San Francisco Bay shoreline has scattered pockets of open space, with some room for coastal plant communities. Development surrounds shoreline plants, with remnant natural sites hemmed in by airports, refineries, marinas, and freeways. Still, remnant salt marshes persist within a few dozen meters of the interstates, including the reclaimed-water marsh at Hayward Regional Shoreline, immediately north of the approach to the San Mateo Bridge tollbooths.
To view shoreline plants, you almost have to drive one of the freeways, although AC Transit buses provide 51B service to the Berkeley shore and 72M service to Point Richmond, with a walk to Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline. Once you are west of the freeway exit ramp leading to Miller/Knox, you find yourself on narrow pavement threading through California and ”Himalayan” blackberries (Rubus ursinus and R. armeniacus, respectively), with arroyo willows (Salix lasiolepis) screening off some of the water’s edge. Landscapers planted Monterey pines and cypresses (Pinus radiata and Hesperocyparis macrocarpa) in an attempt to beautify the freeway, but neither tree occurs naturally on either side of San Francisco Bay.
Thanks largely to the efforts of Save the Bay, Berkeley stopped using its shoreline as the local garbage dump some years ago. After the city covered the dump site with topsoil to develop it into what is now César Chávez Park, annual invasive Eurasian grasses sprang up to cover much of the new surface beyond the mean high tide level.
In the early 1980s, restoration-focused nonprofit DAWN (Design Associates Working with Nature) planted more than an acre of César Chávez Park’s southwestern slope with coastal natives to test and demonstrate the benefits of establishing natural plant communities in a coastal park setting. DAWN’s founders included Charli Danielsen, founder of Native Here Nursery, past president of CNPS East Bay and the statewide CNPS organization, and CNPS Fellow. Some of DAWN’s successful original plantings are now mature trees and shrubs, which stand in sharp contrast to the weedy grasses and forbs covering most of the park’s 90 acres.
Below the high tide level at César Chávez Park, the landfill’s footprint of mostly exotic plants fades into mostly native plants evolved to fit mostly wet, salty ground. With the notable exceptions of pepperweed (Lepidium latifolium), Atlantic cordgrass (Spartina spp.), and Algerian sea lavender (Limonium ramosissimum), exotic plants have not muscled in to dominate where plant roots must accept salt water.
At Point Isabel Regional Shoreline and the North Basin Strip (mouth of Schoolhouse Creek at McLaughlin Eastshore State Park), local salt grass (Distichlis spicata) has taken root and spread upward into areas where volunteers weeded out invasives at or near the high water level. At Point Isabel, native California sea lavender (Limonium californicum) has moved into some patches weeded free of the Algerian sea lavender, but it may take new plantings to reintroduce indigenous Pacific cordgrass (Spartina foliosa) into East Bay salt marshes.
Yellow daisy flowers of marsh gumplant (Grindelia stricta) often mark the highest level of tidal water, but these survivors have also reestablished themselves on pockets of soil in riprap along Berkeley and Alameda shores. Salt grass usually grows a few inches shorter and in between gumplant shrubs, colonizing bare ground by its stolons. In the absence of riprap, pickleweed (Salicornia pacifica) grows in soil usually submerged except at low tide. California sea lavender is not a true lavender but rather a member of the leadwort family, raising its stalks with lacy assemblages of tiny pink flowers amid the salt grass.
Given room to grow on true shoreline soil (not riprap), native salt marsh plants have reestablished themselves at intertidal levels with little human help other than weeding. However, shoreline plant communities above the mean high tide level still face eradication, mostly because of shoreline development on the East Bay waterfront.
Point Molate, just north of the Richmond Bridge, contains the most valuable upland remnant of coastal prairie but faces the most immediate development threat of luxury shoreline condominiums recently approved by the Richmond City Council. I cannot provide any sketches of Point Molate because Richmond prohibits public access without special permission.
Molate fescue (Festuca rubra ‘Molate’), a limited strain of red fescue, grows naturally on flatlands north of the Richmond Bridge and perhaps nowhere else. Both the white and blue triteleias (Triteleia hyacinthina and T. laxa, respectively) bloom with Molate fescue in late spring, while endangered succulent powdery dudleya (Dudleya farinosa) still maintains a small population inland.
Point Molate still supports an intact shoreline watershed that begins with native coastal prairie and coastal scrub at the ridgetop. The hills drain into riparian corridors of willows (Salix spp.), locally rare California pipevine (Aristolochia californica), blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea), and sedges (Carex spp.). The riparian drainages flow onto a unique coastal strand beach. In the offshore shallows, one of the Bay’s remaining healthy populations of eelgrass (Zostera marina) serves as a major study and nursery site for eelgrass restoration around San Francisco Bay.
In 2010, Richmond voters defeated a proposal by Upstream Development to build a shoreline casino at Point Molate, only to face their city council’s recent approval of luxury housing by SunCal in the same location. However, SPRAWLDEF, Citizens for East Shore Parks, and four Richmond residents recently won an important legal victory in their lawsuit against the City of Richmond for violating California’s open government laws in regard to development at Point Molate. Instead of a condo development, imagine Point Molate preserved as open space with room to accommodate the advancing Bay of the future. To learn more, visit the Point Molate Alliance website.
— Janet Gawthrop, Field Trips Chair, CNPS East Bay Chapter