Fill For Habitat Amendment Fact Sheet

Why did BCDC amend the San Francisco Bay Plan to allow more Bay Fill to help habitat projects?

Sea level is rising and will continue to rise into the future. Rising seas present an unprecedented threat to Bay Area ecosystems and neighboring communities. The State of California has reviewed the science and determined that valuable habitats will experience more frequent flooding and average higher water levels over time that could threaten their survival. Additionally, other habitats such as oyster and eelgrass beds will be under deeper water, impacting their survival as well. To help these habitats adjust to rising sea levels and more frequent and longer periods of flooding, several actions may be needed, such as placing more sediment in restoration sites, building higher elevation habitats, or providing hard surfaces in areas needed by Bay species such as native oysters. The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) currently considers placement of material for such actions as a form of “Bay fill,” which its current law and policies seek to minimize, but which may be necessary in larger amounts to address habitat needs in light of rising sea levels.

What can BCDC do to address this problem?

BCDC’s San Francisco Bay Plan (Bay Plan) policies currently restrict the amount of “Bay fill” and dredged sediment that can be used for habitat projects in tidal waters to a “minor” amount. These policies could become problematic in the future as sea level rises and managers of habitat areas and restoration projects propose large-scale actions to help these areas adapt. These actions could include creating larger, wider levees that provide habitat benefits and area for marshes to migrate landward, adding sediment to raise the elevation of existing marshes, and creating new marsh and other limited habitats such as eelgrass and artificial oyster reefs. These actions may also provide additional benefits, such as protecting shorelines by reducing wave energy. The new Bay Plan language modifies the “minor amount of fill” policies so that habitat restoration projects are reviewed using the same measure (“minimum amount necessary for the project purpose”) as any other project that proposes “Bay fill.”  BCDC acknowledges that allowing more fill in the Bay for habitat projects could result in some adverse impacts and conversions of some habitat types to another (such as marsh to upland to allow future marsh migration), the consequences of which are difficult to predict. To address the potential harm, BCDC proposes that, where appropriate, additional habitat monitoring and plans that provide additional actions where impacts may be significant (adaptive management plans) should be developed and carried out.

How do the new policies change the way BCDC evaluates proposed projects?

The new policies will:

  • Acknowledge the positive effects of some fill projects.
  • Allow more fill for habitat in the Bay
  • Scale the amount of monitoring and adaptive management with the project’s goals, level of risk, size, and lifespan.
  • Incorporate principles of regional goals and project sustainability into the consideration of restoration projects
  • Encourage pilot projects and research to further our understanding of sea level rise adaptation
  • Allow more beneficial reuse of dredged sediment for most habitat projects in the Bay
  • Directly encourage the completion of the Middle Harbor Enhancement Area
  • Help expedite the permitting of Bay restoration

Why did BCDC decide to amend the Bay Plan to address this issue?

Recognizing the need to use more fill in habitat projects so they could adapt to sea level rise, the Commission created a Commissioner working group, the Bay Fill Policies Working Group (BFPWG). The BFPWG began meeting in 2015 with the charge of “making recommendations to the full Commission whether its law and policies regarding Bay fill need to be amended to adapt to rising sea levels”. The group recognized that several Bay Plan policies limit Bay fill habitat projects to not more than a “minor” amount of fill or dredged sediment, and the policies had constrained the permitting of a few projects. Another BCDC planning study titled “Policies for a Rising Bay” (PRB) also began in 2015. PRB evaluated the Commission’s laws and policies in light of threats to the Bay from rising sea levels and determined that changes were needed. This process also identified that the “minor amount of fill” policy restricted habitat projects and recommended a policy amendment.  During this same period, the Commission began a series of public workshops on rising sea levels. The issue of “fill for habitat” was identified as a priority issue through the workshops, and on July 20, 2017, the Commission voted to initiate a Bay Plan amendment to address this issue.

What is Bay Fill?

“Fill” is defined in the Bay Plan and the McAteer-Petris Act as “earth or any other substance or material placed in the Bay, including piers, pilings, and floating structures moored in the Bay for extended periods.” “Bay fill” specifically refers to fill in BCDC’s Bay jurisdiction and certain waterways jurisdiction (portions of large tributaries to the Bay). The Bay is defined as “all areas that are subject to tidal action from the south end of the Bay to the Golden Gate (Point Bonita-Point Lobos) and to the Sacramento River line (a line between Stake Point and Simmons Point [in Suisun Channel], extended northeasterly to the mouth of Marshall Cut [in Collinsville]), including all sloughs, and specifically, the marshlands lying between mean high tide and five feet above mean sea level; tidelands (land lying between mean high tide and mean low tide); and submerged lands (land lying below mean low tide).”

