How to Undrain an Actual Swamp

Why big, boring bureaucracy is the best tool for restoring wetlands around the Bay Area.
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Why big, boring bureaucracy is the best tool for restoring wetlands around the Bay Area.

"Draining the swamp" is a not a new idea in American politics, but it is certainly the flavor du jour—a major part of the Republican palate. Like its literal counterpart, the political swamp is complex, stagnant, and populated by bloodsuckers. But the thing about swamps—real ones—is that they are incredibly valuable to people and to nature. They provide recreation and habitat, they function as pollution filters, and they could be valuable buffers against rising seas and other consequences of climate change. And while it's quite easy to drain and destroy a swamp, it's not so easy to get it back. It takes time, for one thing: There's a conspicuous absence of buzzwords like "growth hacking" or "gamification" surrounding the slow, tedious task of rebuilding an entire ecosystem from the mud up. Nevertheless, a government-led project to restore 15,000 acres of wetlands around start-up-laden San Francisco is slowly beginning to revive the south part of the Bay Area, showing how plain-old boring bureaucracy is sometimes still the best tool for the job. When it comes to swamps, in other words, it takes one to build one.

John Bourgeois is walking me through a bay-shore marsh near Menlo Park, California. This land, like almost all the land around the 450-square-mile San Francisco Bay, was once a thriving wetland. Two centuries ago, when Europeans (and, later, American settlers) arrived in the largest estuary on the West Coast, 200,000 acres of tidal wetlands formed a green necklace around the bay. The birds, fish, and plants in those marshes supported as many as 25,000 Native Californians. When Bourgeois arrived here two decades ago, he looked down at the bay as he flew in and thought, "That’s it?"

Between the early 1800s and 1998 nearly 80 percent of the Bay's wetlands were destroyed. More than 150,000 acres were diked, filled, and converted into real estate in booming San Francisco. Outside the city limits, wetlands were transformed into farms and dairies, highways, ports, industrial parks, and airfields.

Right now, Bourgeois and I are standing in what used to be a salt pond. The gypsum lies in thick drifts like snow, four or five inches thick, across a plain that stretches for a half mile out toward the deep-blue water's edge. It crunches under Bourgeois' boots as he walks into the middle of the basin. He flips his sunglasses down against the glare.

In the South Bay alone, more than 27,000 acres were converted into such ponds as the Bay Area developed. This basin, carved by earthen levees into three ponds totaling about a square mile, would have produced tens of thousands of tons of food salt every year for the Minnesota-based Cargill Corporation.

But in 2003, after decades of public pressure, the state and federal governments partnered with several private foundations to acquire 15,000 acres of salt ponds back from Cargill, including this one. Bourgeois is a biologist, and the manager of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. It's his job to resurrect the marsh on those 15,000 acres.

Arms stretched overhead, Bourgeois traces the future path of a nature trail he plans to raise over this salted earth. In another decade or two, most of this desolate white plain—a critical part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge—should be thriving. Our path today through the salt will become a trail through marsh, leading to a 9,000-square-foot viewing platform built 10 feet over our heads at the intersection of three kinds of bay habitat, according to recent drafts of the plan. Look east toward the water and there'll be a view of green-and-red speckled marsh plants in a restored tidal marsh, where birds will hunt for invertebrates at low tide in elegantly winding channels. Look south and you'll find ducks and other migratory water birds diving in a pond while bat rays flutter their wings at the surface. For now though, it's all just salt.

People discount the ability of democratic government to tackle big projects. But sometimes bureaucracy is the only equitable way forward.

This pond is one tiny piece of the full project, which itself is only partially done: About 3,700 acres are fully restored, 4,500 are in progress, and the remaining 6,800 are in planning. Although it's probably still too soon and too small for scientific proof, there are hopeful signs that the benefits are already appearing in the fully restored areas. Plants have returned faster than expected in many of the marshes. Migratory birds are flocking to the new wetlands. Native fish, in particular, seem to be taking advantage of the new tidal wetlands; Jim Hobbs, a fish biologist at the University of California–Davis who's monitored restoration at Alviso Marsh near San Jose since 2010, says he's seen threatened longfin smelt moving into the wetland year-round, and spawning in 2017. Recreational visits and hunting have also increased in restored areas, and the San Francisco Bay Trail has added six miles through the restoration, with another dozen planned.

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project seems to have begun to fix the ecosystem, but I was interested less in Bourgeois' nature challenge than in his human one. Bourgeois manages a decade-old, private-public, federal-state-local, urban-environmental partnership on 11,300 football fields of land distributed over three counties, a dozen cities, and three water districts. The project borders the campuses of some of the wealthiest corporations on the planet: Google, Facebook, Intuit, eBay, Microsoft—and decisions made inside the project boundaries have the potential to spill over into the technology titans' realms. When the government first bought the land there was an obvious challenge—how do you make this land a wetland again?—and a perhaps less obvious but more important one: How do you run such a massive project for the benefit of the most people?

