Reflections from Ducks Unlimited
By Renee Spenst, Ducks Unlimited
A community partner spotlight highlighting content written by a key local partner from each Design Team. Local partners were asked to respond to a set of questions about their experience working with Teams and Resilient by Design. Ducks Unlimited is one of Common Ground's local partners advising them on their project.
1. Is the area where your organization works currently facing regular challenges related to flood risk?
Ducks Unlimited is a non-profit habitat conservation organization that works with land owning partners to conserve and restore wetlands and other aquatic habitats now and into the future. In the San Francisco Bay and beyond, many of the landscapes where we work face challenges related to flood risk. In the Bay, this problem is multifaceted and flood risk can be increased by rising sea level, storm events, and fluvial flooding as well as interactions between these. The San Pablo Baylands along the northern edge of San Francisco Bay comprise a landscape of unparalleled conservation value, infrastructure constraints, and high risk.
Planned improvements for State Route 37 (SR37) have placed a focus on the perilous existing condition of a highway already overtopped when high tides and storm events push water up into the rumble strip, a problem currently visible to any frequent user of SR37 and put into sharper focus during the 3-week closure during early 2017. SR37 improvements also provide a window to consider how to create resiliency for both the highway and the tens of thousands of acres of baylands surrounding SR37, such as Napa-Sonoma Marshes.
It may seem odd to consider resiliency for baylands or wetlands, yet these habitats are critical for flood control, storm attenuation, food production, and as places of beauty and recreation and are themselves at considerable flood risk from even more quickly rising seas. The baylands comprise a patchwork of lands that include remnant historic wetlands, slowly sinking agricultural lands now 6-7 feet below surrounding marsh, open water ponds managed for waterfowl and shorebirds, and restoring tidal marsh habitats. With SR37 on the southern edge, and the Union Pacific Rail Road running parallel and then cutting up and across the backside of Napa-Sonoma Marshes, the baylands are disconnected from the natural processes that would help sustain them. Within this landscape, less restoration work has been completed along the Sonoma Creek corridor. Sonoma Creek and Schell Creek are particularly flood-prone and frequently overtop even in relatively small winter storm events under existing conditions, while larger storms cause much more extreme flooding of homes, businesses, and lead to road closures. This is a problem for which no easy solution exists. It is hard to foresee and fully understand ALL the implications of a future where extreme storms are more frequent and severe and the surface of the bay is 3 feet higher by 2050 and 10 feet higher by 2100.
2. What is missing in that area in terms of reducing flood risk and reducing the negative effects from sea level rise?
True resiliency planning is the missing ingredient. It may be too easy to overlook our natural lands as we scramble to save the built environment, but we would be doing ourselves a disservice to miss the opportunity to plan for, foster, and create resiliency for both. The San Pablo Baylands provide unparalleled conservation value in their relatively rural nature, compared to the highly urbanized peninsula and South Bay. San Pablo Baylands provide one of the largest opportunities for marshes to move up slope as sea level rises, continuing to sustain estuarine wetlands, and all the species that rely on them, including Canvasback, as well as commercially critical salmon, halibut, and Dungeness crab.
State and Federal agencies, scientists, and conservation organizations have come together in the development of ambitious targets for bayland restoration around San Francisco Bay in the Goals Project (2015). Declining sediment supply and ever faster rates of sea level rise drive the recommendation to have restoration efforts completed by 2030. Helping conserved habitats keep pace with rising seas will require rapid, coordinated action and accelerated planning efforts. A major impediment to reaching these goals is the added burden of cost and planning to protect infrastructure ranging from the railroad, SR37, PG&E towers, and a Federal Aviation Administration facility. In its current configuration, SR37 and the rail line bisect much of the San Pablo Baylands and hem in Napa-Sonoma Marshes on the North, West, and South sides. The conservation community has taken a proactive stance in working with Metropolitan Transportation Commission and California Department of Transportation to ensure that improvements to SR37 also maintain the conservation values of this habitat and we continue to work to ensure this effort is fruitful, but this is only a partial solution. Integrated, multi-agency, multi-modal transportation planning to collocate the rail and SR37 and accommodate the restoration of the historic baylands would substantially advance flood risk reduction efforts and provide the best opportunity for both a resilient SR37 and resilient San Pablo Baylands.
3. Do you think the Resilient by Design | Bay Area Challenge has helped this area move toward a more climate resilient future?
The Resilient by Design | Bay Area Challenge is leading the way in proactive resilience planning. Prior efforts have always come in reaction to catastrophic events. We cannot overstate how critical proactive planning will be to our resilient future. The Challenge has been a good conversation starter and a great opportunity to move the thinking forward on many projects around the bay. During my involvement in this process, I had a glimpse of the myriad diverse needs and viewpoints influencing the planning process. The Common Ground team has been effective in raising the awareness of the San Pablo Bay shoreline as more than a narrow transportation corridor, but as a productive ecosystem. There is still much to do and the graphics and maps that have been produced during this process will help us tell the story of this area and advocate for integrated solutions. Ducks Unlimited is committed to working with our partners to ensure that habitat values continue to be part of this discussion. We would like to see resiliency planning for both the built and natural environments and see green infrastructure such as wetlands, oyster reefs, and eelgrass beds being incorporated into designs where feasible both for their inherent natural benefits and for their incredible capacities to protect shorelines. Time will be the best judge to see which designs are implemented and how they are implemented. Natural infrastructure is our best remedy to conserving our way of life and the things we all love about the Bay Area.
4. Do you have concerns about how the Resilient by Design | Bay Area Challenge might affect this area?
Relative to San Pablo Baylands and SR37, we are looking to Resilient by Design to provide creative and bold ideas that transcend “business as usual.” The way SR37 is improved has tremendous implications for existing and planned restoration projects in terms of habitat and wildlife connectivity as well as hydrologic flow. Alternatives also vary widely in the quantity and cost of infrastructure improvements that might be borne by restoration projects to protect SR37 and other infrastructure. The most recent products from Common Ground identified a range of alternatives. I’d like to see them widen the range of options, not narrow them. Regardless of alternative, I hope the solution that emerges from the planning process reduces the burden on restoration projects, includes co-located rail, and provides needed transportation options for the communities that rely on SR37, chiefly the City of Vallejo.
5. Do you have thoughts on how designers and technical experts can work to help increase our region’s climate resilience while ensuring new investments in resilient infrastructure do not reduce ecological benefits? How should broad climate resilience efforts like Resilient by Design advocate for ecological resilience?
It would be great to come up with a best practices design guidance that steers planning efforts towards green infrastructure wherever feasible and that clearly articulates the design goals. This also should be one of the selection criteria in selecting the teams who are developing designs. One thing I was struck by during the duration of this effort is the monumental challenge our changing climate poses across all fronts and in some way the increased burden that places on justifying conservation efforts. A bay margin fringed by wetlands where the land slopes gently up into the hills has far more aesthetic and conservation value than a bay lined with sea walls and sheet pile.