individuals thrive on monetary gain from tourism and development. Although I knew about these environmental issues before this expedition, I hadn't anticipated the human element would be as challenging to grasp in person, and would shake up what I thought I understood about people and our environment. Below are my notes on what I witnessed and learned about these needs, based on my visits to different islands and discussions with locals. My understanding scratches just the surface of a tumultuous history rooted in corruption and economic strife. Ironically, the hand that feeds the economy (wealthy foreign countries), is pushing this nation towards a literal drowning.

A resort on one island that used to be inhabited by locals.

Clean Drinking Water

With the average island height 3ft above sea level, any available groundwater is highly susceptible to pollution and contamination from human waste and salt water. The tsunami in 2004 brought this to great attention after its destruction left 79 islands without safe drinking water. The rise of sea levels submerged the entire nation in inches of water that destroyed groundwater, soil fertility, and 50% of rainwater tanks. UNICEF provided rainwater harvesting tanks and several desalination units to islands in 2005, however, I learned that the amount of water collected is not enough to accommodate a year's supply, and many of these units need repair. When fresh water runs out (or is not there to begin with), islands rely on the shipment of plastic bottled water by boat. This perpetuates the issue of plastic waste, and the enormity of use is both unavoidable and the evidence is ubiquitous.

Waste Management (sewage)

Hydrous team speaks to a council member on Bodufolhudhoo.

Most island communities rely on pumping raw sewage into the ground. Due to the height of islands, waste often overflows directly into surrounding swimming and fishing beaches. I did not see any septic tanks/treatment on the islands I visited, but I am told Malé and resorts are equipped with such facilities, although all physical waste is still shipped to "Trash Island" for burning, whether or not visitors are aware.

Waste Management (garbage, plastic)

Many island communities resort to burning trash, as they lack adequate infrastructure to sort, recycle, and compost. Besides the enormous amount of smoke ingestion, toxic chemicals leach into the ocean where kids play, people fish, and tourists come to see the beautiful coral reefs. When we moored near an island coined "Trash Island," and barges overloaded with trash bags continually passed us while fires burned nearby, it's no surprise some of us experienced stomach pains and dizziness.

Visiting one island, we saw a section of the beach that had previously been reserved as a "pen" for trash to wash into the sea. When they ran out of space and guests at neighboring resorts complained of seeing trash in the reefs, they began to burn the trash on land, next to a school. Locals attempt to sort electronics and scrap metal before the burns, but these materials usually pile up since they require someone to voluntarily take them to other islands for reuse. This particular island is considered one of the leading in environmental health and safety.

Cleaning Trash trash collection
Surveying where trash was recently disposed on Bodufolhudhoo, compared to where it is currently burned, adjacent to a swimming beach.

At this island we also spoke to a council member about his initiative to ban plastic bags, which was driven by 1) his desire to eradicate what they see as a preventable waste, and more so, 2) the negative feedback from tourists at the adjacent resorts, ultimately threatening the jobs of many who depend on tourism for income. Thus, it seems economic pressure drives good deeds unintentionally (i.e. the environment and communities are the benefactors). However, to my surprise, this is not the majority of cases – most people I met wanted to see the health of their country and families improve. These heroes host beach cleanups, voluntarily pioneer waste collection and disposal for their island, endlessly plea for support from council members, and persevere in united causes with no support or resources. They continue to fight even when they're outnumbered or constantly told no.

This subject moved me the most, as its direct impacts were evident and immediate. I also spent most of my academic years studying the effects of pollution and its impacts to surrounding communities and ecosystems, specifically coral reefs. As with the rest of the world, the waste we produce must end up somewhere. The average person produces over 4lbs of waste per day and, considering plastics never biodegrade, the rate of consumption is overwhelming in a densely populated place with inadequate and out-of-sight disposal facilities.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

When I was young I lived on an island where everyone burned their rubbish, because making the journey to the mainland was costly. I didn't see the problem in this at the time, and quite frankly as much of an asthmatic environmentalist as I am, every individual at the end of the day needs to make a living. I saw changes only when the government installed a successful recycling program with penalties for violators. Despite witnessing community change as a result from top-down driven penalties, incentives, and education, the most surprising and moving realization I'm taking away from our expedition to the Maldives is that all efforts to positively influence the environment was coming from individuals, sometimes at the stake of sacrificing livelihood.

