Ferry agency, volunteers help the least terns

Three thousand tons of sand was added to the nesting grounds for the least terns at Alameda Point in late February and early March. In the weeks that followed, volunteers from St. George Spirits and the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts came out to help make the site ready for the arrival of the terns in mid-April.

Sand being delivered to the least tern nesting grounds at Alameda Point on February 25, 2016. Bay Bridge in the background.
Sand being delivered to the least tern nesting grounds at Alameda Point on February 25, 2016. Bay Bridge in the background.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) paid for enough sand to cover half of the 9.6-acre nesting area with three inches of sand, as well as for grading. The weeklong delivery of sand was a conservation mitigation requirement for the impact that WETA’s new ferry maintenance facility will have on the terns’ feeding area. As many as 12 ferries will make up to four passes per weekday through the Alameda Point Channel where the terns frequently dive for small fish.

Wind and water erosion take their toll on the sand substrate lying atop old airfield taxiway pavement, requiring periodic replenishment. This latest delivery of Angel Island coarse sand has built up the sand depth on much of the site to the point that it’s starting to feel like a real beach underfoot. Beaches are the traditional nesting habitat for terns. Continue reading “Ferry agency, volunteers help the least terns”

Seaplane Lagoon ferry service in limbo

The new residential and commercial developer at Alameda Point has set aside $10 million toward the construction of a passenger ferry terminal at the Seaplane Lagoon. The Bay Area’s ferry agency – the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) – however, has made it clear there is currently no funding to operate a ferry there.

WETA “will entirely exhaust its available operating subsidies on an annual basis, relying upon projected increases in ridership and fares to cover increasing operating costs for existing services,” stated a draft 10-year Short Range Transit Plan that WETA issued in January for public comment. “WETA’s ability to increase service levels and meet future demand for ferry service will be restricted until new regional or local sources of operating subsidy are secured,” the draft stated.

Ferry passengers boarding at the Alameda Main Street Terminal bound for San Francisco. The popular Main Street Terminal at the north side of Alameda Point on the Oakland Estuary will continue in operation, even if new ferry service comes to the Seaplane Lagoon. Parking here will be expanded in mid-2016.
Ferry passengers boarding at the Alameda Main Street Terminal bound for San Francisco. The popular Main Street Terminal at the north side of Alameda Point on the Oakland Estuary will continue in operation, even if new ferry service comes to the Seaplane Lagoon. Parking here will be expanded in mid-2016.

WETA’s revenue picture is more limited than other regional transit agencies, such as BART. In WETA’s case, half of its operations funding comes from fares. Most of the other half — $15.3 million — comes from bridge tolls through Regional Measure 2, which was passed in 2005 adding a $1 bridge toll. A Harbor Bay parcel assessment funds 10 percent of the Harbor Bay service.  Continue reading “Seaplane Lagoon ferry service in limbo”

Harbor seal dock, ferry depot plans on track

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) is aiming for the delivery of a new dock for harbor seals at Alameda Point as early as April, ahead of the start of construction of its new ferry maintenance facility this summer.

Harbor seals on old dock

Because the maintenance facility’s new berthing dock would displace the seals’ current resting spot, a provision was approved for a new harbor seal dock as a condition for permitting the new facility. WETA, the city council, and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) approved the provision at the urging of community activists.

WETA issued design specifications for its 12-berth maintenance facility and administrative offices to prospective contractors in December. It expects to award the contract on March 31, with work commencing as soon as May 6. The estimated cost is pegged at $45 million, $9 million of which is for design work and the remaining $36 million going for construction, according to Chad Mason, senior planner at WETA. Funding for the project is coming from federal, state, and regional funds.

The facility will include a 70-foot-tall four-story building and is expected to be complete in 2018.

The project will also fund other benefits, among them, a new water line from Main Street, park enhancements, and sand for the least tern nesting area on the airfield.

WETA artist's drawing - Alameda Point

WETA will construct a shoreline viewing terrace, bicycle parking, interpretive signage, improved lighting and landscaping, and seating on an adjacent half-acre of parkland on West Hornet Avenue.

WETA will also be providing some assistance for the California least terns, an endangered bird species that nests at Alameda Point and dives for fish in surrounding waters. As a mitigation for the impacts of the new ferry traffic on the terns’ foraging waters, WETA will be delivering enough truckloads of sand to the terns’ nesting area on the airfield in February to add a few inches of depth. Erosion of the 9.6-acre beach-like nesting landscape necessitates periodic replenishment.

The replacement harbor seal dock, also referred to as a haul-out, will be the first time such a structure has been built on San Francisco Bay specifically to retain or attract harbor seals. It will be located a short distance to the east of the old dock. Time will tell whether this experimental effort is successful.

Young harbor seals Alameda Point Dec. 30, 2015

“Meeting the permitting requirements for the new harbor seal haul-out is underway,” said Mason. BCDC is the state permitting agency for all Bay shoreline and in-water projects. It requires assurances from other agencies that the harbor seal dock does not introduce any unwanted environmental impacts before granting approval.

“With the help of the environmental consulting firm Dudek, the harbor seal haul-out is on a fast-track approval timeline,” said Mason. “The only regulatory delay is due to the herring spawning season. Regulations require that the pilings for the new haul-out be installed after the end of the herring spawning season in late March of 2016.”

Harbor seals near the old dock in December 2015.
Harbor seals near the old dock in December 2015.

