Are we in over our heads?

Recent news stories feature vivid pictures of record-breaking flooding across the United States. These stories make dramatic evening news coverage, because they show extreme damage in simple before and after pictures. But there is another story around flooding that is not as dramatic - at least not yet - but it is going to happen, and it is going to happen all over the world. That is the unavoidable inundation that will be caused by sea level rise.

Sea walls around a city are expensive not only to build but also to maintain. And one breach means disaster - think New Orleans after
Hurricane Katrina.”

To learn more about the potential impacts of sea level rise (SLR), I spoke with Arthur Feinstein, Sierra Club California State Conservation Chair and champion of bays and estuaries. Feinstein and a SLR Task Force have just finished developing a set of positions for Club members to follow when addressing sea level rise issues.

Yes, climate change is causing melting glaciers and disappearing ice packs. The oceans are warming, and that leads to thermal expansion. The net result is that the levels of our oceans are definitely rising.

Sea level rise is happening every day, but it is so gradual that most people are not aware of the enormous risk that it poses to the future not only of those of us who live along the coasts, but also of the ecosystems on which we depend.

Various government and international agencies have released reports on expected SLR over the next 100 years. By 2050 it is expected that the oceans will rise steadily about 1.0 to 1.5 feet. Scientists say that there is nothing that can be done about this rise; it is locked in, and it is going to happen. After 2050, the amount of SLR will be both faster and more unpredictable. No one is certain how soon the ice in the Arctic, Antarctica, and Greenland will melt. Final predictions for SLR now go as high as a 10 foot rise by 2100. And this is just when the oceans are relatively calm.

Added to the impact of the rise in the static levels of the oceans is the impact of major storms with wind waves, storm surge, nearby river discharge and other events that can intensify SLR by contributing to the erosion of beaches and cliffs and consequent flooding. According to at least one research paper, these dynamic amplifiers can increase the impacts of flooding by up to seven times.

The coming SLR events will result in not only damage to the coastline and destruction of wildlife habitats, but also the loss of homes, businesses, and the infrastructure on which they have come to depend.

Let’s start with habitat. The shallow waters along our coasts are the nurseries for ocean life. According to Feinstein, the tidal marshes, mudflats, sea grass, and kelp beds support 70% to 90% of commercial fish and shellfish species. In addition to providing the food that is much of the basis for the ocean web of life, these living coastlines are effective at sequestering carbon from all those decaying plants. (Have you gotten a whiff of that intense odor at low tide? That is life in the making.) Tidal marshes also help to control flooding and inundation by slowing up storm surges. They purify water, trap impurities, and hold in mud. This in turn influences temperatures and helps cool the air.

Sea Level Rise threatens all of this life as these habitats drown in deeper waters. Loss of coastal habitat will impact fisheries in the deep oceans. At the same time as agriculture is impacted by rising temperatures inland due to climate change, another food source, ocean fisheries, will be depleted. And as the carbon sequestration these coastal habitats now provide is lost, Greenhouse Gases will increase, resulting in further global warming.

However, if the oceans rise slowly, and if there is room for the wetlands to move inland, sea life might gradually adapt.

That is why Feinstein recommends that coastal land be set aside to allow the oceans to gradually inundate new coastal areas over the next 30 years and, with luck, the plants and other life will move inland as the oceans rise.

After 2050 other processes may have to be employed to preserve the viability of coastal waters in the face of faster changes.

The need to plan for creating new living shorelines is resulting in some interesting policy reversals. The Bay Conservation and Development Committee (BCDC) was originally formed to protect San Francisco Bay from rampant filling during the mid-twentieth century. Today, BCDC is considering rewriting its guidelines to once again allow Bay fill in order to adapt to the rising levels of the Bay. For example, at the newly recovered salt ponds, mud could be added to raise the elevation of the sea bed to allow for shoreline habitat to re-establish itself at the new coastlines.

But establishing new coastal habitat at higher elevations depends on having vacant land along the coast to inundate. In areas where there is no undeveloped land next to the existing shorelines, there is a whole other set of problems that must be faced.

Here things become sticky. In principle, we need to allow for open space inland for the rising coastal waters. This may mean saying “no” to new development. At the least, new development should plan for the eventual incursion of the ocean, and property owners should plan ahead to remove the new structures when that happens.

What happens if homes and businesses are already located in harm’s way?

There are no easy solutions for land that is already developed. One key phrase you will see in coming years is “Managed Retreat,” or permanently clearing out occupants (that’s people) and structures from coastlines that are going to be inundated. As you can imagine, proposals for Managed Retreat have already drawn storms of dissension in some communities. Homeowners are reluctant to give up a place they have lived in and loved for many years, and which may be their major financial investment.

Lots of questions to ponder here. As the oceans rise, should there be government buy-outs? Should new property owners be treated differently than those who lived along the coast before SLR became a possibility? Some low-income communities were forced into areas that are close to the coast but were not considered desirable at the time they were established. Their homes may be their only resource. What happens to people whose only nest-egg is their nest? Should compensation be given based on income or property values? Or would flat rate compensation be fairer to everyone?

In addition to the impacts on homes and businesses, the financial toll for SLR on surrounding communities will be enormous. Consider the impact on infrastructure - roads, railways, harbors, airports, power plants, wastewater facilities may all be flooded out. How will this be dealt with and paid for, on top of the need to help local homeowners and business owners?

In case you were thinking that SLR could be solved with sea walls, think again. Building a sea wall around your home may protect you for a few years, but in the meantime, it will increase wave action on your neighbor’s house. And, eventually, how will you get home at night? Canoeing to Trader Joe’s may feel authentic, but it will lose its appeal after awhile.

Wave action against sea walls often precludes healthy marine habitat in the nearby area. Sea walls around a city are expensive not only to build but also to maintain. And one breach means disaster - think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Sea walls also require concrete; manufacturing concrete adds to Greenhouse Gases. And so with building sea walls the cycle of climate change builds upon itself.

As in most of the environmental challenges we now face, there are many questions and no easy answers. Feinstein advises keeping an eye on news items and attending public meetings that will be held to deal with this. Ask for a living shoreline whenever this is mentioned. Sea level rise is a problem that is very much not going away, and we will have to plan for it and adapt to it in the future.

To learn more: San Francisco’s Sea Level Rise Action plan is a work in process:

The USGS mapping system illustrates what may be flooded, combining the level of rising oceans with the strength of storms.

NOAA interactive maps and photos shows the impacts of SLR :

For the truly wonky among you: USGS Coastal Storm Modeling System (CoSMoS)

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate.

JULY 2019

Clothes make the earth go round . . .

On Earthday I attended the San Francisco festival, held this year in the Mission District. I saw some wondrous clothing made from recycled materials. I wondered how important clothing is in the whole reduce/reuse/recycle continuum. So I called our “Waste” expert, Ruth Abbe. Abbe is the chair of the Sierra Club California Zero Waste and Recycling Committee and was our advisor for the “Ghost of Christmas Presents” column last winter.

We think of ocean pollution as fishing line or plastic bottles, but synthetics in clothes break down eventually. And they never, ever go away.”

It was no surprise to learn that Abbe has definite ideas about how to save the earth through our clothing choices. In fact, the whole subject of textiles is now prominent in sustainability circles. According to the World Resources Institute, it takes over 700 gallons of water to make one cotton T-shirt. This is enough drinking water for one person for 2.5 years! Other resources used are fertilizer to grow the cotton for a natural fabric or oil for a synthetic fabric, as well as various chemicals used in processing and dying the fabric, and the energy for the manufacture and shipping of the T-shirt. But even with all of the energy that goes into making it, it’s not like we wear that T-shirt until it falls off our bods.