These basic needs are strongly interconnected, and an emerging common theme is that responsibility is easily relieved by an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. It's a human characteristic that I understand all too well, living in a country that produces some of the world's highest amount of waste and greenhouse gases annually. I've lived my whole life without having to correlate basic necessities with luxuries because they are provided without fail, but this often comes with a price tag of excess or naivety, the repercussions of both falling on smaller nations. For instance, the Maldives are responsible for just 0.01% of global greenhouse gases, but they suffer due to collective harm from other countries.

Towards the end of our time in the Maldives, we took a trip to Malé, the capital. Outside of the markets along the harbor, I saw trash, dead fish, and an oil slick floating amid the docked boats. Somehow seeing waste directly in my face makes it alarmingly grotesque, even though it's nothing compared to the scale the US produces. This final thought before I went home, to a country where "environmental support" is not considered an excessive commodity, made me think about how we often separate ourselves geographically and responsibly by social status, and arbitrary country and ocean borders. Regardless of how much we increase our "green" efforts in the US, we are guilty if we do not do something to help the Maldives, because their problems are a result of our ignorance and enormity of waste. Pollution and harm on one shore is akin to a stab from a knife – eventually that bleeding seeps to our shore. We are all one ocean that all of life on land depends on.

Looking back at the tsunami of 2004, experts say that without the protection of surrounding coral reefs, islands could have suffered much worse damage. These necessary, but threatened ecosystems, deserve to be seen and placed front of mind when we think of the future we want for ourselves and communities.

It is estimated that 60% of coral reef cover was lost during the 2016 bleaching event.

Nora Hall is a Westside Marine Biologist

Note: Having visited the Maldives for only a few weeks as an outsider, these are my personal reflections from interacting with local people, hearing their stories, and seeing impacts first hand; not how I think or feel people should live or want to live their life.

June 2017

Planning Department OKs Steps to Address Sea-level Rise at South Ocean Beach

Initiating the amendments to the Western Shoreline Area Plan, begins the required 30 day notice period, after which the Planning Commission may hold a hearing and take action on the proposed amendments are designed to address coastal erosion, flooding, and sea level rise hazards in San Francisco’s Coastal Zone. The current policies and zoning in the Western Shoreline Area Plan will remain unchanged.


Sea level rise and the increased frequency and severity of coastal storms anticipated due to global climate change will likely exacerbate these effects in the decades to come. The proposed amendments will add policies which address coastal hazards including erosion, coastal flooding, and sea level rise.”

The Planning Commission unanimously approved “initiating” the plan and set a tentative hearing for adoption on the matter for April 13th or thereafter. If it is approved at that meeting, it must then be approved by the Board of Supervisors and then by the California Coastal Commission.

Ocean Beach has been highly modified over the past 150 years, pushing the shoreline as much as 200 feet seaward of its natural equilibrium. These changes began with dune stabilization efforts in the 1860’s, followed by the construction of the Great Highway, Esplanade and O’Shaughnessy seawall in 1929, the Taraval seawall in 1941, the Noriega seawall in the 1980’s, and riprap revetments south of Sloat Boulevard over the past 15 years. From the late 1970’s through 1993, the SFPUC constructed major sewer infrastructure at Ocean Beach, including the Oceanside Treatment Plant south of the Zoo, and the Lake Merced Tunnel and Westside Transport Box beneath the Great Highway. Sand has been placed on the beach since the 1970’s, and the northern and middle reaches of the beach are stable, but erosion of south Ocean Beach has damaged the Great Highway, resulted in the loss of beach parking, and threatens to damage critical wastewater system infrastructure.