What are some examples of projects that have used Bay Fill for habitat improvement?

As part of the Sonoma Creek Enhancement project, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) placed 24,200 cubic yards of sediment and dredged to provide an improved tidal channel in the marsh to create a 10-acre ecotone levee (an area of higher land at the back of the marsh that provides animals a place to get out of the water during high tides and flooding). The project converted approximately three acres of tidal marsh to upland habitat. This action was difficult to permit under BCDC’s existing policies, which limited the volume to a “minor amount of fill.” Had this policy not been in place, the USFWS would have created a larger upland habitat using more fill, which would have provided more of this needed habitat. 

The Audubon Society’s Aramburu Island Enhancement Project placed approximately 7,650 cubic yards of sand, gravel, rock and oyster shell over an approximately 2.17-acre area of the Bay to improve habitat on a human-made island. This included creating a beach environment, promoting native oyster colonization, and placing tree trunks and other woody materials to help keep the sand and shells in place to foster the beach development. This project was easier to define as “minor fill” under BCDC’s current policies.

Other habitat projects that used fill in theĀ  Bay include the State Coastal Conservancy’s Living Shorelines Project sites at the San Rafael and Hayward Shorelines, and the San Francisco Estuary Invasive Spartina Project that created small mounded areas within existing marshes to provide places for marsh animals to go during high tides.  

What is the San Francisco Bay Plan and how is it used?

The San Francisco Bay Plan (Bay Plan) contains the policies that the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) uses to determine whether and how proposed projects can be approved and constructed within the Commission’s jurisdiction. BCDC’s jurisdiction consists of the San Francisco Bay, tidal marshes, salt ponds, managed wetlands, “certain waterways”, and the shoreline within 100 feet of the Bay. The California State Legislature directed BCDC to keep the Bay Plan up to date by amending it to reflect and address new information and issues.

Will there be unintended consequences of allowing more Bay Fill?

Potential impacts from fill include burial of plants and invertebrates, impacts of construction equipment or placement of hard surfaces on soft mudflats (e.g. oyster reef balls), the potential for non-native invasive species to colonize the site, higher levels of sediment and turbidity in Bay waters, and conversion of one habitat type to another, such as tidal marsh to uplands, or mudflats to tidal marsh. BCDC has policies in the Bay Plan that safeguard against the potential negative impacts that may be caused by placing fill, which would be analyzed during the permitting process. The proposed policies will provide further protection.

Did BCDC receive input on the policies from technical experts, the public, local governments and others?

Yes. BCDC staff and the Bay Fill Policies Working Group reviewed the existing scientific research and interviewed many restoration professionals, public agencies, organizations, and stakeholders in preparation for this policy amendment. BCDC also met with stakeholders in workshops, conferences, and coordination meetings. BCDC held a Commissioner Workshop on March 21, 2019 on this topic, which included BCDC Commissioners and staff, interested stakeholders, and members of the public. Three rounds of discussion were held that gave the participants information via topical posters and the opportunity to provide feedback on each policy issue.

When will the new policies be applied?

After the Commission vote on October 3, the amendment must be approved by the State Office of Administrative Law and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management. The policies will likely take effect by early 2020 depending on the state and federal approval process timing.

What else is BCDC doing to improve the resilience of the Bay Area’s ecosystems beyond amending the Bay Plan?

In addition to the Bay Plan amendments, BCDC is planning to amend its regulations to create a new regionwide permit for small restoration projects, and to add regulations that would allow certain restoration projects to be approved administratively without a Commission public hearing and vote. BCDC staff regularly participate in interagency efforts to improve the permitting process for restoration projects, such as (1) the new Bay Restoration Regulatory Integration Team (BRRIT), on which state and federal agency representatives will collaboratively process applications for Bay restoration projects, (2) assisting in the development of a Wetlands Regional Monitoring Program, and (3) the Environmental Protection Agency’s Habitat Type Conversion Guidance development.  Following adoption of these new Bay Plan policies, BCDC will be developing guidance documents to assist with their implementation.