Sustainable Fashion Week International SF, gown by Christina Cree. Photo Alces Images


With the advent of Fast Fashion, manufacturers started providing low-priced clothes, made with cheap fabrics, poorly cut and stitched, and often exploiting local communities environmentally and even using child labor. Fast Fashion produces clothing quickly to sell new “looks” to consumers (that’s us) each fashion season. Garments are worn a few times and then tossed away as the next fashion cycle rolls through. Worldwide, over 80 - 150 billion garments, depending on the source you check, are produced each year.

After the owner tires of the message/style/ color/whatever, that 700-gallons-of-water T-shirt may be recycled, donated, or just dumped. According to CalRecycle “more than 1.24 million tons of textiles were disposed in California landfills in 2014. Textiles are the sixth most prevalent material type in the overall disposed waste stream and comprise 4 percent of landfilled waste.”

OK, so you have decided to re-examine how you clothe yourself. Don’t worry, you don’t have to glue together snack bags, like the talented designers did for the Earthday fashion show gown in the photo. You have lots of options.

1. Want to buy something new? Buy Slow Fashion. Return to quality materials, quality craft(wo)manship, and classic styles for your basic clothing pieces. They’ll last longer, and really, you’ll look better in them.

2. Want something unique even if a bit pricey? Look for designers who now emphasize minimum or zero waste in clothing design—whether it is in the amount of fabric used or taking scraps of fabric and creating one-of-a-kind clothing from them.

3. Want to support companies that make zero-waste part of their mantra? Companies such as Patagonia have programs to make it easy to repair, to buy used, or to trade in their clothing. When the article of clothing is worn out, you can often return it to the company, so the item can be recycled into new fiber and fabric.

4. Want to investigate manufacturing practices more deeply? Look into the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an improbable joint venture of Patagonia and Walmart aiming to improve manufacturing practices worldwide for sustainability and for social impacts

5. Want the adventure of the hunt? Get thee to thy local thrift shop — you will often find better fabrics, better work(wo)man ship, and budget-friendly prices when compared to mainstream retailers.

6. Want to have a broader selection of ‘gently used’ (i.e., second hand) clothes to choose from? Online consignment stores offer used name-brand clothing at discounted prices.

7. Want to choose the best fabrics for the environment? This choice is easy — go for natural fibers such as wool, cotton, and linen. They can be recycled into rags (see below). They can be composted. If done right, they will eventually break down and return to their natural components. Avoid synthetics such as nylon and polyester, which will break down into synthetic microfibers. We think of ocean pollution as fishing line or plastic bottles (see our 2018 articles on plastics in our oceans), but synthetics in clothes break down eventually. And they never, ever go away. Science is just now exploring the possible impact of these fibers on animal and human health. According to Abbe, microfibers have been found in the French Alps! And in wine and beer! Now, this is getting serious. There are a few microfiber filtering products out there - filters you attach to your washing machine or filter bags for your clothes. These are new products. Do some online searches and decide what is right for you.

8. Want to learn to be more self-sufficient while being environmentally conscious? Repair the clothes you own! Don’t know how? There are fix-it clinics and repair fairs. You can learn to fix a hem, sew on a button, and darn your sweaters or socks. Abbe learned darning at one of these clinics, and was delighted about repairing tiny moth holes in a favorite sweater — and her repairs were completely undetectable.

9. Want to know what to do if that T-shirt is still in good shape but no longer reflects your values (or your changing body shape — just sayin’, we all deal with that eventually). Donate good clothes back to that thrift shop you visited earlier. Go to Recycle Where to find locations to donate clothes in good condition and those shoes, belts, and purses that can’t go in the garbage company’s Blue Bin.

10. Want to know what to do once that beloved T-shirt is worn beyond repair? In San Francisco, put recyclable, clean but unusable fabric items in a clear plastic bag (sorry - someday we’ll get away from those pesky plastic bags), then in the Blue Bin. Rips, holes, single socks are okay here.

11. Want to know where worn fabric goes? One use is in cotton industrial wiping cloths. You’ve seen these for sale at big box and paint stores. Rags are better for cleaning than microfibers — and, of course, as the microfiber cloths break down, they end up back in our water supply and in the ocean. Rags are also used in shoddy pad — the underlayment for carpeting and under the floorboards of cars. Some clothing is recycled into clothing! The fabric is separated back into threads and ends up as new fabric. Learn more through SMART - The Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association.

As is often true, the simplest action is the most effective. The best way to cut down on clothing waste is to just not buy as much. You’ll save time, you’ll save money, and you’ll help to save a bit more of the environment.

Katherine Howard is a local open-space and environmental advocate.

JUNE 2019

Earthday and you - What can li’l ol’ you do to save the earth?

Earthday held its 50th anniversary celebration last month. From its birth in the ‘70s Earth Day has provided an opportunity for people to participate in local, national and international events devoted to protecting our environment. Legislation has been passed, lawsuits filed, petitions signed, and articles written on the topic ‘save the earth’ (over 1.4 billion Google search results).

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the world is going to hell in a human-woven hand basket, we can find inspiration and ideas about what each one of us can do to take a small step towards shrinking our own ‘ecological footprint’ (25 million search results.)

To find out what local environmentally-oriented folks were doing, I put out a request to members of the Conservation Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club. These volunteers are all working to enact environmentally beneficial policies and practices, but they also try to use them in their daily lives. Here are some of their ideas:

. . . take the bus as much as you can … Muni uses less than 2 percent of all energy expended on transportation in SF.”

ONE SMALL CHANGE MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE “Change out your light bulbs to LED’s. You’ll reduce your carbon footprint and save money, too. “ (John Rizzo)

There are over 21 million search results on ‘incandescent vs. LED bulb comparisons,’ but we’ll make it easy. The simple dollar website has basic charts on how much energy can be saved by upgrading your light bulbs. One incandescent bulb might use 60 watts; a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) might use 14 watts. Compare this to an LED that gives the same amount of illumination but uses 10 watts. Now go around your home, count the number of bulbs, and multiply by 50 watts (savings over incandescent) per bulb. Not only will you save energy, but also, even with the higher purchase price of the LED’s factored in, you will save money over the life of the bulbs. LED’s last a very, very long time. LED’s are often subsidized by the government - look for rebates and special offers.

BIG PICTURE “Make a contribution to any one of the candidates running for president who supports the ‘Green New Deal’ (110 million search result.) Due to game-changing advances in clean energy, addressing climate change is now almost entirely a political problem, not an economic burden. Early money is the most important money, and the race for next President of the United States will be critically important in making the slingshot maneuver needed to give our children hope for prosperity.” (Hunter Cutting)

CARS FIGURED LARGE, UBER AND LYFT ALSO “Drive less. That includes in Ubers or the like. Walk, bike or take the bus a little more than you would have.” (Vicky Hoover)

“ . . . walk, bicycle, or take the bus as much as you can — leave your car in the garage and certainly don’t call for an Uber or a Lyft. In fact Muni uses less than 2 percent of all energy expended on transportation in SF.” (Sue Vaughan)

“If you have a car, think about how you might travel occasionally without it. For a meeting in S. San Francisco last weekend my choices were 60 minutes of driving to cover the 40 miles there and back home. Or, take public transit which would take three times as long. I always bring reading materials and also enjoy looking out the window while leaving the driving to someone else. If you like to go to malls, the 122 line starts at Stonestown and stops at Westlake and Sierra Monte Shopping Centers - $1 for seniors. “Keep it in the ground” is a popular phrase in the environmental movement when talking about fossil fuels. More than 2 gallons of diesel were not burned and spewed into the atmosphere with just this one trip.” (Barry Hermanson)

CARE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT - GAIN A NEW COMPANION “We’ve just rescued 2 animals (a puppy and a kitten) from the SPCA, and we are trying to incorporate every environmentally friendly product that comes with having indoor pets. Thus far, we have: Biodegradable puppy potty-training pads; Biodegradable kitty litter; Pet toys made from recycled materials; Recyclable/reusable pet food containers.” (Kim-Shree Maufas)

Other pet hints -- keep your cat healthy and non-avian-homicidal by keeping her/him indoors. (According to a 2013 study, cats in the continental U.S. kill 1.4 to 3.7 million birds a year. They also run into all kinds of trouble outdoors.) Spay or neuter your cat to cut down on the over-population, and for heaven’s sake, don’t dump pets in the wild - take them to a no-kill shelter. Otherwise, they suffer and so do all of the other critters out there from these introduced, non-native predators.

