Sunday, July 28, 2013

On Pink Flamingos and Saving San Francisco Bay

The San Francisco Bay Trail is a walking, hiking, running, biking trail that circles the Bay and its estuaries.

There was a report in the paper today that a genuine pink flamingo had been spotted in the estuaries of San Francisco Bay, just adjacent to the Sunnyvale Water Quality Control Plant. Since it is a Lesser Flamingo, native to Africa, and it is solo, locals suspect it is an escapee from someone's estate. All the local zoos have counted flamingo heads and have found no pink birds absent without leave.

Didn't see the elusive flamingo, but I was reminded yet again about the beauties of this incredible region. It is also remarkable to me how California has had the foresight to preserve and in some cases restore some of the most important features here for future generations to enjoy.

A family of geese gliding along the waters of the estuary adjacent to the San Francisco Bay Trail.

For the first century of California's life as a state, all the waste and garbage of the villages, towns, and farms, south of San Francisco, was just dumped into the nearest place to get it out of the way--San Francisco Bay. I don't remember this myself, but people tell me the edge of the bay in the middle of the twentieth century was pretty much a big garbage dump and sewer outflow. A disgrace really: but people just didn't know better.

But then something happened. In 1961, the City of Berkeley announced it planned to double its size by filling in a little inlet on which it sits. Three local ladies had had enough. Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick started an organization called "Save the Bay" which not only stopped Berkeley from filling in its inlet, it led to a law that stopped bay filling entirely. And it further led to the modern environmental movement that really did save the bay. 

Thanks to their work, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission was established by the State of California to protect the Bay. My father had a part to play in this too, of which he was always really proud.

The BCDC told local cities they needed to clean up the waste water they were putting in the bay. My father, a civil engineer, was hired by the City of Palo Alto to help them design and build a new Regional Water Quality Control plan, in which the cities of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View, East Palo Alto, and Stanford University would participate. The plant was one of many built in the decade between 1966 and 1976 and these plants really did clean up San Francisco Bay. My father later wrote a thesis on the project which earned him a Masters Degree in Civil Engineering at San Jose State. 

 My father, William Ashley Chapman, showing a local student and his teacher, the design for the new Regional Water Quality Control plant in Palo Alto.

The San Francisco Bay Trail was an outgrowth of the new treatment plants since the plants had access roads, and ponds out on the edges of the bay. In 1989 the first $300,000 was secured for the trail, which now extends nearly 300 miles around this beautiful and historical waterway. Eventually, the roads and trails will extend 500 miles and encircle the entire bay. 

Looking out toward San Francisco Bay on a sunny morning.

These are remarkable accomplishments in the world today. Building things, floating bonds and paving things over--these are measurable and are considered accomplishments by government officials. Saving things? Improving the quality of our lives? These are are harder to quanitfy. 

But thanks to three wonderful ladies the world was changed: at least it was around one of America's most beautiful bays. They cared enough to make the world change. Engineers, like my father, were part of it too: nobody had built plants this big before in the middle of sensitive estuaries. But engineers knew it could be done and they proved to be right. All of these people made the world a better place. Now that's an accomplishment. 

As I searched for the elusive pink flamingo on this sunny morning, walking the San Francisco Bay Trail, I reminded myself to thank them. To Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick and to Dad and his fellow engineers: nice work you guys! 

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