Oakland Port Expansion Moves Forward with Mitigations
The Port of Oakland is moving ahead with plans for a second dredging project to make it more attractive to larger ships. As part of the dredging some novel environmental restoration projects are planned, with a plan to fill a part of San Francisco Bay proving controversial to environmentalists.
This past summer, the Port finished a $110 million dredging project to increase its depth from 38 feet to 42 feet. With an eye on remaining competitive in the future, the Port now wants to remove another eight feet in shipping channels in a $250 million project. To do that, 13 million cubic yards of dirt, made up mostly of sand, will be removed.
The project probably won't begin for at least two years, but the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission gave a preliminary approval in October. Getting federal money to pay for the work may take longer than anticipated due to legislative wrangling in Washington, D.C.
The project is part of a larger $698 million plan to add two new terminals to the port's existing 11 terminals. The land for the expansion comes from the Oakland Naval Supply Center, closed during the most recent round of military base closures.
Seven million cubic yards of dirt will be pumped into the Middle Harbor basin, which housed Navy ships until the recent base closures. The dirt will create a subtidal habitat over a few hundred acres that should encourage fish to the area, and benefit bird species like the least tern which lives on nearby Alameda Island. The project is one of the biggest bay fill projects in the past 30 years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The controversial part of the proposal involves planting eelgrass as a way to attract fish.
Wil Burns of the environmental group Save the Bay said the grass is hard to replant in the bay because of the cloudiness of its waters. "Re-creating historical habitat is a brand new sort of thing," he said. Burns said earlier attempts by the military to plant eelgrass in the bay near Richmond in the 1980s had failed. He said his group wants to see more studies showing that the project will work.
Will Travis, executive director of BCDC, also said that growing eelgrass has not been proven to work. But Jim McGrath, environmental planning manager for the Port, said studies have been done, and are continuing. McGrath, who worked on an eelgrass restoration project in San Diego, said "There's been a lot of good experimental work in the past 15 to 20 years."
McGrath noted that a small patch of eelgrass still exists in the Middle Harbor area today. "It's sort of our model," he said. And, contracting Burns, he said the water is relatively clear.
He expressed confidence about the project, saying "although not a sure bet, it's not the California lottery, either."
Another environmental group, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, is supporting the Middle Harbor Project.
"We'd prefer not to see dredging take place," said Executive Director Arthur Feinstein. "[But] the Port of Oakland deserves some kudos for looking for environmentally friendly ways to get rid of dredged materials. They don't always deserve kudos."
Feinstein said his group was involved in litigation for ten years beginning in the mid-1980s against the Port over wetlands destruction. That litigation was "sort of a wake up call to them," he said.
Some of the fill material would also be used for wetlands restoration in Marin County near Hamilton Field in Novato and in Solano County at the Montezuma wetlands.
The project funding hinges on passage of the federal Water Resources Development Act, a bill that Congress traditionally passes every two years. But because of wrangling over the fate of Auburn Dam, the bill was not passed by Congress in its recently concluded session. The actual dredging is done by contractors hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Travis said the latest dredging allows the port to be competitive for international shipping. Its two biggest competitors are Seattle/Tacoma, which are a day closer to Asia and already have deep ports, and Los Angeles/Long Beach, which has superior rail connections.
McGrath said little of the dredging material is contaminated. The estimated 700,000 cubic yards that is contaminated will be sent to landfills or used for on land construction projects, he said.
Will Travis, Executive Director, San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, (415) 557-3686.
Wil Burns, Director of Public Outreach, Save the Bay, (510) 452-9261.
Arthur Feinstein, Executive Director, Golden Gate Audubon Society (510) 843-2222.
Jim McGrath, Environmental Planning Manager, Port of Oakland, (510) 272-1175.