ALWAYS GOOD - PLANT A TREE “If you have the space - plant a tree, or many trees. Preferably an organically grown sapling. Trees sequester carbon dioxide, provide habitat for a host of other species, and help regulate water flows among their many ecological benefits. Some day, if I have the time and money, I dream of acquiring a tract of degraded land somewhere and planting a forest.” (Rupa Bose)

AN EASY WAY TO SAVE WATER “ . . . A practical recommendation to save water is to use your washing machine on the ‘express’ or ‘delicate’ setting, which is half the time for a usual load (save water, save money, save time) - same for a dishwasher (for those who have one- use ‘quick time’ setting).” (Linda Weiner)

Do you run the water in the sink to get it hot? Put the excess in a pitcher and use it to water plants.

GO AFTER THOSE PESKY PLASTIC BAGS As we learned in a prior interview, only 9% of plastic bags are recycled worldwide. Look around and see what you can do. Plastic bags at farmers’ markets? Tsk. Tsk. Take your own cloth bags. Catalogs that arrive encased in “recyclable” plastic? Write a quick note to the publisher. And my favorite bug-a-boo — The SF Chronicle arriving in a plastic bag every day, 365 days a year - even on sunny days. Call them and ask, “Please do NOT use a plastic bag, unless it is raining. Please use a rubber band instead.” (It prevents blowing around.) 415-777-7000. Warning: It may take a few calls to get the message transmitted to the people who do the actual delivery work. Persevere! (Author)

AFTER WORKING HARD TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT, TAKE A BREAK AND “ . . . try to replenish your spirit every day by exposure to nature - even if it’s five minutes walking by a park (not only is it peaceful, but studies have shown it reduces depression). “ (Linda Weiner)

AND MOST POETIC “Walk in a forest or along the shore, a reminder of what we’re working to save.” (Becky Evans)

Meet these folks in person, along with other members of the SF Group. Meetings are at 6 pm on the 3rd Tuesday of the month. Locations alternate between Park Police and Mission Police Stations. Go online to learn more about the SF Group. Click on About Us/Leader Resources/Chapter Leadership/ San Francisco Group and voila!

MAY 2019

In spring, a young bird’s fancy turns to thoughts of love — and flight

Back in November, in “As the Crows - and other birds - fly,” we learned from bird expert Eddie Bartley about which birds migrate and where they go. Some birds travel hundreds, even thousands of miles. How can something so small perform such an athletic task, often with little or no rest along the way and without a Smartphone to look up directions on? I called Bartley back, and here is what I learned.

Ruby Throated Hummingbird
Ruby Throated Hummingbird Photo Courtesy of

In spring, as the days start to get longer, birds’ bodies start to undergo changes. Just as teenagers experience hormonal changes, so too do birds. Every species of bird, and even within individual bird populations, has different physiological modifications caused by hormonal change. Unlike people, birds experience the changes every year and within a short time frame. Imagine going through puberty every year!

The bird’s hypothalamus triggers hormones in the pituitary gland. Hormones affect future egg-laying and stimulate the thyroid. Thyroxine affects the growth and pigmentation of feathers. Males develop more color to impress the girls. The adrenals are stimulated; testosterone and estrogen production are increased. And the part of the brain that controls singing is stimulated. (Hey-ba-by! Hey-ba-by!)

Over 200 species migrate through the Bay Area … Turning off unnecessary lighting at night … saves the lives of these wayfarers as they wing their way over our sleeping neighborhoods.

In addition to raging hormones, pancreatic enzymes trigger eating behavior. The birds start to stuff themselves, a condition called hyperphagia (over-eating). As the bird gorge themselves on whatever they can find to eat, they layer on fat. The pancreas produces more insulin, increasing the concentration of blood sugar.

These extraordinary changes are happening to birds right now. The medium and long-distance migrants - the birds in the tropics, Mexico, and the southern United States - are bulking up for the Big Push north. They are waiting for their nesting territory to thaw out and then they will start their spring migration.

But birds can’t watch the weather channel to find out what is going on in the home nesting area. The Big Push is triggered by the photo-period, the amount of daylight every day. Photo-period is a more reliable indicator of what is happening in another part of the world than the local weather in the birds’ wintering grounds. Scientists have proven this by experimenting with giving birds different photo-periods and observing how the birds react to the change in the amount of light during the day.

As the days get longer, the birds’ sex organs increase in size and the muscles associated with long-distant flight bulk up. By the time the increasing daylight tells them to leave, birds must be in peak physiological shape.

Local weather does, however, play a part in when the birds decide to take off on the Big Push. In North America in the spring, there are more low pressure zones and the winds blow counter-clockwise. Birds will catch the northbound winds on the edges of these low pressure zones. For example, in California as the days get longer and the temperature climbs, birds will ride the winds to head north.

Fall migration is in many ways a mirror image of the spring changes. In the fall, as high pressure builds, the winds come from the northwest and the birds use them to aid in their southbound flight.

After the mating and nesting season are over, the birds don’t need the sex organs, and the organs reduce in size. Kidneys also reduce in size, because they are not needed as much during the migration.

Hyperphagia still occurs. Shorebirds can double their weight. Imagine if you went from 150 lbs. to 300 lbs in a few months. As the birds fly, all that newly acquired fat gets burned off.

In spring or in fall, how do birds find their way across hundreds or even thousands of miles of land and sea? According to Bartley, they follow a wide variety of clues due to the unique abilities with which they are born.

Birds that fly during the day can see polarization patterns that let them locate the position of the sun, even on cloudy days.

Songbirds navigate at night by star maps. Researchers have placed them in planetariums and then rearranged the star maps to see which direction the birds go. (And no, I don’t know who cleans up after all this.) Songbirds get so restless at night that the Germans have a word for it - Zugunruhe or migrating restlessness. Songbirds need the stars, and they won’t migrate when it is cloudy. They also depend on tailwinds to help them travel long distances.

Many birds are diurnal and migrate during the day. Swallows, swifts, and raptors all benefit from the thermal uplift during the warmer daytime hours.

Some birds migrate by using landmarks such as mountains and rivers. They get better at it as they gain more experience. Ducks and pelicans travel in flocks, sharing the knowledge of the more experienced birds.

Doves and pigeons navigate photo-magnetically, using magnetic material at the base of their bill to detect the magnetic patterns of the earth. This same geo-magnetism is used by salmon to return back to their place of birth.

Some birds may even be able to navigate by scent. This would be especially helpful in finding an island in a large body of water, where there are no distinguishing landmarks.

How far and fast can birds go? There are as many answers as there are birds.

A barn swallow might travel 90 miles in a day. A red knot might travel 90 miles or up to 600 miles in a day. A hawk might travel 10 miles one day and 300 miles the next day. Hummingbirds make an amazing journey across the Gulf of Mexico. The ruby-throated hummingbird travels 500 miles non-stop in an epic one-day journey.

Migration speeds also vary widely. Most birds (90 %) fly at 15 to 45 mph. (Yes, that’s miles per hour.) In general, larger birds fly faster, and all are affected by the direction and speed of the wind. Songbirds travel at 10 to 30 mph. Raptors may lollygag around or get motivated and travel at 20 to 45 mph. Waterfowl such as ducks and loons travel at 30 to 50 mph.