Sea level rise and the increased frequency and severity of coastal storms anticipated due to global climate change will likely exacerbate these effects in the decades to come. The proposed amendments will add policies which address coastal hazards including erosion, coastal flooding, and sea level rise. These amendments will support near-term adaptation measures identified in the Ocean Beach Master Plan and in development by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco Public Works, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Francisco Recreation and Parks, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

To date, the city has been defending the Great Highway south of Sloat Boulevard with boulder revetments, but many officials agree that the road is less of a concern than the Lake Merced Tunnel.

Ocean Beach Master Plan Key Move 2, proposed removal of the Great Highway and parking lots between Sloat Boulevard and Skyline Drive with low profile protection for the Lake Merced Tunnel and other wastewater infrastructure. Graphic Credit: SPUR, 2012.

For over a decade, the City has explored options for a planning framework to address erosion and coastal access through the Ocean Beach Task Force and the Ocean Beach Vision Council. The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), an urban planning nonprofit organization, made substantial progress by completing the Ocean Beach Master Plan in 2012.

The Master Plan represents the cooperation and involvement of the City/County and a host of federal, state, and local agencies, as well as community stakeholders in an 18-month planning process addressing seven focus areas: ecology, utility infrastructure, coastal dynamics, image and character, program and activities, access and connectivity, and management and stewardship.

Key Move 2 proposal to remove the Great Highway at Sloat and the beach parking lot, and the addition of a multi-stage coastal protection system of cobble berms and sand nourishment.

The proposed Local Coastal Program amendment integrates portions of the Ocean Beach Master Plan, particularly managed retreat south of Sloat Boulevard. Below is a rendering of proposed shoreline retreat and wastewater protection structures, with the California Coastal Commission.

The Local Coastal Program addresses coastal access, public recreation, transportation, land use, and habitat protection within the Coastal Zone but does not address coastal hazards or sea level rise.

Pursuant to the California Coastal Act of 1976, all development within the state’s Coastal Zone must conform to the public access and coastal resource protection policies of the Coastal Act. These requirements are implemented by the California Coastal Commission in partnership with the state’s coastal cities and counties through local coastal programs.

San Francisco prepared its local coastal program (LCP), comprised of the Western Shoreline Area Plan and implementing policies of the Planning Code, in the early 1980s, and the City’s LCP was certified by the California Coastal Commission as meeting the requirements of the Coastal Act on March 14, 1986. The City exercises coastal development permitting authority under the certified LCP, and the policies of the LCP form the legal standard of review for both public (state and local) and private projects under this authority.

The Coastal Commission retains coastal development permitting jurisdiction over projects located on tidelands, submerged lands, and public trust lands, and for any state, local, or private projects on federal lands. In addition, the federal Coastal Zone Management Act grants federal consistency review authority to the Coastal Commission for all projects affecting the Coastal Zone that are either undertaken by the federal government or that require a federal license, permit, or approval. The Chapter 3 policies of the Coastal Act – not the City’s LCP – serve as the standard of review for the Coastal Commission’s coastal development permitting and federal consistency review authorities.

All projects approved or undertaken by the City, regardless of location, are reviewed for consistency with the General Plan. Thus, the policies of the Western Shoreline Plan apply to both actions that are subject to the City’s coastal permit authority and to the City’s General Plan.

The San Francisco Coastal Zone extends approximately 6 miles along the western shoreline from the Fort Funston cliff area in the south to the Point Lobos recreational area in the north. The south end of the Coastal Zone includes the Lake Merced area, the Zoo, the Olympic Club, and the seashore and bluff area of Fort Funston. The Coastal Zone spans the Ocean Beach shoreline and includes Golden Gate Park west of Fortieth Avenue, the Great Highway corridor and the adjacent residential blocks in the Sunset and Richmond districts. The north end of the seashore includes the Cliff House and Sutro Baths area, Sutro Heights Park, and Point Lobos recreational area.

