4. San Francisco Bay Watershed - Background


Teacher Background
The San Francisco Bay watershed covers 40% of the state of California. It provides drinking water for 2 out of 3 Californians and is the mainstay of the $18 billion dollar agricultural industry in this state. But it’s not just people who benefit. California is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, right alongside the Amazon River basin, Hawaii, and southeast Asia. There are large numbers of specialized habitats (like redwood forests) and endangered species who depend on the San Francisco Bay watershed for their survival. All Californians should know something about this critical aspect of their state.

Historically, the San Francisco Bay is relatively young. A million years ago (very recently in geologic time), a lake filled the Central Valley and drained out Monterey Bay. It was only 560,000 years ago that movement along the San Andreas Fault sealed off the passage through Monterey Bay and opened a new passage through San Francisco. Since then, due to the melting and refreezing of glaciers and ice sheets during the Ice Ages, at least 5 different San Francisco Bays have been known to exist. During an Ice Age, Earth’s water is primarily trapped in the mountains and polar regions as glaciers. The sea level drops up to 300 feet or more and beachfront property is miles offshore near the Farallon Islands. During inter-glacial periods, the glaciers melt, refill the oceans, and a Bay forms approximately where we find the Bay today.

My students had a very difficult time with the concept of the Ice Ages. Most held the mistaken belief that during the Ice Age, world temperatures plummeted suddenly (in a single lifetime or less) and the entire Bay was frozen as a gigantic skating rink. They believed the average temperatures on a typical October day to be around negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit. They knew there were animals but believed there were no plants that could possibly live in such cold temperatures. It took a lot of coaxing and evidence to convince them that this was not the case. In fact, the average temperatures during the Ice Ages were only 10-12 degrees less than they are now. While this does not sound like a big change, this is approximately equivalent to moving Canadian weather down to San Francisco.

San Francisco Bay History The most recent cycle started 20,000 years ago during the middle of the last Ice Age. Ice Age animals such as bison, camels, ground sloth, mastodon, and saber tooth cats roamed the area surrounded by an assortment of Mediterranean plants. Around 10,000 years ago, the large animals began dying off, the Ice Age receded, and a small spike of ocean water entered what is now San Francisco Bay. 5,000 years ago, early Native Americans settled in the Bay Area. The Bay continued to grow by several inches per year. By 2,000 years ago, the Bay had filled to near its current size.

The Gold Rush has an enormous impact on the Bay. Hydraulic mining, a mining technique in which high pressure water hoses washed away entire hillsides to reveal the gold within, washed 12 billion tons of sediment down the rivers and into the Bay. Riverbeds became shallow and caused massive flooding in the Central Valley. The Bay itself became far more shallow and is now an average of only 14 feet deep. Transportation channels must be continually dredged to permit large boats to pass. Moreover, miners used the deadly toxin mercury to help extract gold. 12 million pounds of mercury washed downstream to mix with the sediments of the Bay.

California Delta

California’s Sacramento River Delta is unusual in that it is an inverted river delta where two rivers converge and are forced through a single pass rather than a traditional river delta where a single diverges into many rivulets on its final journey to the ocean.

The soil is exceedingly rich in nutrients, which has made the delta region a rich agricultural area. However, levees built around the many delta islands have contributed towards extensive subsidence. Today, much of the delta lies below the waterline and is in danger of flooding if any of the levees should break.

San Francisco Bay Satellite Image
The San Francisco Bay is not technically a bay. It is an estuary – a partially enclosed body of water where salt water and fresh water mix. While fresh water enters from the Delta, from rain, wastewater treatment plants, and groundwater, salt water rushes in with each tide through the Golden Gate.

The Bay itself has 4 lobes. The Delta feeds into Suisun Bay which then extends into San Pablo Bay. The Central Bay then opens out to the Pacific Ocean through the Golden Gate. The South Bay drains the areas surrounding San Jose and also exits via the Central Bay to the Pacific. In a satellite image, the Bay looks like a mermaid in profile. San Pablo Bay forms her head with Suisun Bay and the California Delta as her hair stretching towards the mountains. The Central Bay forms her body with her arms in prayer (“Please help save me!”) or others claim her arms reach out through the Golden Gate to the sea. The South Bay forms her tail.

This lesson is an excellent prelude to
field trip to the San Francisco Bay Model in Sausalito or before a trip with the Marine Science Institute on their fabulous research vessel, the SS Bownlee, where students can catch and observe the Bay’s creatures up close.

Student Prerequisites
Students should know what a watershed is (see
Watersheds and Wetlands activity) and be familiar with the water cycle (see Water Cycle Stories activity).