Wing loading affects how high and far birds can fly. The loading is calculated by a complex formula involving the weight of the bird compared to the surface of the wing and other factors. You’ve probably noticed that some birds have a hard time getting off the ground and others soar easily. Wing shape and size all affect how easily a bird takes off, how high they can fly, and how long they can stay afloat in the air.

With differing flight capabilities, it is not surprising that birds have their own preferred air corridors as they migrate.

Among songbirds, 75% travel at elevations of 500 to 2,000 feet. Raptors range from 700 to 4,000 feet. Waterfowl travel from 1,200 to 4,000 feet. Shorebirds can fly at 1,000 to 13,000 feet elevation. Bar-headed geese fly over Mt. Everest and have been seen by aircraft at 30,000 feet. These geese have specialized hemoglobin that can store higher amounts of oxygen.

Even if we cannot always see them, birds can see us - or rather, they can see our building lights.

According to the Golden Gate Audubon Society website, birds that migrate at night can be drawn off course by tall, lighted structures along their flight path. Drawn by the bright city lights, birds sometimes collide with buildings or rooftop structures. At the speed they are travelling, these collisions are usually fatal. Other times the birds will circle a lighted building until they drop from exhaustion.

Over 200 species migrate through the Bay Area in the spring and fall. Turning off unnecessary lighting at night not only saves energy costs but also saves the lives of these wayfarers as they wing their way over our sleeping neighborhoods.

Ask your company to participate in Lights Out for Birds. Lights Out is a voluntary program where building owners, managers, and tenants work together to ensure that unnecessary lighting is turned off during migration periods. Spring migration dates for the Lights Out program are February 15 through May 30.

Bartley reminds us that all this wonderful information gathered by scientists applies to the birds they have observed. Birds may be part of a flock, but just as with people, there will always be birds who fly to a different drummer.

In addition, a lot of migration is not detected by us. At the Raptor Observatory, Bartley watches birds that eventually fly so high they can’t be seen against the blue sky. Bartley suggests, “Just go out and admire it wherever you can.”

Katherine Howard is a local open-space and environmental advocate.

April 2019

Ruby Throated Hummingbird Photo Courtesy of

The Real Dirt-y Dozen

Last December in “Dishing the Dirt During the Holidays,” we interviewed soils aficionado and Sierra Club Loma Prieta Soils Committee co-Chair Anne Stauffer about soil health and how important it is to growing your Thanksgiving meal. I expect that you all sat around the holiday dinner table, digesting your food along with the article, and asked yourselves, “Well, how about my home garden? What can I do to be more environmentally aware as I garden?” It just so happens that Stauffer has some easy tips you can use for a flourishing home garden. Here are her twelve Do’s and Don’ts for great soil health for your garden:

1. Don’t Use Herbicides and Pesticides.

Herbicides and pesticides kill not only “bad” critters (aphids, snails, slugs) but also the “good” ones (earthworms, ladybugs, bees, butterflies, birds, and on and on).

What can I do to be more environmentally aware as I garden? ... Here are her twelve Do’s and Don’ts for great soil health for your garden

2. Don’t Compact Your Soil.

Lay out paths for people to walk on - every time you walk through a garden bed, you are squishing the tiny pockets of air and water that soil microbes have formed and need to survive. Yes, soil life-forms need air and water, too!

3. Don’t rake up leaves, pine needles or other debris.

OK, maybe we are too late with this suggestion this year (unless you are a laid-back gardener.) But think of your leaves and pine needles as free organic mulch! Leave the leaves. (This may not apply to roses and some other plants if diseases are present, but for the most part, this is a good rule of thumb.)

4. Don’t dig or till unnecessarily.

Digging and tilling disturb and can even kill soil fungi, worms, and other beneficial microbes. Make planting holes just big enough for the plant’s root ball.

5. Don’t use synthetic fertilizers.

Did you know that synthetic fertilizers actually harm soil health? Plants become dependent on the fertilizer, and their roots stop working with soil life-forms. The soil microbes that would naturally nourish your plants then die off or move away -- and you are stuck buying more synthetic fertilizer.

6. Do get rid of that lawn.

Try California natives instead. California native plants thrive in our soils and dry climate. Natives also support California’s endangered bugs—butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles—and therefore the birds, lizards, and other creatures that eat those bugs.

7. Do encourage fungi in your soil.

Soil fungi work with and “extend” roots, maximizing plants’ ability to draw nutrients from the soil. Mulch and organic compost help with this. See more below.

8. Do plant cover crops.

Cover crops nourish and rebuild depleted soils by adding vital plant nutrients and increasing soil aeration. Some cover crops are sweet peas, fava beans, California lupine, California barley, wheat, and wild rye.

9. Do grow numerous, diverse plants.

Stauffer says that, “the greater the diversity and number of plants, the healthier the soil.” Deep-rooted perennials, such as many native California grasses, are especially beneficial. They extend throughout a larger area of the soil and form networks with more fungi, bacteria, and microbes.

10. Do use organic compost.

You, too, can make rich, organic compost at home using food scraps, yard cuttings, and shredded newspaper. Many websites give instructions for this free source of soil nutrients. Apply the finished compost to the surface of your soil and cover with lots of mulch (see #12.)

11. Do make compost extract to quickly improve soil health.

You can use your organic compost to make a liquid extract fertilizer. Stauffer’s recipe: “Add a few trowels of organic compost to a bucket of water, stir vigorously, and promptly pour it around your plants.”

12. Do add mulch, mulch, mulch.

Apply a few inches of organic mulch to your planting beds. Leave a three-inch mulch-free diameter around each of your plants to prevent plant diseases. Mulch helps to moderate soil temperature and saves water. As the mulch breaks down, it provides food for all those underground critters so important to soil health.

As you nourish your garden, you are nourishing the earth as a whole. Healthy soil helps clean the air, holds up to 30% more water, and nurtures strong, beautiful plants, whether in acres of cropland or in your own small backyard.

Lessons we learn in our gardens show us the way to helping care for our Mother Earth.

Join Stauffer in her efforts at:

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate and a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

March 2019

Treasure Island’s Real Treasure

Our environment is made up of many small, delicate building blocks that interact in wondrous ways to create the natural world we enjoy every day. One such building block is a sea grass with the somewhat unappealing name of eelgrass.

True to its label, eelgrass (Zostera marina) has long, ribbon-like leaves that extend vertically in the water. The blade-shaped leaves grow from 18 inches to over 12 feet in length but only half an inch wide. Eelgrass grows completely underwater, but given the right conditions, it manages to flower, to spread, and to support a great many other organisms. It is so important to the health of its ecosystem that it is known as a keystone species. If the eelgrass does well, then so will the lives dependent on it. If it does poorly, then its many dependent species will also suffer.

... it is known as a keystone species. If the eelgrass does well, then so will the lives dependent on it. If it does poorly, then its many dependent species will also suffer.”

When a disease wiped out eelgrass beds along the eastern coast of the United States in the 1930’s, it also wiped out - forever - the eelgrass limpet, a small creature dependent on this one food source. That disease also resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of brandt geese - a bird that depends on the plant extensively.

This very special eelgrass also grows in San Francisco Bay.

Blades of eelgrass provide a place for Pacific Herring to lay their eggs, and then a place for diving birds to strip those eggs off for a nutritious lunch. Juvenile salmon and Dungeness Crabs hide from predators in eelgrass meadows. Bay pipefish camouflage themselves as a swaying eelgrass blade. Even the decaying plant materials support the estuary’s food web.

Eelgrass meadows catch minute particles floating in the water and deposit them on the Bay floor, slowly building up the sandy and muddy bottom. Large beds of eelgrass can absorb wave shocks, protecting adjacent shorelines.

Eelgrass is sensitive to water clarity, to changes in currents, to increases or decreases in the sediment in which it lives, and to changes in depth of water. Its presence off of Treasure Island is discussed in the Environmental Impact Report for the Treasure Island / Yerba Buena Island Redevelopment Project. Of particular interest is the Clipper Cove Marina Project.