Most of the San Francisco western shoreline is publicly owned. Golden Gate Park, the Zoo, and Lake Merced contain 60 percent of the 1,771 acres which comprise the Coastal Zone area. Another 25 percent of the Coastal Zone is within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Only 14 percent of the land is privately owned, and 9 percent of this land is within the Olympic Club area. The remainder 5 percent is private residential and commercial property which fronts or lies in close proximity to the seashore.

Ocean Beach, the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, and Fort Funston are managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The City’s LCP does not govern federal activities or state, local or private projects on these federal lands. Therefore, policies included in the Western Shoreline Plan (under Objectives 6, 8, and 9) that address federal parklands apply only to actions that are subject to review under the City’s General Plan.

This report used information from the Planning Department and SPUR.

Public information may be obtained from Maggie Wenger (415) 575-9126 | or Chris Kern (415) 575-9037 |

March 2017

Ocean Beach Master Plan

New Focus on West Coast Shoreline Erosion

Ocean Beach
Chris Kern, Senior Environmental Planner at SF Planning hosted an open house to discuss amending the City's Local Coastal Program

The plan of managing Ocean Beach and dealing with coastal erosion, as well as how city policy will adapt to sea level rise along the West Coast line, is intricate. “We incorporated some recommendations from the Ocean Beach Master Plan (OBMP) on how the city will manage the shoreline erosion issues between Sloat Boulevard and Skyline Road, as well as coast wide,” Chris Kern, the Senior Environmental Planner at SF Planning, said.

“Many have been involved for years, even decades,” he added. “The Ocean Beach Task Force was involved in the 90s. Now we’ve developed the OBMP process, which is anticipating and developing these recommendations. Some of these need to be adopted as city policy.”


They want to do managed retreat and remove [a lane from Great Highway], the road that’s getting more and more traffic every day,” he said. “They want to remove the parking lots for people that go to the beach and remove an existing rock barrier. Then they want to move the barrier and do a sand replenishment in front of that.”


Kern is planning to present to the commission by the end of summer and to the Board of Supervisors in fall. In an effort to amend the City’s Local Coastal Program (LCP), San Francisco Planning hosted an open house forum to discuss the proposed City policy. Along with SPUR, the California Coastal Commission, SF Public Works and other partners, the April 19th meeting held at the San Francisco Zoo was a step towards implementing the Ocean Beach Master Plan.

Beach Survey
Ben Grant of SPUR says we can’t keep doing it the way we have been. “It’s not serving anyone.”

The amendment will add LCP policies addressing shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, and sea level rise along the City’s western shoreline. Additionally, it will provide for long-term resiliency by balancing environmental resources, maintaining coastal access, addressing community needs, and protecting the investment in public infrastructure.

Ben Grant of SPUR says the LCP Amendment is the first step where the OBMP ideas will be formally vetted and adopted, which triggers environmental review.

“We have a way forward and we’ve never had that before,” Grant says. “We’re finally getting to where we can approve things on the ground. You’re never going to satisfy everybody and this charts a middle path that most people can deal with.”

Coastal engineer Justin Vandever says the OBMP is a “vision document” that aims to balance the competing interests along the shoreline.

J R De Wood Jr. lives in his van near the vacant Ocean Beach parking lots that have been closed due to coastal erosion

“Ecological resources, public access, wastewater infrastructure, we want to preserve it,” Vandever says. “The OBMP comes to a consensus of what the community wants to look like in the future.”

Vandever says the City and National Park Service are looking at engineering feasibility studies and costs to see what is possible below Sloat Boulevard where there is critical infrastructure. “We’re looking at how much longer we have with consideration to sea level rise, erosion, and El Nino.

