Nature gone: San Francisco Bay Area beach getting washed away
Rain, wind and time are taking a toll on San Leandro’s ‘Long Beach’
SAN LEANDRO — The tides of San Francisco Bay are taking such a toll on a strip of beach at the edge of one of the largest salt marshes in the East Bay that it may soon disappear.
Known to locals as “Long Beach,” it’s part of the San Leandro Shoreline Marshlands and once stretched at least 23 miles. The most recent official estimate done back in 2008 put the beach at seven miles amid development and rising sea levels.
Battering from last winter’s storms has made it even shorter: High tide now swamps portions of the beach and sends water across an adjacent berm and into a channel that separates the roughly 315 acres of marshland from the bay.
But what can or whether anything should be done remains unclear.
A place to relax
Many San Leandro residents likely do not even know the beach exists in the place that during the 19th century was called Roberts Landing and featured a wharf and warehouses that served boats on the bay.
Work to restore the area as wetlands began in 1995 and ended about 2001.
“It’s not a destination beach,” said Debbie Pollart, the city’s public works director.
Tucked behind the Heron Bay housing development at the foot of Lewelling Boulevard, the beach can be reached via the paths that are part of the San Francisco Bay Trail that cut through the wetlands.
Earlier this year, rain and wind knocked over trees and eroded much of the berm, which once provided a service road to San Lorenzo Creek at the beach’s southern end, and left a terrain that discourages passersby from exploring the shoreline.
“This is the No. 1 ecological issue facing San Leandro today,” said former Mayor Stephen Cassidy, who began noticing the beach was disappearing a few years ago while visiting to photograph wildlife. “And if something isn’t done, then the bay will completely cover the marshlands. It will be gone forever.”
The marsh is home to the secretive California clapper rail, which can be hard to spot in the slough’s dense vegetation and prefers skittering across the ground over flying, as well as the salt marsh harvest mouse, an endangered creature which has an ability to tolerate saltwater and lives in areas where pickleweed is found.
If the beach were fully restored, it could be a place to reintroduce the California seablite, a rare flowering plant that was last recorded there in the 1960s, according to Pollart.
Plus it could become a breeding spot for the western snowy plover, the shorebird that ranges along the Pacific Coast and nestles in beach sand.
“I think it’s just a nice place to visit,” said Ellen Liu, a 31-year-old San Leandro resident, as she walked a path through the marshlands on a recent afternoon. “It’s always quiet, especially on weekdays and in the evenings. That’s when I like to come here to relax.”
Abandoned concrete bunkers from the Trojan Power Company, an explosive manufacturer that closed in 1964, dot the shoreline and are reminders of sad footnotes of East Bay history.
In February 1910 an explosion at the company killed eight men and was so powerful it blew out windows at a school two miles away, a contemporary newspaper account said. And in January 1922, two other explosions on a single day killed four more employees.
High tide now creeps past one bunker, making it almost appear to be sticking up as a warning signal from the bay as the water sweeps around it.
“How can we keep ‘Long Beach?’ That’s what we need to figure out,” Pollart said. “It’s rare to still have something like this in the Bay Area.”
A problem to be solved
Current city plans include using the San Francisco Bay Shoreline Adaption Atlas, drafted by the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, as a guide to address what’s happening at the beach.
The 255-page atlas, released in May, offers a framework to mitigate rising sea levels along the entire 400-mile bay shoreline, where the terrain can vary from beaches and marinas to airports and residential neighborhoods.
The document divides the Bay Area shoreline into 30 geographic places that share physical characteristics and so could benefit from each being managed individually.
San Leandro’s immediate goal, though, is to find a coastal expert or consultant who can assess the beach and marshlands and possibly help craft a master plan for their future.
The city has already run into roadblocks: In April last year, the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority rejected San Leandro’s application for a planning and construction grant for the beach.
And in November last year, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation turned down the city’s request for a similar grant.
“There’s just a lot of competition for money,” Pollart said.
Things will likely remain in a holding pattern until an expert can make a report, she said, noting that the overall environmental impact of the dwindling beach is unclear because the bay already flushes through the marshlands via tide gates — a cycle that would happen daily with or without the beach.
“It’s not the bay water that’s the issue,” Pollart said. “It’s about, does the loss of the beach harm the habitat?”
The slow pace of addressing the shifting landscape has left former Mayor Cassidy frustrated.
“A plan for the actual work needs to get put into place,” he said. “It’s a problem that needs to get solved.”
Councilman Pete Ballew wondered earlier this year, when the council got an update on the beach, whether the city should even take action, saying the shoreline has changed throughout time and that restoration will have its own environmental impact.
“I think we need to get a heck of a lot more constituency involved as to what they want and what they see as the future (before the city takes action),” Ballew said.
Mayor Pauline Cutter suggested during the meeting adding the beach to the city’s capital improvement projects if no grant or outside funding becomes available.
A cost estimate for restoring the beach was not available. But Pollart said it could easily reach millions of dollars if the project ever gets approved.
An added environmental challenge, she said, is that the berm that separates the beach from the marshlands also would need to be restored and that the work would be different than what’s involved in sand restoration.
“It’s not just dropping rocks and boulders out there and calling it a day,” she said.