I learned more about Clipper Cove in a discussion with Mr. Hunter Cutting, an advocate for protecting this ecological and recreational resource. Cutting has been following the Treasure Island Redevelopment Project since 2015.

Cutting is worried that the proposed marina development project could damage the eelgrass population now living in Clipper Cove. These concerns were mirrored early on in Environmental Impact Report comment letters from environmental and other groups. Last year new concerns arose, due to the revelation that the new marina and entrance channel might result in increased sedimentation and yearly dredging.

The precise impact on the eelgrass beds is not known; in public documents the developers stated that even they were not sure of the overall impact. An eelgrass expert wrote that the impacts could and should be studied. Studying those impacts sooner rather than later was part of last year’s understanding with the developers.

However, last month the Treasure Island Development Authority suddenly submitted a new proposal. The new proposal asks that the project be approved by the City before an environmental study of the impacts on the eelgrass is completed. Unfortunately, this position is also being supported by the Office of the Mayor.

You can help to protect the eelgrass and the habitat it supports. The measure has been referred to the Budget Committee of the Board of Supervisors for a vote on this new proposal. Contact the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Breed, and ask them to reject the new proposal until environmental safeguards are added back to the agreement.

San Francisco Bay belongs to everyone and should be devoted to the common good for everyone — not only for the marina users but also for the eelgrass and for the myriad forms of life it supports.

For more information, contact Hunter Cutting c/o the Westside Observer at:

Katherine Howard is an open space advocate and a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.Illustration : Alces Images

February 2019

Dishing the Dirt During the Holidays

When you sit down at the table to celebrate the holidays, along with giving thanks for family and health, be sure to give thanks for the rich agricultural soil that produced your dinner. I learned this from Anne Stauffer, co-organizer of the Sierra Club's Loma Prieta Soils Committee and the recently formed Sustainable Agriculture Committee within Sierra Club California.

Stauffer grew up in Bakersfield, went to school with farmers' kids, and majored in biology in college. But it wasn't until she read Kristin Ohlson's book, "The Soil Will Save Us," that Stauffer became dedicated to soil health and the new field of regenerative agriculture.

Healthy soil has many benefits — it stores carbon and other necessary elements, absorbs and holds onto water, provides sustenance to the myriad of microorganisms needed for plant health, and overall provides a happy growing medium for plants.

If the microbes that nurture soil productivity die, what is left is infertile, dry dust – the kind that covered the Southern Plains during the 1930's Dust Bowl .... But agriculture can also be harnessed to restore the land while solving another serious problem: global warming. "

Soil becomes healthy through the power of photosynthesis. Plants use the sun's power to absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. The absorbed carbon combines with water and other elements and passes into the plant's root system as a sugar; this sugar is used by soil microbes as food. In return, microbes provide necessary nutrients to the plants. When the microbes die, they release carbon into the soil for other microorganisms to use. This ongoing process gradually builds up soil organic matter.

Carbon is so important that soil organic matter typically contains at least 50% carbon. Walking through a redwood forest, you can feel a spongy soil under your feet. That is the result of a long-term build-up of organic matter full of millions to billions of microbes.

Unfortunately, conventional agriculture has been responsible for the degradation of much of the agricultural soil. For example, synthetic fertilizers decrease soil microbial activity. Plants treated with synthetic fertilizers don't need to interact with soil life-forms as much and, instead, increasingly depend on the fertilizer. As these soil life-forms die off or move elsewhere, soil health declines.

Conventional agriculture also uses repeated tilling, which breaks up the structure that holds soil particles together and releases carbon into the atmosphere. The carbon combines with oxygen and becomes carbon dioxide (CO2).

Soil exposed to air by tilling soon dries out, and the nutrients blow away. If the microbes that nurture soil productivity die, what is left is infertile, dry dust – the kind that covered the Southern Plains during the 1930's Dust Bowl. Other contributions to poor soil health include growing the same crop over and over, and using pesticides and herbicides.

But agriculture can also be harnessed to restore the land while solving another serious problem: global warming.

Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an alarming report that stated it would take a vast, unprecedented global effort to limit the devastating effects of climate change. Part of that effort would be to limit the burning of fossil fuels; another part would be to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. One place to store that carbon is by using soil as a carbon sink or a reservoir for carbon, a process called carbon sequestration.

Globally, over one third of arable land is used for agriculture. Think of the impact, if we can employ regenerative agriculture worldwide to increase soil carbon in agricultural soil!

Stauffer outlined some of the proposals for regenerating soil and sequestering carbon.

1. Use non-till farming. Non-till farming preserves the soil structure that helps to lock carbon into the soil.

2. Grow cover crops. Non-food crops grown during the off-season can put down roots that sequester carbon, slow down erosion, and promote better soil health.

3. Leave the cover crops in place. Leave the green matter on the surface and the roots in the soil, to decay and enrich the earth.

4. Grow crops with deep roots. The deeper the roots, the deeper the carbon is placed and the longer it stays in the ground.

5. Plant diverse crops. Crop rotations using different plants may contribute higher soil carbon and soil microbial biomass than less diverse systems.

6. Spread compost on top of the soil. Even a thin layer will enrich the soil beneath it.

7. Use less synthetic fertilizer. This encourages stronger root development.

8. Plant perennial crops. If the same plant produces a crop year after year, an extensive root system can develop.

9. Plant hedgerows. Dense rows of trees and shrubs provide protection from wind erosion as well as a rich habitat for wildlife.

10. Rotate farm animals on the land. Instead of muddy, lifeless feed lots, rotate cattle or sheep through a series of pastures. The native forage grasses have a better chance to survive and can even thrive, as the critters massage and fertilize the soil by doing what they do naturally after they digest their dinner.

Our state has started to try some of these new approaches to farming. California has established a Healthy Soils Program as part of its Climate Smart Agriculture program. Since California has over 43 million acres of agricultural land, this could result in an enormous amount of carbon being sequestered in California's soil.

For Stauffer, the changes needed for agriculture are not that complicated. Her biggest challenge is figuring out how to get people to change. Except for farmers, most of us don't think about soil — we just walk on it. And yet, as Stauffer says, "soil is the reason we are all here."

In a future article, we will talk about how you can apply the principles of regenerative agriculture to your own garden. Meanwhile, enjoy your holiday feast and give thanks to the web of life that produced it.

Join Stauffer in her efforts at:

Learn more about regenerative agriculture at:

Learn more about California's agriculture programs at:

Watch fun videos here:

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

December 2018

As the crows — and other birds — fly

We tend to think of birds as very similar, but, according to Eddie Bartley, they can be as different from each other as a giraffe is from a mouse. Bartley is a docent at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Marin and teaches Master Birder classes in migration at the California Academy of Sciences.

If you like looking at birds, San Francisco is the place to be … almost one-half of all species of birds in the United States have been seen in San Francisco. ”

This difference in bird species is especially true when it comes to migration, a stressful and risky venture for birds. We still need to learn a lot about the how and why of migration. We can deduce that the birds are searching for plentiful food, for a climate conducive to raising young, and for safety from predators. Overall, birds are like people— they are looking for a good income and a safe neighborhood in which to raise the kids.

There are many kinds of bird migration, and the type of migration can even vary within a species. Some birds migrate thousands of miles and others just hop over to a nearby nesting area. However, within a given species there is a typical pattern. According to Bartley, "Every species has its own story."

For example, the Orange-crowned Warbler lives high in the Sierras in the summer and drops down in elevation in the winter. This is an example of elevation migration — birds moving uphill and downhill, according to the season.

The delightful Sooty Fox Sparrow is a mid-distance traveler. The mid-distance migrants can move from southern Alaska to British Columbia or even as far as the Bay Area.