“We’ve loaded sand trucks from north beach to be placed on the bluff at Sloat Boulevard as a pilot project,” Vandever says of the interim measures to buy more time while they assess this larger vision. “They placed the sand on the eroded slope making access easier for people who want to enjoy the beach.”

Anna Roche is a climate change special projects manager working on the OBMP south of Sloat Boulevard. She says the key moves for chronic coastal erosion are short- and long-term strategies.

“Short-term, for now until 2021, is softer, environmentally friendly uses of sand and sandbags,” Roche said. “The long-term solution is a low profile wall outside of the Lake Merced tunnel with our wastewater management closer to the seaward.”

“We have been following the public process that went into OBMP and did a thorough development. Lots of voices are being heard” she says.

Roche adds that in an area with three San Francisco districts touching the Ocean Beach area, coordination takes a long time. “Government agencies have gotten on board, but getting senior management on board takes time.”

Vandever sees the momentum and is hopeful for growing support.

“Engineers and planners have the idea that these plans are possible from technical standpoint, but are they possible from a financial and political stand point? We’re getting everybody on board to make these things happen and there’s lot of motivation,” he says.

“The Cliff House is a location where we have a surplus of sand. One of the goals of the Regional Sediment Management Plan is to rebalance where we have surpluses and deficits to move the sand around,” Vandever adds.

Chris Potter of the California National Resources Agency says the Coastal Sediment Management Plan hopes to give the communities of San Francisco, Pacifica, and Daly City a plan for sea level rise, coastal erosion adaption and resilience that can be tapped into when necessary.

“The plan has been developed and we hope they will use it as they deal with the issues,” Potter says.

The Ocean Beach community has its own opinion on the OBMP. They feel that downsizing roadways and keeping parking lots vacant does not address their local needs.

Dennis Holl, a 30-year local, is concerned about an influx of traffic if the roads are scaled down.

“They want to do managed retreat and remove [a lane from Great Highway], the road that’s getting more and more traffic every day,” he said. “They want to remove the parking lots for people that go to the beach and remove an existing rock barrier. Then they want to move the barrier and do a sand replenishment in front of that.”

“I say restore it instead,” Holl added.

Kern says manage retreat provides for better public access and a better beach environment. It will provide a broader beach over a longer period of time.

Ocean Beach resident J R De Wood Jr. wants the people to have parking access immediately.

“I live in my van by those parking lots that are just sitting dormant,” Wood says. “The residents are coming out anyway, open them up. There has to be a way to implement something now.”

Grant from SPUR admits the vision will have to be revisited in the coming decades as we learn about how sea level rises along the coast line.

“We can’t keep doing it the way we have been. It’s not serving anyone,” he says. “We have been working a solution for six years that can keep the infrastructure in place.”

Other organizations in support of the LPC Amendment are the Department of Public Works, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, SF MTA, Surf Rider Foundation, and Ocean Beach stake-holder groups.

“There’s good support,” Kern says. “These groups coming together is a big achievement.”

Tony Taylor is a local reporter.

May 2016

Erosion Spurs Planning at Ocean Beach

Severe erosion, the result of surging sea levels, has forced the closure and reduced access to parking areas as well as some of the right lane of the Great Highway in what is referred to as “managed retreat.” seawall

The highway, once touted as the “widest stretch of pavement over 3000 feet long,” and the Esplanade, “of enduring concrete which will render for all time the beach safe from the destructive effects of the ocean’s activities,” will need major armoring to assure their future. Both will undoubtedly be revised by new proposals for the popular seaside destination.


This poses a very real threat to a very critical sewage-treatment complex that is essential to protect coastal water quality in San Francisco. The environmental consequences of a rupture and sewage spill would be severe.”

