The delicate ecology of the San Francisco Bay Area is partially in the hands of elementary schoolers.
Since the early 1990s, a group called STRAW — Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed — has been working on projects that improve wetland habitats all around the region. In that time, according to Point Blue, the conservation science group that coordinates the program, STRAW has enlisted 45,000 students in restoring 36 miles of streams in the region, revegetating stream areas with more than 46,000 plants.
“All the work of STRAW is done by students,” says Melissa Pitkin, the outreach and education group director for Point Blue. The STRAW staff trains local teachers in wetland restoration work, and the teachers in turn train their students. “It’s hands-on,” she says. “It’s not a demonstration project. It’s real wetland habitat restoration.”
In April, the group received a $2.6 million grant to carry out restoration work in the “wetland-upland transition zone” in Sonoma, Solano, Napa, and Marin counties, on the north shore of the bay. The grant was among the first round of awards to come out of Measure AA, a $25-million-a-year, nine-county funding stream meant to improve water quality, protect wildlife habitat, reduce flood risks, and increase public access to waterfronts.
Measure AA was approved in 2016, in the first-ever referendum organized as a joint effort between all nine counties surrounding the bay. It levies a $12 annual tax on every parcel in those counties and is expected to direct around $500 million to restoration projects over the next 20 years.
Part of the $2.6 million for STRAW will go to a bayside neighborhood in the city of Petaluma, where students will “soften the edge” between the wetlands and developed areas with native plants, which can help control flooding during storms and provide critical habitat for wildlife.
“The idea is if we can vegetate those areas and replant them with native plants, it will help to stabilize the marsh and provide places for the habitat to move to,” Pitkin says.
It’s a small sliver of the wetland restoration work that’s happening all around the region, and part of a decades-long effort to protect the ecosystem of the San Francisco Bay, a mission that’s gotten more urgent as the consequences of climate change have become more immediate.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the first Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals were articulated, and in that time, the threats to natural habitats and regional economies from climate change have been brought into sharp relief.
In 2015, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute released a report called Surviving the Storm, an attempt to measure the consequences of a prolonged period of extraordinary rainfall in the Bay Area. Scientific reports have suggested that, because of sea-level rise and land subsidence, between 48 and 166 square miles of land in the region could be endangered by 2100.
“One of the challenges in the Bay Area is it’s a multiple-county place and there really isn’t, like, an easy way to do anything,” says Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business-backed public policy group that helped lead the campaign for Measure AA, along with Save the Bay and Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
Measure AA required enabling legislation at the state level for a nine-county referendum. The funds are channeled through the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, which was created in 2008. Last summer, the Authority put out a request for proposals that would restore or enhance tidal wetland areas, aid in flood protection, or improve public and recreational access around the bay, in line with the program guidelines. The Authority received 22 proposals requesting around $32 million in funding, says Program Manager Matt Gerhart. In April, it awarded around $23 million for nine projects.
“I’d say the majority of what we saw in terms of proposals were things that were well underway,” Gerhart says. “There’s definitely an emphasis on things that can be implemented right away.”
Aside from the STRAW project, grants included $7.4 million for the massive South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, $1.6 million for the 600-acre Montezuma Tidal and Seasonal Wetlands Restoration Project, and a $150,000 planning grant to the Sonoma Land Trust for the Lower Sonoma Creek.
With Measure AA in place, Gerhart says, the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority is gearing up to release another request for proposals for the next round of grants. The program is structured in order to support a mix of projects that meet the various goals of the measure. If in a few years the oversight committee determines that certain priorities are being shortchanged, it can adjust its requests for proposals to balance things out. And because the funding is based on the number of parcels in the region and not tax assessments, it should be relatively stable.
The Bay Area Council is now helping to lead a fundraising effort for resilience projects statewide, related to fires, floods, drought, and heat. The project, called the California Resilience Challenge, is an outgrowth of the Resilient By Design competition funded by the Rockefeller Foundation last year, as Next City has covered. In September, the group plans to release a request for proposals at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, inviting California cities to apply for grants.
“We’re really experiencing the effects, now, of climate change,” says Wunderman. “We’re experiencing the hottest summers, the driest and wettest winters, changes in sea temperatures. Right now, we have the biggest fire in the history of the state burning.”
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi Community Development.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.