The neo-tropical migrants, such as the North American Warblers, can move from the northern boreal forests and tundra to Central America or even South America. Wilson's Warbler breeds in the Bay Area and then journeys to Mexico for the winter.

Swainsons's Hawk / Photo Eddie Bartley

Swainson's Hawks breed in Northern California and then fly off to Argentina for the winter.

Some birds don't migrate. They are the permanent residents or sedentary birds. The California towhee likes to hang out around home, as does the Wrentit. In fact, the Wrentit is such a couch potato that it rarely travels more than a mile from where it first fledged.

Although migration is stressful, not migrating can also present survival problems for a species. At one time, Wrentits were common in San Francisco. They have since been almost eliminated from the City (or extirpated, in bird lingo) due to loss of their preferred habitat.

Some birds within the same species migrate differently from each other. Our Anna's Hummingbird can be seen zooming around San Francisco year-round, but some Anna's fly off to winter in the desert and then return to San Francisco in the summer. Other Anna's breed high in the Sierras and drop down to the desert in winter.

Wren Tit / Photo Eddie Bartley

And then there is post-breeding dispersal. It is not really a migration but rather the kids moving out of the house to find a new place to live, court, and produce grand-birds. They won't return home, to live in that spare room. Many raptors raised in Northern California end up dining on rodents in the Salinas Valley for their first winter and fan out from there to find new territory.

And some birds are either independent minded or just get lost, usually in their first year. They are the vagrants. These are the birds you read about in the newspaper, with photos of large groups (flocks?) of people with giant, long-lens cameras gathering for a glimpse of the bird of a lifetime. Vagrants may act as pioneers, looking for a new home to extend the range of their species.

If you like looking at birds, San Francisco is the place to be. The Bay Area is located along the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migratory route extending from the Arctic tundra to South America. According to Bartley, almost one-half of all species of birds in the United States have been seen in San Francisco.

Many birds raise their young here in the spring and summer, and so autumn is when we have the most birds. Sadly, the first winter for young birds is when they are most likely to expire. Some species have only a 30% survival rate! They are lost over the winter mainly due to starvation, predation, and disease.

You can help the birds who are just passing through on their arduous journeys as well as those who stay for the winter (or the summer). Bartley advises that you can "paint your garden" with birds by growing those plants that attract the birds that you want to see. Keep your housecat indoors (better for the cat, too), provide fresh water, keep your bird feeder clean to prevent the spread of disease, and don't use rodenticides, herbicides, or pesticides. Songbirds, in particular, rely on insects. As Bartley says, "They don't call them flycatchers because they eat fruit."

Support legislation on "bird-safe" windows and the Lights Out for Birds campaigns. Many birds navigate by the stars, and artificial light can be a big problem for them. We'll cover the "how they do it" of migration in a future article.

And the crows - how do they fly? Well, according to the Cornell bird website, some migrate, some are resident, and sometimes both behaviors take place in one population of crows.

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of theSierra Club.

November 2018

Want to learn more?

Both migrating raptors and the raptor dispersal can be seen from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Marin, which hosts birdwatching during the migration seasons.`

You can reach Eddie Bartley at: eddie at

To dam or not to dam?

Oroville Dam Spillway

As we look forward to the hope of winter rains, we still have to remember that much of California is a desert. Newspapers will editorialize about how to save all that rain for use in future droughts. Sooner or later someone will declare that California must build more dams. And yet those same newspapers featured terrifying photos of the Oroville Dam spillway failing and outlined the enormous costs involved not only if the dam failed but also if it just needed repairs.

To learn the dam facts (sorry), I contacted Sierra Club California Water Committee Co-chair Charlotte Allen. Allen became interested in water issues after reading “Cadillac Desert” in 1986. She found water policy to be fascinating - analyzing big systems, figuring out how they work, and applying environmental principles to improve the systems. Allen met her biggest challenge when she waded into researching California’s water system - the largest engineered water system in the world.

... rather than dams, the answer lies in solutions such as water conservation, recycling waste water, increasing agricultural conservation, and banking today’s rain for future drought years.”

Allen is dubious about building more dams to prepare for drought. Dams are not environmentally beneficial; in fact, they often destroy stream ecology. Reservoirs lose a lot of water to evaporation, which will increase as world temperatures rise. Dams can fail if there is too much rain or if there are structural problems. If a dam fails, the potential for destruction downstream is enormous.

Allen concluded that, rather than dams, the answer lies in solutions such as water conservation, recycling waste water, increasing agricultural conservation, and banking today’s rain for future drought years.

Yes, water can be banked! Just as you put your hard-earned dollars into a savings account for a rainy day, water can be stored underground and withdrawn on a ‘dry’ day.

How is water banked? “Spread and sink,” says Allen. Let the water flow slowly over permeable soil and the water will soak into the underground aquifers. It will be waiting for you when you need it.

Yolo Bypass

One example of “spread and sink” is the Yolo Bypass. You may have driven to Sacramento on Interstate 80, passing over a long causeway that looks out over usually dry fields. The Yolo Bypass was created in the early 1930’s as a flood plain to protect Sacramento and the surrounding areas when water rushes out of the Sierras and down to the Bay. An unplanned benefit of the bypass is that the water spreads out over the open land and slowly soaks into the soil, replenishing the aquifer below. The Yolo Bypass also provides habitat for hundreds of species throughout the year. Birds literally flock to it. It has become a major habitat area both for resting and nesting along the Pacific Flyway.

But how much water can we really store with water banking? Amazingly, a lot! Right now, above-ground water storage in California is only 50 million acre feet. (An acre foot is one acre of water, one foot deep, or 326,000 gallons.) California needs storage exceeding an additional 50 million acre feet. In other words, we need what we have now -- more than doubled! There is nowhere in the state to build enough dams to meet this need. But estimates of available groundwater storage range from 850 million acre feet to as much as 1.3 billion acre feet!

To achieve this storage, in addition to bypasses, water can be encouraged to percolate into aquifers by restoring mountain meadows, creating levee set-backs, and getting rid of the concrete in river channels.

These ‘spread and sink’ methods can replenish the groundwater basins better than dams, provide more habitat than dams, save more water than new dams, cost less to build than new dams, and are cheaper and easier to maintain than dams. And last, but certainly not least, they avoid the danger of having a dam collapse and flood out your town.

There is an additional benefit with encouraging groundwater storage. Much of California’s existing ground water is suffering from over-pumping. Over-exploitation of groundwater can result in devastating impacts such as salt-water intrusion into the groundwater and even compaction and eventual collapse of the aquifer in which it is stored. Both conditions are irreversible.

Farmers in the Central Valley, who depend completely on groundwater, are experimenting with groundwater recharge. For example, almond farmers are flooding their fields in the winter; the trees don’t seem to mind, and the depletion of the groundwater can be slowed down and, hopefully, eventually reversed.

Both the State and the various groups who need California’s water recognize the problems and are working to come up with new solutions — without dams. But there is still a lot to do!

What you can do:

To learn about the range of water issues - including groundwater banking - and what you can do to make sure that all Californians can count on a safe and reliable water future, contact Allen at the Sierra Club California Conservation Committee (CalConsCom)

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

October 2018

Grim Reality - Recycling Can't Fix This

Coastal Cleanup Day is the world's largest volunteer day to protect our environment. Golden Gate National Park organizes efforts in the SF Bay Area and invites you to take part on Saturday, September 15, 2018. Photo: National Ocean & Atmospheric Administration

To gain insight into the complexities of environmental health, I sat down with John Rizzo, a member of both the SF Group and Chapter Executive Committees of the Sierra Club. Rizzo is also a technical adviser to various environmental non-profits. We talked about his work around decreasing pollution in our oceans and waterways. Rizzo had just returned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Sixth International Marine Debris conference in San Diego.