The “Great Highway” was built over several decades, beginning with fenced dune stabilization efforts; it has been widened, straightened and “improved” by dumping fill since the 1890s. The Great Highway, Ocean Beach Esplanade and O’Shaughnessy Seawall were dedicated in 1929 by Mayor James Rolph, Jr. The $1,000,000 project was financed through a $9,380,000 highway bond issue voted by the people as “the finest stretch of highway ever constructed.” The colossal Sunday, June 9, celebration featured a band of over 1000 musicians, while more than 50,000 people swarmed the connection at Lincoln Way as thousands of motorists tooted their horns to add to the din marking the occasion.

Almost a century later, much of Mayor Rolph’s “magnificent municipal improvement” will get a major diet. San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) has led the planning and advocacy, over a decade, through five major public workshops and many more community and stakeholder meetings, as well as exhibitions, forums and online surveys, to find solutions to the ongoing and unsustainable project. SPUR, through two community-led task forces (the Ocean Beach Task Force and the Ocean Beach Vision Council) has expended considerable energy to address the erosion encroaching the highway, which is likely to worsen. The Ocean Beach Master Plan (OBMP), though not an officially sanctioned document, is the most thorough study of the situation to date.Ocean Erosion

According to Ben Grant, SPUR Project Manager for the OBMP, one of the plan’s most pressing priorities is “closing a short, severely eroded section of the highway south of Sloat Boulevard, and replacing it with a walking and biking trail.” Car traffic would be re-routed onto Sloat and Skyline Boulevards, state-of-the–art highway designs meant for high-speed traffic (by 1938 standards). Both have unused capacity.

The most controversial part of the plan’s recommendation, that the Great Highway be narrowed to two lanes along the main stretch, met with considerable negative reaction. “We’re not going to be pushing for it at this time, because we have much more core, transformative projects to consider,” Grant said. Opposition to the narrowing plan has come mostly from Lower Great Highway residents who don’t want traffic diverted to residential streets.Ocean Beach Cliff

In response to a question posted on SPUR’s website for the project —Why does the plan propose the eventual closure of part of the Great Highway? The response outlines the major problem: “This stretch of roadway is exposed to chronic and worsening coastal erosion and will be increasingly difficult to keep open. In 2010, winter storms resulted in the partial closure of this portion of the road for ten months. Bluffs receded forty feet in some locations, threatening not just the road, but wastewater infrastructure as well. Sea-level rise and increased winter storms are projected to worsen these conditions in the coming decades. Inland circulation routes would be safer from coastal hazards.”

The OBMP adds that frequent severe weather conditions result in bluff and beach erosion south of Sloat Boulevard. “This poses a very real threat to a critical sewage-treatment complex that is essential to protect coastal water quality in San Francisco. The environmental consequences of a rupture and sewage spill would be severe.”

Space that is added by the restriction of pavement would be used for coastal protection measures, public recreation, and environmental restoration, according to the plan.

Many members of the public have asked about the possibility of protecting the road with a hard structure such as a large seawall or boulder revetment to control erosion. However coastal armoring at Ocean Beach, a National Park that connects important open space and habitat areas, would require permits from the California Coastal Commission and the National Park Service, and are “unlikely” to be approved.

The California Coastal Commission unanimously rejected a City and County of San Francisco permit application for armoring measures at the beach. Local environmental advocates such as Golden Gate Audubon, Surfrider, Save the Waves and other ocean protection groups strongly oppose hard structure armoring in favor of “managed retreat,” “beach nourishment” (sand replacement) and limited hard structure armoring.

An OBMP traffic study revealed that the Great Highway carries about 18,000 cars a day, less than half its 40,000 capacity. Removing two lanes would still allow 20,000 cars per day and removing the coast-side traffic lanes could reduce the 60 times per year when sand blowing onto the highway forces closure and diverts traffic onto the residential street, Lower Great Highway. The buffer space would be used to rebuild the dunes the voters removed almost a hundred years ago. WastewaterTreatment

