Bay Area community members, lawmakers push for funding to restore tidal marsh to help with flooding

Saturday, April 20, 2024
Bay Area community members push for funding tidal marsh restoration
As sea levels rise, there's a push for major spending to control flooding in the Bay Area before that scenario plays out.

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- The San Francisco Bay could experience a foot of water in sea level rise by 2050 if high emissions continue, according to the State of California's Sea-Level Rise Guidance Report. There is a push for major spending to control flooding in the Bay Area before that scenario plays out - and one of the proposed solutions is tidal marsh.

Like many Pacific Islanders living around East Palo Alto, the shoreline is a spiritual place to Anthony Tongia and Violet Saena.

"Over here, you can... hear the water and then hear a bird, and that's everything," said Tongia, who routinely takes his dogs to the shore.

According to the USDA Forest Service, more than 80 percent of the San Francisco Bay's original tidal wetlands have been altered or displaced. This has impacted habitats and species that live along the shoreline. It also partially led to recurring flooding in several areas along the Bay.

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Tongia and Saena are part of a community that recently helped restore tidal marsh to this section of Cooley Landing Park.

Saena said people here are keenly aware of the threat to the shoreline from flooding and sea level rise.

"Many of them would say 'we came to the United States because we want to feel safe' -- and now they're hearing of the same problems again," Saena said. "Where are they going to go next? They came here because of climate change and sea level rise."

Lawmakers are pressing Governor Gavin Newsom to back a climate bond of at least $10 billion in time to make the July deadline for the fall ballot. One of the shoreline projects the money will go toward is the restoration of thousands of acres of tidal marsh that can help absorb rising sea levels. During King Tides, this area of East Palo Alto already sees flooding.

"You know, wetlands actually act as a sponge. They slow down the flow of water," said David Lewis, Executive Director of environmental nonprofit Save the Bay. "They absorb high flood waters and then release them slowly when the tide goes down or when the storm passes."

MORE: Levee breach creates new tidal marshland in San Francisco Bay

The region is barely halfway to its goal of restoring and protecting 100,000 acres of tidal marsh, Lewis added.

Around 20 years ago, there were 40,000 acres of healthy tidal marsh around the Bay. More than 13,000 acres of tidal marsh has been restored since 2000 and 24,700 additional acres of restoration are currently being planned, according to Save the Bay.

Earlier this year crews breached a levee at a nearby salt pond, creating the Bay's newest tidal marsh in Menlo Park, alongside a green levee planted by the group.

"We've had success with tidal marsh and that success has meant something," Lewis said. "It's already improved our lives."

But with the state facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, the financial landscape is growing more unpredictable. Supporters of the bill believe the spending would help to protect housing development and existing communities.

An ABC7 data team analysis found more than 300,000 homes in the Bay Area have an 80% chance of flooding over the next 30 years and nearly 90% of those homeowners may not have flood insurance, according to First Street Foundation, a nonprofit science and research group that studies climate risk data.

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Areas including Bel Marin Keys near Novato and Foster City already need to bolster sea walls, improved levees and other flood control structures to stop current flooding from happening.

"Without question, I don't think that we can get the most cost-effective flood solution for the Bay Area without incorporating and maximizing our tidal marsh restoration opportunities," Adrian Covert, Senior Vice President of Public Policy for nonprofit Bay Area Council, said. "In particular, the South Bay and the North Bay because they create opportunities for arming developments that we have already and are helping our population grow."

Besides decreasing flooding, supporters want to help protect shoreline areas because they have become both a gathering point and a refuge to communities around the Bay.

"It's a spiritual thing," Saena said. "Those of us who grew up around the water and the ocean, we are pulled towards the water."

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