At the end of our discussion, my head was spinning from the scope of the problem of plastics in our oceans. Impacts range from the now-famous Pacific Gyre, a floating mass of garbage that is twice the size of Texas, to small bottle caps that sea birds feed to their chicks (who then die), and all the way down to microplastics, tiny partic les which are infecting everything in the world and whose impact has yet to be fully studied and understood.

As much as some folks might complain about more rules, regulation is one way to ensure not only compliance but also a level playing field for the businesses involved. Why should an environmentally-conscious business have higher costs than one that foists the cost onto the rest of us by polluting the planet?”

Perhaps the best place to start is somewhere in the middle.

As an example, let's study the life of a plasticized coffee cup from a coffee shop in Chicago. If that cup were thrown into the Chicago River, it could float down to the Mississippi and from there into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Current could carry it across the Atlantic Ocean as far as the coast of Ireland. That is, if it didn't break down into tiny microplastics. In that case it might end up on the ocean floor and be scooped up by denizens of the deep. Or algae could attach to it, and the plastic would be eaten along with the algae. (Maybe we should skip the seafood for dinner and go for the veggie special.)

What is certain is that our earth is being overwhelmed with debris, and, in the case of plastic, it is not going to disappear on its own. Plastics can not only poison and injure marine life but they can also disrupt human hormones, litter our beaches, and clog our streams and landfills.

Recycling is not going to take care of this massive problem. Even with concerted efforts at recycling, only about 9% of plastics are recycled worldwide, and that is only in the countries that have developed the infrastructure to do it. Poor communities just don't have the resources to develop recycling programs. At the NOAA conference, one speaker showed pictures of beaches in poor communities littered with plastic garbage, while the wealthier areas enjoyed pristine coastlines.

Compostable bags and utensils are also, apparently, not the answer - at least not yet. Rizzo learned that there are no standards for biodegradable bags or utensils as there are for, say, organic vegetables. Some materials break down easily, others do not. Some bio-degradable bags were even found to have microplastics in them! The conscientious NOAA conference provided metal forks, cloth napkins and china cups. Come to think of it, for all of us tired of eating off of plastic, this is a pleasant solution to a serious problem.

Plastics are all around us - a complex problem with many moving parts that must be addressed on multiple fronts, including governmental regulation. As much as some folks might complain about more rules, regulation is one way to ensure not only compliance but also a level playing field for the businesses involved. Why should an environmentally-conscious business have higher costs than one that foists the cost onto the rest of us by polluting the planet?

We can each have an impact on this growing environmental crisis: start limiting the amount of plastic we use; ask businesses we patronize to do that same; support legislation that reduces or eliminates plastics; and participate in clean-ups.

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

Volunteer for International Coastal Cleanup Day

Bring their own reusable water bottle/coffee mug, reusable gloves, and/or bucket

SAN FRANCISCO—WEST Contact: Golden Gate National Parks (415) 561-3077 or

Aquatic Park and Fisherman's Wharf

Site Captain: Aquarium of the Bay, SF Maritime National Historical Park

Crissy Field at Stilwell Hall

Site Captain: Presidio Trust

Baker Beach

Site Captain: National Park Services

East Beach and Crissy Marsh

Site Captain: National Park Services

Fort Funston

Site Captain: UC Davis SF Alumni Chapter, NPS, Parks Conservancy

Lands End

Site Captain: Parks Conservancy

Marina Green and Small Craft Harbor

Site Captain: San Francisco Recreation and Park Department

Ocean Beach at Balboa & Sutro Heights ParkFULL

Site Captain: San Francisco JROTC

Ocean Beach at Fulton

Site Captain: CA Coastal Commission, NPS, Parks Conservancy

Ocean Beach at Judah

Site Captain:

Ocean Beach at Noriega

Site Captain: Surfrider Foundation, San Francisco Chapter

Ocean Beach at Sloat

Site Captain: Surfrider Foundation, San Francisco Chapter


See our cleanup site map for this year's locations.

In coordination with a statewide and global movement, together we'll make a big dent in removing trash and debris from the environment. During Coastal Cleanup Day 2017, volunteers removed 800,000 pounds of trash and recyclables from California's coast and inland waterways in only three hours.

There's power in numbers. Are you looking to take part in Coastal Cleanup Day on a deeper level? We have tons of ways you can participate this year.

Sept 2018

Lisa Owens Viani is on a mission to save wildlife.

White-tailed kite with prey Photo: Dave Harper

A few years ago, Owens Viani experienced a life-changing moment — two young hawks that she had been observing in a nest near her home were found dead, drowned in a swimming pool. Their deaths were the result of eating prey that had been lovingly fed to them by their parents. The prey had been poisoned by rodenticides, poisons used to rid homes and businesses of pests but with disastrous impacts on wildlife and sometimes even pets and children.

Owens Viani vowed to halt this senseless destruction of such magnificent birds. She started locally, asking stores not to carry the worst kinds of rodent poison. However, going from store to store was just not making that much of a difference. So with assistance from Allen Fish, the Director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Owens Viani took the leap and started an organization, "Raptors Are the Solution" or R.A.T.S. Raptors, such as red-tail and Cooper's hawks, are nature's own pest-control officers.

The fight has been long and difficult. Poison manufacturers and many businesses have a vested interest in being able to use rodenticides extensively.

How rodenticides work

Rodenticides are mostly anticoagulants; they block the Vitamin K cycle which is needed for certain blood-clotting proteins. When an animal ingests a lethal dose of the poison, it can slowly - or quickly, depending on the poison - bleed to death internally. This is an excruciatingly painful way to die.

Before it dies, the poisoned animal becomes desperately thirsty and may go out in the open to search for water. In a weakened condition, the animal becomes easy prey to larger animals that are in turn poisoned. When a mouse dies of rodenticide poisoning, that is a primary poisoning. If your cat eats mice with poison in their systems and dies, your cat has died of secondary poisoning. If a coyote eats a lot of mice and is then eaten by a mountain lion, who has also eaten other poisoned critters, then the death of the mountain lion is tertiary poisoning. And yes, it happens - a lot. A wildlife report in 2014 stated that in the Santa Monica Mountains, "11 of 12 mountain lions tested positive for exposure and two died from poisoning, 93 of 105 bobcats tested positive for exposure and 70 died from related secondary disease, and 20 of 24 coyotes tested positive for exposure and 12 died from poisoning." (National Park Service, National Wildlife Federation Blog)

Even if the poisons do not kill the animal, they can make it seriously ill. For example, a new study shows a strong link between anti-coagulants and immune system impacts such as mange in bobcats.

How NOT to poison nature

The simple fact is that when we use rodenticides, we are poisoning the food web. We are killing the very creatures who could help to control the rodents we are trying to eliminate. Owens Viani suggests different approaches that are not only better for the ecosystem but also more effective long-term in controlling rodent pests.

The approach I like the best is putting up a Barn Owl box. One Barn Owl can eat up to 1,000 rodents a year. During breeding season, a family can consume over 3,000 rodents. You can imagine the fast build-up of poisons if only a fraction of those rodents have been chomping on rodenticide-laden food pellets. As a result, Owens Viani cautions that you talk to your neighbors first, so that they don't use rat poison and inadvertently poison the owls you have so carefully attracted to your Barn Owl box. In fact, if you live near Golden Gate Park, you might still ask your neighbors not to use rat poison, as there are often other owls nesting in the park.

Other anti-rodent suggestions include removing plants such as ivy that rodents can hide in, not leaving pet food outdoors, using snap traps where other animals cannot be caught in them, tying garbage bags securely, and keeping dumpsters closed at all times (duh). You might wonder if this really works. According to the Marin County IPM (Integrated Pest Management) guide to controlling rodents, "Eliminate food and rats will relocate."

If you use a pest control company, ask them not to use poisons — if they say their baits are not poisonous, one wildlife expert suggests that you ask them to lick the bait in front of you. That should answer that question!

With help from like-minded wildlife conservationists and over 40 wildlife organizations, R.A.T.S. now has an extensive website ( and chapters in other parts of California.