Pressure from the federal Clean Water Act prompted a significant upgrade to the westside’s sewer-stormwater system that began in the 70s. It was not uncommon to experience 60-70 sewer overflows into the ocean per year. The current system, completed in 1993, has reduced the overflows to less than eight each year. The Lake Merced Tunnel is a 14 ft diameter tube that runs under the Great Highway from the Westside Pump Station Station beginning at Sloat Boulevard to Fort Funston. It is immediately vulnerable to erosion and must be protected or moved to prevent serious sewage spills. The Westside Transport Box is a long rectangular tube running from Lincoln Boulevard under the Great Highway that collects sewage and stormwater runoff from a large swath of the westside, including the Richmond. It ends at the Westside Pump Station, where it is pumped through the Lake Merced Tunnel to the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant. There it is treated and the effluent is released to the ocean, 4.5 miles out to sea through the Southwest Ocean Outfall.

Parts of the current wastewater system are over 100 years old, but most is new and effective. Twice, the City of San Francisco was forced to respond to serious erosion episodes with temporary armoring, by dumping boulder revetments.

Any changes at Ocean Beach are under the jurisdictions of multiple overlapping public agencies, including the National Park Service, the SF Public Utilities Commission, the CA Coastal Commission, The SF Department of Public Works, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the SF Dept of Recreation and Parks, and others. SPUR’s role as “convener” was initiated by the Ocean Beach Vision Council.

Any proposals included in the OBMP are intended to be implemented gradually, over a decade or even longer if erosion slows from its current pace. Some actions will be taken by coastal engineers as a response to “triggers” to ensure the safety of the infrastructure and the environment. Other segments of the proposal will depend on the permitting process through the various agencies and everything is contingent on funding allocated through public hearings and with input from stakeholders.

Environmental review under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) also requires additional technical analysis, consideration of alternatives and public outreach. Currently San Francisco is beginning an update of its Local Coastal Program (LCP) as an element of the city’s General Plan.

More information on the proposals and the 212 page Ocean Beach Master Plan are available through

November 2014

Great Highway: Addressing Sea Level Rise

Ocean Beach breach at cliffs

Ocean Beach, one of the gems of the San Francisco landscape, faces significant challenges. For the past two years, SPUR has led an extensive interagency and public process to develop the Ocean Beach Master Plan, a comprehensive vision to address sea level rise, protect infrastructure, restore coastal ecosystems and improve public access. There is still time to submit feedback.


Critical erosion along the Great Highway is expected to continue and DPW has plans to change the width South of Sloat from four lanes to two lanes. The two north-bound lanes, those most affected by ongoing erosion, would be removed to allow for coastal retreat.”

Department of Public Works’ project to abandon the two northbound Great Highway lanes in the near future (3-10 years) provides the opportunity to provide a multi-use coastal trail, bluff restoration and parking reconfiguration. This plan recommends the two lane reduction continue until the Skyline and Greaty Highway intersection. DPW is still studying whether the Great Highway returns to four lanes as it nears the intersection.

What are the opportunities and constraints of using the two abandoned lanes of the Great Highway south of Sloat? Providing more access to the coastal areas, improve aesthetics and habitat

Critical erosion along the Great Highway is expected to continue and DPW has plans to change the width South of Sloat from four lanes to two lanes. The two north-bound lanes, those most affected by ongoing erosion, would be removed to allow for coastal retreat. The remaining southbound lanes would be reconfigured to accomodate the remaining traffic. DPW is studying three options of the new road configuration. Option 1 envisions 2 lanes, 1 lane each way. Option 2 envisions 2 northbound lanes, with southbound traffic redirected through Sloat and Skyline. Option 3 envisions 2 southbound lanes, northbound traffic redirected through Skyline and Sloat.

The long term vision as erosion intensifies includes plans to remove asphalt and replace Great Highway lanes with a Coastal trail.

SPUR’s open space design workshop at the United Irish Cultural Center on September 24th For more information on proposed open space designs at both the North Reach, across from Golden Gate Park between Lincoln Way and Balboa Street, and the South Reach, along the Great Highway from Sloat to Skyline Blvd.

