Hidden wetlands of Alameda Point

In the southwestern corner of Alameda Point – on the wildlife refuge – are 30 acres of wetlands.  They lie within the cleanup area known as Site 2.  The wetlands themselves are not contaminated, but due to protracted cleanup efforts and studies elsewhere on the site, the entire area has been off limits since the base was closed in 1997.

In May 2012, the Navy released a draft plan for covering the old underground waste disposal area on Site 2 with clean soil and seeding it with native grasses.The plan also includes a study of the wetlands on the site.  Here are some highlights from the wetlands report, and also some photos taken by a Navy contractor a few years ago during investigative work.

The wetland delineation report prepared for the Navy identified three distinct wetland and water features:

Site 2 wetlands. Navy contractor photo.

Open Water/Mudflat – Open water/mudflat is found in two large ponds, the North Pond and the South Pond.

The North Pond is connected to San Francisco Bay by a 36-inch-diameter culvert that penetrates the perimeter berm and seawall.  “The culvert appears to be appropriately sized to allow full tidal exchange on a diurnal basis, as the tidal wetland drains and fills completely twice a day,” according to the report.

Of the South Pond, the report said, “Most of this pond is either shallow standing water or mudflats, with a fringe of pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) forming the transitional plant community between the mudflats and nearby uplands.  Freshwater seasonal pond and transitional mudflat habitats such as this have been identified in the Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Project (SFEI 2001) as rare and important habitat components.”

The Navy’s summary of the wetlands report goes on to say, “The South Pond and mudflat matrix is high-value habitat in that it offers high tide refugia for wading shorebirds, and low tide refugia for ducks and geese. Because pond water surface elevations in this area are maintained by groundwater and precipitation, they do not fluctuate on a diurnal basis as they do in the northern (tidal) pond. Since this area normally has both mudflats and open water, it is available as foraging habitat year-round. At the time of the reconnaissance survey in late October [2011], an estimated 500 birds representing at least eight species were observed foraging in this pond and mudflat.”

Seasonal wetlands – One area on the north side of the site is considered low quality and will be covered by the soil cap.  The lost wetland acreage will be replaced at other locations on the site.  At the south end of the site is another seasonal wetland.

Tidal wetlands are found surrounding the North Pond that is connected to San Francisco Bay.

Seasonal wetlands, Site 2, Alameda Point. Navy contractor photo.
Site 2 wetlands, Alameda Point, southwestern corner. Navy contractor photo.
Wetland Mitigation Plan Proposed Site 2. Navy graphic.
Wetland Mitigation Plan Proposed Site 2, with legend. Navy graphic.

Scenic Alameda Point wildlife refuge section to be off limits with security fence

Alameda Point with the Port of Oakland on the left. Yellow outline shows Site 2 cleanup area. Green outline shows area where waste is buried. All but the wetlands in the bottom right corner of yellow area will be covered with clean soil. Fence and gates will be on landward sides of yellow border. Photo-graphic credit: US Navy.

Even after all the cleanup work is completed, the Navy proposes to put a permanent chainlink fence topped with barbared wire around a scenic shoreline section of the wildlife refuge at Alameda Point.

“Good grief!  If a fence is needed, will Site 2 be clean enough for our community?” Leora Feeney, co-chair of the Audubon Society’s Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, said upon first learning about the fence.   

The Navy used the site for underground waste disposal from 1956 to 1978.  According to representatives at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the permanent fence has nothing to do with human health risks at the site.

According to the answer that the regulatory agencies provided collectively, “Potential human health exposure is unlikely to occur during recreational use on top of the soil cover such as walking or sitting.”  The soil cover will be seeded with native grasses.

The fencing is aimed at reducing maintenance costs for the new landowner, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).   “While the fence is not mandatory and recreational use without soil cover disturbance will not pose a risk to human health or the environment, the ongoing management of the protective cover in an area with public use without more direct supervision will increase risks and costs,” representatives from the agencies jointly stated.  

The VA’s annual expense for operating, maintaining, monitoring, and compliance reporting for the cleanup site, without added supervision, is pegged at $101,715, according to an advisory paragraph in the work plan.  ”There are numerous groundwater monitoring wellheads and landfill gas probes that require security to maintain monitoring integrity,” regulators stated. 

The Navy’s plans indicate that access to the shoreline trail will remain open.  But according to the regulators, “The perimeter road should have gates.  This concern will be clarified with the Navy.”