It has been a long struggle but not without rewards. Owens Viani was just inducted into the World Owl Hall of Fame.

At the end of our interview, Owens Viani stated, "I am not giving up this fight."

What you can do

Don't use rat poison! Follow the Marin IPM guide (Marin County Pest Specific IPM Plan for Rats). Write to your state assembly person and ask them to support AB 2242 (Bloom) to get poisons out of nature's system! Sierra Club has a site dedicated to wildlife protection - sign up! Sierra Club California CNRCC wildlife Committee

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

April 2018

San Francisco Estuary - love it or lose it

Photo: Eddie Bartley

San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary on the western coasts of both North and South America. For those of us new to this terminology, an estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea. In other words, a great deal of the land/water interface in San Francisco Bay is Estuary.

At the State of the San Francisco Estuary Conference at the Scottish Rite Center in October, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership presented one-time-only Legacy Awards to two people who have spent years on protecting the Bay — Arthur Feinstein and Barbara Salzman. I sat down with Feinstein over tea and bagels before a recent Sierra Club meeting. (He is on the Executive Committee for the SF Group and the SF Bay Chapter as well as the State Conservation Committee.) Feinstein has been involved in Bay conservation work for over 40 years. During our conversation, it became clear that his knowledge of both the Bay and its wildlife is, to say the least, extensive.

Every time a duck is disturbed and has to fly away, that duck is using up precious energy that it needs for the return trip up north. For those of us who have seen park ducks, their actions are a little different — many return to the same area and become accustomed to disturbances. But the birds in the open Bay do not."

The health of our Estuary is vital to the survival of water-dependent wildlife. Many shorebirds go to the Arctic to breed in summer, but in winter they return south. As shorebirds migrate, often distances of 1,500 or 3,000 miles and some even 12,000 miles, many stop to feed and replenish their energies at various sites along the west coast. SF Bay attracts the largest number of the west coast group over the migrating season - sometimes as many as a million birds over the course of a year.

The birds are attracted by the abundant and varied food supply available in the estuary. As fresh water flows from streams into the Bay, it meets the salt water that has entered due to tidal action. Brackish water results where the two meet and mix. Each type of water - fresh, brackish and salt - creates a unique habitat that provides both food and shelter for the birds.

Over 40 years ago, Feinstein found himself involved in the lives of the Bay's water birds. It was the mid-1980's and Feinstein was volunteering with the Golden Gate Audubon Society. He learned of the serious need to expand the SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Uplands. His intense interest in the Bay resulted in a job with the Citizens' Committee to Complete the Refuge. Over the course of seven years, he met scientists and staff from California Fish and Game. As he learned more about the threats to habitat, he became passionate about protecting the Bay and its wildlife. He then spent years working with various groups and public agencies in an effort first to stop the additional loss of wetlands, and then to mold new development to protect the existing habitat and expand the wetland areas.

Feinstein still finds that there is much to do to protect the wildlife in our Bay. For example, large development projects are currently proposed for San Francisco's India Basin area. The current India Basin Environmental Impact Report (EIR) recognizes that more recreational users, such as kayakers and kayak launches, could "affect foraging, roosting, and nesting shorebirds..." and that " such an increased human presence in tidal marsh and open water habitat at India Basin could affect shorebird behavior, thereby reducing breeding success. ." However, the EIR then goes on to say that since the existing habitat conditions are already so poor, and since the new development may restore some tidal marshland and add new tidal marshland (less than one acre), this will "offset any potential impacts on nesting birds from recreational users." (EIR, part II, page 280.)

One problem with the report is that it ignores the impact on ducks. Ducks are particularly sensitive to any disturbance of their surroundings. Every time a duck is disturbed and has to fly away, that duck is using up precious energy that it needs for the return trip up north. For those of us who have seen park ducks, their actions are a little different — many return to the same area and become accustomed to disturbances. But the birds in the open Bay do not. Feinstein described 'dead zones' around ferry landings and regular boat routes across the bay, which ducks avoid out of self-preservation.

Another problem is the short-term view in the EIR. We need to plan not only for replacement habitat for what is destroyed, but also for greatly increased habitat to offset past damage to wildlife populations, as well as the upcoming sea level rise. Sea level rise estimates keep, well, rising — to where the possibility of a 10 foot sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay is now being discussed.

What will be the impact on existing wildlife populations, how can we protect them and provide adequate habitat, and how is that balanced against the needs to protect the communities surrounding the Bay? These are complex issues that Feinstein has been working on for years, and will continue to do so.

If you would like to help, you can:

Write to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission ( Ask them to please consider ducks and shorebirds in the India Basin Plan and support winter closure for kayaking and other recreational activities that make it harder for the wildlife to thrive. Contact Arthur Feinstein if you would like to learn more: (415) 680 - 0643.

Katherine Howard is an open space advocate who is also on the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

December 2017

Smart housing policy must include public input and taking care of the environment

For the last year, legislators have been debating new housing legislation —both state and local —to meet the pressing needs of California's growing population. One of our local newspapers regularly features articles (and even political cartoons!) beating the drum in favor of building as much housing as possible in San Francisco.

Yes, it is important to face the state's affordable housing crisis head-on — having a decent home for everyone is critical. But as we work to meet that need, it is also important to ensure that the environment is not harmed and that the community has a say in projects that will impact them.

The costs associated with dealing with the pollution will fall on taxpayers and local governments, instead of on the responsible parties."

Creating vibrant urban communities requires a strong commitment to protecting the quality of urban life. Some of the features shared by healthy urban communities include convenient public open spaces, parks, playgrounds, and natural "unimproved" spaces. Creating these communities must also involve a commitment to preserving existing affordable housing, preventing displacement of low and moderate income residents, protecting cultural heritage, providing efficient public transit, and sheltering existing communities from unreasonable economic and physical disruption.

But when there is a lot of pressure for one set of needs — in this case housing — there is the temptation to ignore other needs. There is a tendency to say that 'just for this project' it is acceptable for the developer to ignore the need to carefully consider the impact on the environment and the local community.

One such short-sighted idea currently being discussed is to allow projects to be approved "by-right" and, in the process, to bypass environmental review now mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The California Environmental Quality Act was passed in 1970 as part of a national wave of environmental protection legislation. CEQA requires project sponsors to disclose the environmental impacts of their proposed projects to the public, to accept public comments, and then to mitigate those impacts. Moreover, CEQA empowers members of the public to legally challenge the adequacy of the environmental reviews.

The Sierra Club strongly supports the power of the people to participate in the development of regulations, plans, and evaluation criteria at every level of decision-making for their communities. Public input under the environmental review process can actually make projects better!

San Franciscans have a right to know what is going on in their city and to have a say in local planning decisions. Legislation that lets housing projects bypass the CEQA process is not fair to our community, to our environment, nor to the very people for whom it claims to be providing housing. Bypassing environmental review can lead to greater congestion and associated increases in air and water pollution, loss of habitat, and loss of yet more species. Our new community members will be the ones paying the price of the resulting poor environmental decisions.

Thoughtful city and regional planning with environmental protections is the best way to provide housing for people now and for a planet we can all call home for future generations. In San Francisco, CEQA and environmental review must be a vital part of that planning.

What you can do:

Currently SB35 (Wiener) is before the California legislature. This legislation allows local governments to ignore CEQA and bypass environmental review for certain types of housing projects. This can potentially lead to increases in air and water pollution, increases in habitat loss, and prevent the public from having access to information about negative impacts to their health. The costs associated with dealing with the pollution will fall on taxpayers and local governments, instead of on the responsible parties.

Please write to your state senator and assemblypersons and ask them to amend this legislation to require environmental reviews under CEQA.

Katherine Howard is a parks advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club. Susan Vaughan is a public transportation advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club.

September 2017