Superstorm Sandy has caused coastal communities across the country to ask how they can protect themselves from inevitable severe storms and sea-level rise intensified by climate change.
The Bay Area will face an increasing threat of destructive storms with impacts like those in New York and New Jersey. But restoring San Francisco Bay's tidal marshes could help save us from a similar fate.
Rising sea levels and increasingly severe weather events present unprecedented new risks to crucial infrastructure and entire communities around the Bay Area.
As much as half of California's coast lies inside the Golden Gate Bridge, where the bay shore is heavily developed.
In addition to the Oakland airport, bridges, roads, entire neighborhoods and major regional employers are located on the shoreline. Many area residents don't even realize they live and work at or below sea level, and are protected from flooding by aging levees.
The good news is that many of our communities are right next to areas were tidal marsh can be restored.
Scientists have documented how marshes can be more effective at holding back storm surges and floods than heavily engineered levees and sea walls.
Restored marshes also provide cleaner water, natural habitat for endangered species and open spaces for urban families to walk, bike and enjoy nature.
A national study by scientists for Restore America's Estuaries finds that the fate of coastal communities is linked to healthy coasts. The scientists encourage more tidal marsh restoration, coordinated regionally for maximum benefit, and supported by state and federal policies to better protect coastal habitat.
From erosion on area beaches to the waves lapping at the Ferry Building, we can already see impacts of sea-level rise -- tides are seven inches higher at the Golden Gate than a century ago.
Climate change will also bring increased storm and wave intensity, higher temperatures and changes in precipitation that will impact the Bay Area.
San Francisco Bay is ringed by 45,000 acres of historic and recently restored marshes. Scientists report that the bay needs 100,000 acres of tidal marsh to thrive and sustain the endangered fish and wildlife that depend on it.
California's acquisition of retired salt ponds in 2003 began an ambitious effort to add 31,000 acres of restored tidal marsh stretching from the Napa River to San Jose.
In many locations, this restoration can provide improved flood protection for adjacent communities, defending us better against the threat of superstorms.
In the wake of Sandy, the challenges of adapting to climate change may seem daunting. But here in the Bay Area, we have an opportunity to respond with a positive and creative vision, building resilient coasts that preserve our communities and benefit the environment.
The sooner we take action, the less costly and more effective these efforts will be. California's newly elected leaders should seize the opportunity to accelerate bay restoration to protect our environment and our region's economic vitality. We can't afford to put it off any longer.
David Lewis is executive director of Save the Bay. Learn more at www.saveSFbay.org.