San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary

San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary

by John Hart, David Sanger

With its shimmering vistas of fog, light, and cityscape, San Francisco Bay is famous worldwide—yet very little known. The bay, together with its inland delta, is one of the largest estuaries in the Americas. It is a crucial bird habitat, a vital fishery, a major shipping center, a source of precious water, a playground for its cities, a natural treasure in


With its shimmering vistas of fog, light, and cityscape, San Francisco Bay is famous worldwide—yet very little known. The bay, together with its inland delta, is one of the largest estuaries in the Americas. It is a crucial bird habitat, a vital fishery, a major shipping center, a source of precious water, a playground for its cities, a natural treasure in trouble, and a stirring challenge to our human stewardship.

John Hart's lyrical writing and David Sanger's eye-opening color photographs reveal this marvel hidden in plain sight—its varied past, its complicated present, and its promising future.

Hart and Sanger journey back through the bay's history, introducing its native cultures, describing its ecology, and tracing its urban and industrial development. They take us with them on a tanker bound upriver, to a duck hunter's blind at dawn, to a delta island when the migratory sandhill cranes come in, to the strange white fields where salt is harvested. And they tell the story of how the plucky local movement to save the bay began and evolved into a grand effort—maybe the grandest yet attempted—to repair a damaged organ of the living world.

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the generous contributions of the Audubon Society, of The Bay
Institute of San Francisco, and of the Director's Circle of the Associates of theUniversity of California Press in support of this publication.

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University of California Press
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11.25(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

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San Francisco Bay

By John Hart

University of California

Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23399-9

Chapter One

A Military Bay

There was a city, and there was a harbor.

The city, at first, was nothing much: a gaggle of huts, an impoverished pueblo on the ill-supplied northern limit of the Spanish Empire in the New World. But San Francisco Bay was something marvelous: huge and sheltered, easily guarded, big enough to float all the warships of the world. Military men saw in the bay the key to the West Coast. "There is not another good harbor," one observer wrote, "between Cape Horn and the Bering Straits."

Who could doubt that it needed defending?

The Spanish started it. In 1776 they laid out, on the south shore of the Golden Gate, their last California military center, or presidio. In 1794 they built, on a steep white bluff commanding the strait, a fortress called the Castillo de San Joaquín. Two miles to the east, at the point we now know as Fort Mason, they installed another nest of cannon, the Batería de Yerba Buena.

But the Spanish hold on upper California was never very firm. Neither the Spanish nor their successors, the governors sent after 1821 by independent Mexico, did much to maintain the bay defenses. When California passed to the United States in 1848, the new owners vowed to do better. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed an executive order setting aside for military purposes strategic lands around the Golden Gate: the old San Francisco Presidio; its eastern satellite, Fort Mason; Alcatraz Island; Angel Island; Yerba Buena Island; and the northern wall of the Golden Gate, the steep-fronted Marin Headlands. Cannon on each of these shores would deny the passage of the strait to hostile vessels.

Engineers got to work. Soon ninety guns had been put on Alcatraz; but the focus was on the site of the Spanish Castillo, now called Fort Point. The original vertical white cliff was leveled almost to waterline. On the new low platform the engineers built the elegant brick and granite blockhouse that you see today under the humming deck of the Golden Gate Bridge. With its three long tiers of gunports, its rooftop barbettes, and its seven-foot-thick walls, the fort was thought to be a formidable guardian.

The military also reached deeper into the bay. In 1853, the U.S. Navy acquired Mare Island, at Vallejo, for its first shipyard in the west. The location was deemed "safe from attack by wind, wave, enemies, and marine worms." In those days the waters near Vallejo tended to remain quite fresh, fatal to the saltwater organisms that bore into

The First Saving of San Francisco Bay

At "Paradise Park" in Any Bay City you may notice the following:

A rounded hill, perhaps one hundred feet high, with a viewpoint overlooking the water and several rather unimpressive sculptures on top.

Concealed in a draw, a small brown-painted building that oddly thrums.

A bit of salt marsh, with an exhibit explaining what lives there and how it nourishes San Francisco Bay.

A larger area of open water, surrounded by dikes, with a salty crust on its banks and quite a few feeding birds.

A shoreline path identified as a segment of the San Francisco Bay Trail.

An inconspicuous, rather musty-smelling building that, on closer inspection, turns out to belong to a local sewer district.

Put them together, and these elements make up the archetypal urban bayshore of the era since people stopped filling the bay and stemmed the amount of waste they dump into it. It is an earnest and partly successful attempt to put some public value back into a degraded shore.

The hill is a former garbage dump. Decaying waste within it is producing methane gas, which the small building pumps out. In some places the methane is burned to make energy; in others, just vented to the atmosphere.

The open water is a salt pond, part of a sprawling system that each year turns seven billion gallons of bay water into seven hundred thousand tons of salable salt.

The utility district building is a sewage treatment plant; it discharges treated effluent of a very nearly drinkable quality into deeper water several hundred yards offshore.

The salt marsh is just a salt marsh, a reminder, barely large enough to be symbolic, of the marshy world that was.

Cleaned up, tidied up, interpreted, accessible, this spot is not perhaps the best of all possible bays. But it represents a victory of sorts, for things were pretty ugly here once-and seemed on an inexorable downhill trend.

In 1960, most of the bay's shoreline was closed to the public, shut away behind buildings and (not seldom) behind barbed wire. Often for good reason. "Anything that stank or was dangerous," one observer notes, "wound up on the bayshore." That strictly utilitarian shoreline was a place of refineries, military bases, explosives factories, firing ranges, ports and airports, sewage outfalls, and dumps. It was not a place for enjoyment. Of the entire 276-mile circumference of the bay below the entrance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, only 4 miles were open to public access.

Pollution was extreme. Sewage treatment methods and facilities, though improved since the days when Oakland used its tidal Lake Merritt as a sewage holding basin, had not kept up with population growth. Raw or barely treated effluent entered the bay in eighty-three places. Remnant wetlands like the Hoffman Marsh in Richmond reeked. At Alviso near San José, the sloughs were anoxic with waste from fruit canneries in the Santa Clara Valley. In San Francisco, the inlet called Islais Creek bubbled with sulfides from nearby industry.

Except near the Golden Gate, the bayshore was not an attractive place to live. Accordingly, poor people lived there. Ironic, that an address close to the region's great natural treasure should have come to suggest poverty. West Oakland, East Palo Alto, the Bayview-Hunters Point region in San Francisco, the Canal district in San Rafael: these were areas favored by geography but devalued by society.

As for the bay itself, the parts of it not involved in navigation were seen simply as real estate. The state, which held the original title to submerged lands, had disposed of them to cities and private interests with the freest of hands. Vast sections of bay floor were plotted out into fictitious streets and lots. Bayside cities were gleefully expanding their tax base by building new land. Often they built it of garbage, simultaneously solving the refuse disposal problem. Twenty major landfills were pushing into the bay like deltas from rivers of consumption and waste.


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Meet the Author

John Hart is the author of several books, including Storm over Mono: The Mono Lake Battle and the California Water Future (California, 1996) and Farming on the Edge: Saving Family Farms in Marin County, California (California, 1992), both of which won the Commonwealth Club Silver Medal. He is also a prize-winning poet whose book The Climbers is part of the Pitt Poetry Series. David Sanger is a Bay Area-based photographer. His clients include the National Park Service, Sunset, Travel Holiday, and Nikon. Sanger was recognized as the 1998 Photographer of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers.

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