A view that will be off limits to the public if security fence is installed.
Photo by Eleanor Briccetti

The security fence, which will be inside the fenced off refuge area, departs from longstanding expectations for the refuge. Ironically, the off-limits wetlands area at this site is showcased on an Audubon Society brochure about the refuge.  Docent and ranger-led bird watching and nature walks have been part of the expected uses at the wildlife refuge since the mid-1990s.

By 1998, the US Fish & Wildlife Service had drafted its guiding document for creating the Alameda National Wildlife Refuge.  It envisioned supervised activity.  It was to be run in the same manner as other refuges, with controlled and monitored use, two law enforcement officers, and a cooperative agreement with the East Bay Regional Park District “to augment [Fish & Wildlife] Service efforts.”  Talks between the Fish & Wildlife Service and the Navy collapsed around 2004 over cleanup issues.

The shoreline restrictions imposed by the fence and gates are also at odds with the San Francisco Bay Plan, which is administered by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.  While permits are not required for federal projects, the official “Record of Decision” for this cleanup site states that plans will be in accord “with substantive provisions of the San Francisco Bay Plan.”  One of the keystones of the Bay Plan is maximum feasible shoreline public access.   “The city is discussing the provisions of remedial design for Site 2 with the Navy to support a future perimeter trail around the shoreline of the fed-to-fed parcel, which the city is strongly committed to,” said Jennifer Ott, Chief Operating Officer for Alameda Point.

Another of the Bay Plan’s guidelines avoids undesirable visual impacts on the shoreline.  One of the details in the work plan calls for 30 ten-foot tall, four-inch diameter, white PVC soil gas vent pipes for methane gas.  This array of pipes will be visible from the outside seating areas behind beverage purveyors on Monarch Street such as St. George Spirits.  “The city and Navy will discuss ways to minimize the visual impact of any new and/or replacement pipes, including the possibility of reducing their height,” Ott said.

Releasing methane into the environment has 21 times the greenhouse gas impact as burning it and turning it into carbon dioxide.  The city currently burns off the methane gas produced at the city’s old municipal dump, Mt. Trashmore.

Public comments on the draft Remedial Action Work Plan for Site 2 will be accepted by the Navy until Monday, July 9.  Responses to comments and a finalized plan will be announced in August.  A copy of the plan is available in the information repository in City Hall West, 950 West Mall Square at Alameda Point.  A rare opportunity to visit the site will take place on Saturday, June 23, when the Navy hosts the annual site tour.  To comment, or to sign up for the tour, contact the Navy’s Environmental Coordinator Derek Robinson at derek.j.robinson1@navy.mil.

 Site 2 details

The 110-acre cleanup site lies on the southwestern corner of Alameda Point within the 549-acre wildlife refuge, and includes 30 acres of wetlands and the 60-acre disposal area. 

Remedial work at the site is expected to commence in the fall of 2012 and be completed by summer 2013.  As a base layer for the soil cap, the Navy will use some 75,000 cubic yards of soil that it dredged from the Seaplane Lagoon and deemed clean enough for reuse.  The Navy will then barge between 400,000 and 600,00 cubic yards of clean soil from Decker Island in the Sacramento River near the town of Rio Vista.  The Navy says this will save at least 22,000 semi-truck trips.

The work plan document allays longstanding fears about underground toxic chemicals leaching into the Bay.  According to groundwater monitoring results in 2011, and comparing them to 16 years of data, all chemicals of concern are below risk levels and either stable or trending downward.  The plan includes the option of eliminating the groundwater monitoring wells in five years.

“Overall, the Navy believes that the soil cover remedy for IR Site 2 is directly compatible with the anticipated future reuse of the site.”

Navy, in Record of Decision, 2010

Protecting the California Least Terns at the Alameda Point Wildlife Refuge

Volunteers distributing oyster shells on nesting site in April 2012

The California Least Terns are arriving back at Alameda Point’s wildlife refuge to lay their eggs and raise their young.  The volunteers, who help maintain the site, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologist responsible for the tern colony, have never left.  They carry out maintenance tasks during the non-nesting season – September to early April – as well as help monitor bird behavior during the nesting season.

California Least Tern, with chick under tile, at Alameda Point

The California Least Terns return to California every April from Central America.  The old Navy runway area at Alameda Point is among the limited number of sites where these endangered birds come to nest.  Driven to adapt to a loss of undisturbed beach habitat, they began nesting at Alameda Point decades before the Naval Air Station closed in 1997.

