More than 40 years ago, a citizens movement led the Legislature to establish the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) to keep the Bay shoreline from being turned into new waterfront real estate. Now, ironically, accelerating sea-level rise poses a new challenge: How to keep important places along the Bay shore from being inundated.
Will Travis has been watching the Bay change since he went to work for BCDC in 1970, when the newly created regulatory agency was looking to hire its first permanent staff; he arrived with freshly completed bachelor of architecture and master of regional planning degrees from Pennsylvania State University. It’s been a solid and long-lasting match.
Coast & Ocean talked with Travis, executive director of BCDC, in his downtown San Francisco office, from which he overlooks the Ferry Building and Bay Bridge--and might someday look out over new buildings offshore, atop new levees installed to keep the sea out of the financial district.
C&O: So this is an odd predicament, isn’t it? You’ve worked for 44 years to keep landfill out of the Bay so it wouldn’t get smaller, but now we’re all worried because it’s getting bigger.
Will Travis: In 1965 the Bay was a third smaller than it was in 1850. A lot of it had been filled. Where we’re sitting right now, we’re on filled land. This was Yerba Buena Cove in the 1850s. This is where ships bringing miners to the Gold Country anchored.
So we’re probably sitting on top of some ships right here, they’re part of the fill.
Exactly, and around the Bay vast areas were diked off and filled. Then in 1959 the Army Corps of Engineers did a study of the plans to fill the Bay in the future, and they concluded that 60 percent of the remaining Bay was shallow enough to fill. Two-thirds of it was less than 12 feet deep.
In the study they had a map that showed the Bay where it was in 1849, in ‘59, and where it would likely be in 2020--that it would be reduced to little more than a wide river. When that map appeared in the newspapers it alarmed people, so they went to Sacramento and had this new agency created, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, BCDC. Our charge is largely to keep the Bay from getting smaller by regulating landfill projects. And we’ve done a pretty good job of that. As a result, the Bay is 22 square miles larger now than it was in 1965.
That includes all the wetland restoration now happening?
I’m not counting that. When you take everything else into account it’s many square miles larger. And now we have data that as a result of global warming, the Bay waters have risen about seven inches since 1900. We know this because we have 155 years of data. The oldest continuously operating tide gauge is at the Golden Gate (see Coast & Ocean, Vol. 20, no. 4). And scientists tell us that in the next century, if we continue as usual, we will see the waters rise a meter to 1.4 meters, about 39 to 55 inches.