Residents may submit your comments to SPUR by October 15, 2014:

Open Space Design at Ocean Beach • 6 pm | Monday, October 27

In the third program in this three-part series, learn how a decommissioning of two lanes of the Great Highway will provide opportunities to improve public access with a coastal trail and other amenities designed to adapt to an eroding coastline.

Admission: Free to SPUR members, $10 for non-members.

SPUR Urban Center, 654 Mission Street INFO: / 415.781.8726

October 2014

Infrastructure Along Ocean Beach Needs Repair

As summer approaches, even in foggy weather, Ocean Beach and the Great Highway is an attraction for traffic and visitors from everywhere. This is why San Francisco Dept. of Public Works and a collaboration of other agencies want to work quickly to repair the bluff section near the Great Highway and south of Sloat Blvd from erosion in last year’s winter storm.

DPW hosted a community meeting to over 30 people on May 6, at the Janet Pomeroy Recreation Center for the Handicapped on Slyline Blvd not far from Great Highway and Ocean Beach.

The purpose of the meeting that Thursday evening was to alert the public that the erosion that occurred in that stretch was extensive, affecting more than 900 feet. During the past winter storms, in some spots along the bluff of the Great Highway up to 70 feet had receded.

With the assistance of the National Park Service, California Coastal Commission and the CA Dept. of Fish & Game, over 1,000 tons of debris were removed from the beach and a 425 foot rock revetment or embankment was installed.

Repair work has been in progress since January, getting the most critical portions stabilized at a cost of 1.5 million. These urgent repairs from the winter storms of 2009 were completed this past April and are considered “Phase I.”

Yet Ed Reiskin, director of DPW, told the audience that this erosion repair is only a short-term fix. “We don’t want to just throw up barricades,” he said. “We will need more detailed, long term planning.”

Ocean Beach and the surrounding coastline are vital to the environmental health of the City and Bay Area. Steady population growth and ever-changing demographics continue to make an impact on the entire coastal area.

The City’s infrastructure is of great concern, especially since the waste water tunnel and sewage treatment plant are at Ocean Beach. If that sewage treatment plant was to be disrupted or broken by further erosion, the consequences would be chaotic citywide.

“The City is in a difficult situation because it has spent millions of dollars on the sewage treatment plant,” said George Durgerian, media rep for National Parks Service.

“They have to protect their infrastructure, he told the Sunset Beacon, but they also know that you can’t beat Mother Nature,” added Durgerian.

Durgerian pointed out that “some of the techniques used in the erosion control project have met with mixed results,” (such as soil nails and piling). “In our goal to preserve the environmental integrity of Ocean Beach and the surrounding coastline we prefer the most natural means and materials used for these projects,” Durgerian said.

While the two hour presentation and discussion on May 6 was sweeping, covering many aspects, people listened and asked questions.

Representatives from several City, State and Federal agencies were present. Among them were Astrid Haryati of the Mayor’s office, Gabriel Metcalf of the non-profit SF Planning & Urban Research (SPUR), the National Park Service and District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

DPW and other agencies like the State Costal Conservancy are all working together hoping that “Phase II” of the repair work will be able to protect the Great Highway from further erosion damage. Cost estimates for the Phase II and then Phase III have not been tabulated yet.

City officials at the May 6 meeting mentioned that while estimates for Phase II and Phase III have not been tallied, there is over 2 million dollars secured for this project through previously approved bond measure funds.

Speaking on behalf of the State Coastal Conservancy, Moira McEnespy, Deputy Program Manager for SF, said, “we are very much looking forward to working with the community, SPUR, the City, the National Parks Service/GGNRA, and others to holistically address issues and opportunities at Ocean Beach,”

“We are fortunate to be able to build off previous work by the Ocean Beach Vision Council,” said McEnespy. She is hopefully anticipating that funding will be approved from the conservancy and other sources.

June 2010

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