While Navy jets would be disturbing for humans to live next to, for the terns the movement of the jets was predictable and easy to avoid.  That’s not the case on an increasing number of beach areas where people and pets can easily trample eggs in the sand and frighten the adult birds.

The Alameda Point colony is considered the most successful for this bird.  It is believed that the success at Alameda Point has led to new colonies elsewhere in California.

Looking south on a rainy day in April 2012 on the Alameda Point nesting site for CA Least Terns
Oyster shells on Alameda Point nesting site for CA Least Terns

Volunteers are recruited by the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, a committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.  Activity at the Least Tern nesting site started ramping up in January this year as it always does, with guidance from the USFWS biologist.  Volunteers perform tasks such as removing weeds, repairing the mesh barrier that keeps chicks from wandering off or getting injured in the chain link fence around the nesting site, and distributing oyster shells to confuse hawks and other flying predators that often circle overhead during the nesting season.

Every year the US Fish & Wildlife Service re-positions all of the numbered cinder blocks that establish a grid pattern for recording bird behavior.  The blocks, along with all the other “tern furniture” – wooden A frames and clay tile that chicks shelter under and in, oyster shells, driftwood – are gathered up and set to the side after the nesting season.  This allows for easier weed control and for the sand and gravel surface to be graded.

The grid blocks are placed into position using a global positioning system for complete accuracy.  When Tern Watch volunteers or the Fish & Wildlife biologist observe activity, they record the data according to a grid letter/number.  Without a grid system, it would be difficult to record accurate data for hundreds of eggs and chicks, i.e., did a predator steal an egg last night, or is that the nest that had only one egg?

This year there are two training sessions for the Tern Watch program.

The public is invited to take a bus tour to the site on June 16th.  The annual event is hosted jointly by USFWS and the East Bay Regional Park District.  The bus tours leave from the Crab Cove Visitors Center in Alameda.  Advance registration is required and is handled through the park district.  (See comment below.)

Environmental law group comments on city/VA/East Bay Park District proposal

Alameda Point Open Space:  East Bay Regional Park District’s Emerging Role and Where to Locate the VA Outpatient Facility

Boardwalk through proposed wetlands

Golden Gate University’s Center on Urban Environmental Law (CUEL) recently sent a letter to Robert Doyle, General Manager of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD); John Russo, Alameda City Manager; and Larry Janes, Capital Assets Manager for the Veterans Administration Sierra Pacific Network commenting on the ongoing discussion about the location of a VA outpatient clinic at Alameda Point and the management of open space.

In the letter signed by co-director Paul Kibel, he states that a “more expansive role for EBRPD at Alameda Point aligns well and advances several of the proposals in CUEL’s September 2011 Flight Park BookletFirst, consistent with the Hannover Principles on Land Use, granting EBRPD authority to manage open space on both the City and federal portions of Alameda Point will help ensure that such management is based on integrated protection of habitats and viewsheds rather than arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries.”

“Second, and once again consistent with the Hannover Principles, allowing EBRPD to plan open space at Alameda Point on this broader geographic scale will facilitate the creation of self-regulating and self-adjusting habitats and landscapes (that require less maintenance costs down the road).”

Perimeter boardwalk (Bay Trail) through park

“Third, the appointment of one qualified agency (EPRPD) to coordinate and oversee all the wetlands at Alameda Point will help streamline the process for establishing a conservation mitigation bank to fund the design, enhancement and expansion of wetlands resources throughout the entire Alameda Point acreage.”

Unresolved issues – alternative site recommendation

Highlighted parcel at Alameda Point that was offered to the Berkeley Lab for a second campus. USS Hornet and Seaplane Lagoon to the left.

While supportive of locating a VA facility at Alameda Point, CUEL questions the wisdom of locating the VA building facilities on the Northwest Territories due to view impairment, earthquake seismic safety, traffic, and transit accessibility concerns.  They suggest an alternative site:  The one that the city was offering to the Berkeley Lab for its Second Campus. 

March 28, 2012 letter from Center on Urban Environmental Law 

CUEL Flight Park Booklet

Alameda Point Map

Related stories:  

“Landmark Destination Park System for Alameda Point.”

“Wetlands, Trails, Natural Habitat Concept Drawings for Alameda Point.”

“Alameda Wildlife Refuge committee touts benefits of VA/parkland deal.”

“East Bay Regional Park District Spearheads City/VA Parkland Deal.”

“Greenspace Becomes Us.”