"I jokingly like to tell people that, 'You give me an airboat and a box of dynamite, I'll restore the Bay,'" Bourgeois says. "That's not the hard part."

The small shoreline stretch surrounding Menlo Park is a fine example of the hard part of his job. From the top of a hill, Bourgeois and I look out over the modern San Francisco Bay shoreline. Off to our left is an active evaporation basin, still managed by Cargill. Beyond that is a tidal marsh called Greco Island that's home to two of the bay's endangered species, the Ridgway's rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse. A straight levee running out from under our feet neatly divides the marsh from the red-and-white abandoned-but-not-yet-restored salt pond. A mile past the levee, glinting under a hazy late-fall sun, is the run-up to the Dumbarton Bridge, a critical commuter link across the Bay. Beneath the highway sits a Pacific Gas & Electric substation, and the pipe that carries water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada to nearly a million people in San Francisco. Just behind the white salt pond lie the blue-and-orange squares of 1 Hacker Way, the global headquarters of Facebook.

You cannot just blow up the levee that holds the tides back, in other words, because an entire civilization lies behind it. Yet to keep the levee means sacrificing the possibility of wetlands. Bourgeois' mission is strategic destruction.

And so what he has done is move slowly, and attend lots of meetings, and weigh lots of concerns and viewpoints and comments, and then move, slowly, a little bit more.

People discount the ability of democratic government to tackle big projects, to address climate change or to think long-term. But sometimes bureaucracy is the only equitable way forward. It's not particularly elegant or cool, but no private tech company is going to sit and listen patiently to the provincial concerns of a bunch of cities and counties and water districts. No local government has the resources to act on such a scale. No homeowner concerned about flooding wants to hear about salt marsh harvest mice. No non-profit is stable enough to watch over such a massive project for two decades.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

Although about two-thirds of Bourgeois' bay-shore marsh is owned by the federal government, he is a state contractor whose job was created at the insistence of private foundations that lobbied to acquire the salt ponds from Cargill. An 11-page memorandum of understanding governs the work and sets up its bureaucratic structure: The California State Coastal Conservancy employs the project manager, leads planning, and hires the contractors. Supply-chain scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service navigate state and federal environmental-quality permitting under the California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Protection Act. The county water districts in Santa Clara and Alameda review technical documents. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides further technical study. Etc., etc., etc.

Eleven-page memorandums of understanding are a cure for insomnia. But the process is working. Because of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, there are 3,700 more acres—nearly six square miles—of wetlands in the San Francisco Bay than there were 13 years ago, and John Bourgeois gets flown around the world to tell other societies not what happened, but how it happened. Governments, businesses, and project managers visiting from Asia and Europe grill him about the structure of the project, the way decisions get made, how competing interests are weighed, how he communicates disappointments to stakeholders, how he navigates regulations and conflict. Everyone wants to know the secret to getting something so big, with so many moving parts, moving in the right direction, slow as the movement may be.

He tells them about three things in particular: public support (the environmental ethic in the Bay Area means a massive nature restoration is treated as important, and, in 2016, 70 percent of Bay Area voters approved a tax increase to raise $500 million for bay restoration); political support (Senator Dianne Feinstein, who brokered the deal to acquire the salt ponds, has shown a sustained interest in the project); and scientific support (private, public, and academic scientists have provided both the theoretical framework for where the project might go and the justification for particular elements within it).

There aren't many places in the world that need technical advice on the extremely specific problem of turning a salt pond into a tidal wetland. As such, the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project has become a universal model for the method it has developed as a science-based, culturally appreciated, politically supported infrastructure project. But the simple lesson is that government—operating in the collaborative, inclusive way we once conceived it in this country—works. At least occasionally.

"I definitely get frustrated with large stakeholder processes," says Amy Hutzel, the deputy executive officer at the California Coastal Conservancy. "But I don't see how you can go about doing this scale of a project without it. I think it's the right thing to do. I think you're going to end up with a better project."

After we visited the salt flat, Bourgeois drove me across the road, past the Facebook campus, to a fully restored pond called SF2. A trail runs out into the bay, past a series of ponds and bird-refuge islands that Bourgeois still remembers seeing, a decade ago, as design sketches on a computer screen. We hiked out on the trail until the highway roar had quieted, and stopped to watch the birds. There were thousands of them—pelicans, terns, sandpipers, and curlews—floating in the water, resting in the pickleweed, hunting on the mudflat, soaring overhead. "Six years ago," Bourgeois said, "this looked like the pond we were just at."

The tide was flowing out, and a flock of shorebirds hopped out of the pond and over the trail to the exposed mud. A dozen bat rays poked through the shallow water, stirring up food. Bourgeois pulled out his camera. The swamp is back, and it is working.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.