Saving the San Francisco Bay & Sacramento Delta

Saving the San Francisco Bay & Sacramento Delta

I chose the word “saving” in the title because it is often tossed about in the conservation vernacular.  Truth be told I think I don’t know what it means to “save” an ecosystem, but I can speak to what it means to inspire and increase my own and others sense of personal responsibility towards the environment and the services it provides.

In places of drought, when the water is shut off from homes, everyone there knows what it means to miss your water.  Everyone that is hungry knows what it means to miss your food.  Yet most of us go through our lives taking for granted the natural world and our intimate connection to it, and by neglecting to preserve and protect natural places and resources, we are denying the most basic of human needs to the children of the future…clean water, healthy food, biodiversity and the benefits that follow such as health and peace.

This story is about working as an educator for marine science and catchment (fresh water) advocacy with kids (k-sixth) in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento / San Joaquin River Delta area of Northern California.


There are those who recognize the importance of, or at least provide compensatory funding to, hands on education in the Bay for the purpose of securing our natural resources and ecosystem services for posterity. Among these funders are the David and Lucille Packard Foundation (a familiar name in non-profit marine conservation), the Moore Family Foundation, the Genentech Foundation, the Sand Hill Foundation, Oracle, DOW Chemical Co, and locally involved government bodies such as the Contra Costa Water District, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). For the local sanitary district, educating Bay area youths is a financial investment, because polluted water in the sewer, drain or delta is more expensive to treat and to use.


In 1998, a more than two million dollar, custom-built “floating classroom” in the shape of a 90ft research vessel, complete with a fishing-trawl, a Peterson’s mud grab and two indoor classrooms, was donated under the name of sponsor Robert G. Brownlee.


When I am not visiting classrooms in the Bay area with live fish, sharks and invertebrate representatives, delivering shore-side education programs at the Marine Science Institute, or teaching a tide-pool program at the epic littoral of Half Moon Bay, I get to crew this vessel and teach kids about the Delta, an ecosystem sustained by the same fresh water that the students use in their homes.


The first thing I remind them of is that our body is mostly composed of water, and because the Delta is where the water that they drink originates, then learning about the Delta habitat is equivalent to learning about oneself.


Affected by both fresh water flows (in this case from the Sierra Nevada mountain range) and tidal fluxes from the ocean, the San Francisco Bay is a place where salt and fresh water meet, and thus one of the largest brackish water estuaries in America, along with the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Long Island Sound in CT/NY.


A water body of crucial ecological importance, it is a critical habitat for migrating birds and for juvenile saltwater fishes and invertebrates.


Once resplendent in natural beauty and biodiversity, and with a 17,000 year history of human harmony with nature, the Bay has been on a path towards total ecological collapse since the Spanish invasion and the later Gold Rush of the mid 1800’s. The great riparian (riverside) forests here, once rivaling the Equatorial rainforests in productivity, were cut down for timber, and vast tons of mountain sediment was washed into the rivers in the frantic search for gold. In addition, 45,000 metric tons of mercury, a highly toxic element, was introduced into the Delta during the gold mining era, making the sediments into a lethal sludge that feeds into the food web from the bottom up.


Today, the Bay’s biggest concerns are that:

  • It is plagued by introduced species that have become ecologically invasive, such as the Asian clam, an invertebrate filter feeder that has reduced phytoplankton (plant drifters at the bottom of the food web) by two thirds.
  • Up to %95 of the surrounding wetlands, a habitat that is critical for primary productivity, for maintaining water quality and as a nursery for saltwater fish and invertebrates has been filled-in for farming and urbanization.
  • Around %40 of the state of CA exports its fresh water from here, removing the single most important component of the estuarine habitat: fresh water.


A large-scale ecological restoration effort is in effect to keep the Bay from succumbing entirely to the diverse and growing pressures of large-scale urbanization, but because the history of the bay is defined by fluctuation, it is difficult to establish a baseline.

The baseline thus must be drawn now, in the present, and who better to draw it than the youths who will one day hold the future of the ecosystem in their hands.


In addition to having a most memorable day experiencing the wonders of the Delta and Bay for the first time, the approximately 140 kids we host per day on our Discovery Voyages learn:

  • About diverse fish species that they themselves fish using a catch and release trawling method, the data of which is recorded in a scientific log for gov’t managers.


CA Halibut (a flat fish relative of the freshwater Starry Flounder common in the Delta)


Striped Bass, an introduced species with very high mercury content.


A Tule Perch, named for the Tule grass habitat, named from a Nahuatl word


River Lamprey Lampetra ayresi 

  • About the muddy bottom, or benthic habitat, and about the invasive and native invertebrates that live in it.  They also learn about toxic mercury in the Delta environment (a remnant of the Gold Rush), and about how it bio-accumulates and bio-magnifies up the food web as organisms absorb it into their tissues.


A Comb Jelly or Ctenophore, a jelly that can eat ten times its own weight in a day.

  • About the geological and human history of the Delta, such as how land has been reclaimed by fragile levies, where our fresh water is taken out and put back into the Delta, and how it is transported across the state.
  • We also include a unit about the Household Hazardous Waste facility, a new way of looking at and disposing of noxious trash items, and about new ways to recycle, compost and conserve water at home.


  • About the plankton, or drifting aquatic organisms that form the bottom of the Delta’s food web, and that are crucial to the survival of the native food web as a whole. Viewing the plankton that the kids themselves collect under a microscope in our floating lab is an experience that fifth graders, many from under-served neighborhoods, have described as being “beautiful” and ‘fascinating.”  They go from Sponge Bob to Science in 30 min.



I will conclude by saying that environmental education is the foundation of securing the planet’s future and engraining ecology in the collective consciousness.


For forty years the Marine Science Institute, has done excellent work and are widely recognized by students, parents and principals among others. They are responsible for reaching out to forty thousand children every year, teaching them about the marine/freshwater that sustains the human and other biological community. The programs we run leave lasting impressions on student’s lives and on their behaviors and attitudes towards the natural world.


It is a bit discourging that while organizations like the Stamford Rowing Club next-door have permanent, state of the art facilities, the Marine Science Institute still operates out of makeshift trailer buildings on a leased plot of land (with infinite potential).


I believe that the not-for-profit approach to conserving our country’s natural resources and ecosystem services is flawed in that it is unable to grow at the rate that our resources are exploited, misused and exhausted. I don’t know the answer, but perhaps in the near future more of the multi-billion tech companies that have chosen the Bay as their home, for example Google or Facebook or NASA, will choose to help “save” the Bay for the children of the future that they are helping to shape.IMG_2878