Alameda Wildlife Refuge committee touts benefits of VA/parkland deal

CA Least Tern nesting site at Alameda Point Wildlife Refuge

The following was prepared by Leora Feeney, co-chair of  “Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge,” a committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Delivered to the Alameda City Council on Monday, March 19, 2012, regarding the city-VA-park district proposal being considered for Alameda Point.  

Alameda Point Collaboration


Veterans Health and Memorial Facilities

CA Least Tern Colony

Nature and Wildlife

Passive Open Space

Unsurpassed Inner-City Views and Experience

Subject:  East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) proposal for Northwest Territories

Benefits to the City of Alameda

Preserves city resources – The proposal will help defer considerable Alameda Point related costs and responsibility to the city, already having multiple difficult challenges.

Meets land use challenges – The land is not suitable for uses beyond open space and water-related uses.  Current wetlands will require mitigation.  Several issues surround this property that will meet challenges with most development proposals.

Enhances Alameda’s identity – Alameda’s military history, well-recognized wildlife history and resources, and East Bay shoreline location make this project the perfect fit to further enhance Alameda’s identity.

Realizes payoff from stakeholder investments – Consider stakeholders’ investments that also benefit Alameda:

  • The VA has spent millions of dollars to move their city-supported project forward.  The proposal would allow them to see an end to conflicts that have stalled this investment.  Alameda would finally become the home to the VA’s Health and Memorial complex.
  • The City of Alameda has also invested time and thought to uphold a position that supports the VA facility and that endangered wildlife at Alameda Point are to have top priority.
  • The Navy and Fish & Wildlife Service have invested time and money to maintain endangered wildlife species.
  • EBRPD has spent time and money to develop a plan that would resolve difficulties in a way that would meet several positive goals.
  • Golden Gate Audubon Society since the 1980s and Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge (FAWR) since 1997 have been steadfast supporters of endangered California Least Terns at The Alameda Naval Air Station, later Alameda Point, ensuring continuous success of the colony.  FAWR also provides annual elementary school Least Tern education at Alameda Schools.
  • Others, like the Center for Urban Environmental Law (CUEL) at Golden Gate University, have worked to develop their Greenspace proposal for this beautiful location.

Initiates Park District investment – To design and carry out the project will require an investment of many millions of dollars.  The city will benefit from this investment by EBRPD.

Enhances property values – Several studies show that wildlife refuges and natural areas increase values to nearby properties.

Attracts investors – The project will attract investors, spurring Alameda Point development.

Strengthens tenant relations – Current tenants will appreciate that habitat management will have a broader plan and operation.

Attracts tourism – The project – a San Francisco Bay destination point – will be a draw to local, state, national, and even world tourists.

Brings local spending – The site will attract many welcome and diverse activities (photography, birding, hiking) that will benefit local merchants.

Adopts a workable solution – This is the only solution available that will allow both CA Least Terns and the VA project to coexist as adjacent Alameda neighbors.

Satisfies community priorities – The project satisfies a strong wish of the public for natural areas and open space expressed during Alameda Point-Going Forward meetings held in 2010-2011.

Creates inner-city showcase – The site will serve the community and others as a unique opportunity for inner-city nature experience and education.

Enhances parks-to-resident ratio – Alameda’s Park Master Plan Summary (Draft, p. 25) states that the park-acreage-to-residents ratio is low (2 acres to 1000 residents; standard for CA cities is 3 to 6 acres/1000).  This proposal would improve the ratio considerably.

Aligns with park master plan – The draft Park Master Plan also states (p. 37), “Alameda Point is anticipated to be the location for passive parks operated by EBRPD.”

Builds on existing park district partnership – EBRPD has been a good partner managing Crown Beach, relieving Alameda of difficult tidal shoreline and beach management.  We can count on them for similar assistance at Alameda Point.

In conclusion:  The CA Least Tern colony can’t be moved, and the VA facility can.  The willingness of this unusual collaboration of stakeholders to work together is a testament to the importance of the project.  It is rare and refreshing to see that people with diverse goals have the ability to work together to find a solution that satisfies multiple valued needs in difficult times.  With the acceptance of this proposal Alameda will be a giant step closer to moving Alameda Point toward a promising future. We must not let this opportunity escape. The alternative would be tragic, a prolonged stalemate and unknown future.  Alameda’s City Council can make this work.  It will be a historical decision.

Read more about this issue here.

Least Tern chick and adult - Summer 2011