“We are currently reviewing two options for providing the new harbor seal haul-out: Build a new one from scratch, or modify an existing mobile dock if we can find one that meets our needs,” said Mason. “We hope to issue the contract for the haul-out in January.” WETA will be responsible for constructing, maintaining and replacing the harbor seal dock when necessary for the 60-year term of its lease.

WETA has been working with a citizen advisory group of local harbor seal advocates who spearheaded the effort for the new haul-out. The group gained the support of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. The location for the new seal dock was chosen with the help of marine mammal expert Dr. Jim Harvey, Director of California State Universities’ Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

Alameda Point south with harbor seal haul-out

This winter, the seals favor the afternoon for getting out of the water. Their numbers can vary from a dozen to a recent high of over three dozen. It is the only haul-out site in the East Bay between Yerba Buena Island and the marshlands of Fremont and Newark near the Dumbarton Bridge, both of which require watercraft for public viewing access. The seals at Alameda Point can be viewed from the Bay Trail.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

Additional photos and video

Harbor seals using old plank for hauling out.
Harbor seals using old plank for hauling out.
Harbor seal near old dock in December 2015.
Harbor seal near old dock in December 2015.
Two harbor seals diving together near the old dock in December 2015.
Two harbor seals diving together near the old dock in December 2015.

Main Street Ferry Terminal getting more parking, no buses

Ferry commuters driving to the Main Street Ferry Terminal will find a new parking lot option this fall, pending timely work plan approvals by the city.

Since 2013, passenger boardings have increased by over 50 percent at the Main Street ferry terminal, far exceeding the capacity of the parking lot. Commuters have been filling up an adjacent unpaved parcel next to the dog park, as well as the shoulders of Main Street.

Ferry riders leaving the Main Street Ferry Terminal in the background and walking toward makeshift parking lot.  Dog park is on the right.
Ferry riders leaving the Main Street Ferry Terminal in the background and walking toward makeshift parking lot. Dog park is on the right.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) initiated a ferry terminal access study for the Main Street and Harbor Bay terminals in 2014. They have been discussing access improvements with city staff, the Transportation Commission, and the community.

As a result of the dialogue, the city has offered the use of the nearby O’ Club parking lot, across the street from the terminal, to WETA through a license agreement. The lot is currently used to park city vehicles.

O Club parking lot.  Main Street to the left.
O Club parking lot. Main Street to the left.

At its June 4 meeting, the WETA board of directors approved spending $250,000 to make improvements, in exchange for free use of the lot. WETA will resurface and stripe the lot, construct ADA-compliant walkways that lead to a new crosswalk that WETA will also construct across Main Street.

The crosswalk will connect with an existing paved pathway on the western end of the main parking lot. An existing vehicle entryway on Main Street will become the entrance to the O Club lot.

Main Street entrance to O Club parking lot.  Oakland Estuary and arriving ferry on the left.
Main Street entrance to O Club parking lot. Oakland Estuary and arriving ferry on the left.

“In terms of the mid-term improvements at Main Street, the city has let us know that the dog park cannot be converted to parking until a replacement at Estuary Park is open,” said Kevin Connolly, WETA’s manager of Planning & Development. The new home for the dog park at Estuary Park on Mosley Avenue between Singleton Avenue and Alameda Landing is tied to the availability of funds for the second phase of the park. Those funds will be secured through a combination of developer fees and grants.

The first phase, four acres of sports fields, is expected to begin in 2016. The four acres of the second phase is designed as a community park space with restrooms, playgrounds, picnic areas, basketball courts, open lawn, and a dog park with sections for big dogs and small dogs.  

Close-up of community park section of Estuary Park, with dog park located in upper portion.
Close-up of community park section of Estuary Park, with dog park located in upper portion.

WETA was working with AC Transit to re-introduce bus service to the terminal. However, Connolly said that AC Transit recently scuttled plans for a Line 50 that would have carried passengers in a loop around the Island City to the Main Street ferry terminal. The city learned of this last Wednesday. In explaining its decision, AC Transit told Connolly that when it ran buses to the ferry terminal in 2009 “nobody rode them.”

Connolly points out that in 2009 the ferry carried 350 passengers a day with hourly departures. Today the ferry provides service to some 1,800 passengers with departures every 30 minutes. AC Transit also told Connolly that the bus service was not feasible because WETA does not charge for parking. Connolly questioned that criterion, pointing out that South Shore Center and other shopping malls do not charge for parking and AC Transit serves South Shore Center and these other malls.

“WETA is disappointed that AC Transit cannot see that demand warrants local bus service at the Main Street Terminal,” Connolly said. He added that AC Transit’s proposal would have offered ferry riders more choice in how they get to the terminal.

With parking relief in the pipeline, WETA plans to focus on more non-auto options for getting riders to and from the ferry terminal. “The implementation of an overflow parking lot, in addition to future improvements for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access are vitally important in terms of WETA’s ability to continue accommodating future ridership demand at the Main Street ferry terminal,” said Nina Rannells, WETA’s executive director, in a June 4, 2015 staff report.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

Additional notes:

Measure BB: Voters approved Alameda County Transportation Commission’s Sales Tax, Measure BB on November 4, 2014. It’s priorities are to expand mass transit, improve highway infrastructure, improve local streets and roads, improve bicycle and pedestrian safety, and expand special transportation for seniors and people with disabilities.

Line 50 added, then removed: Line 50 was added in AC Transit’s March 2015 draft alignment plan. At the July 8 meeting of the City of Alameda – AC Transit Liaison Committee, AC Transit announced that is was removing the line. If brought into service, Line 50-Encinal would run between the Fruitvale BART Station and the Alameda Main Street Ferry Terminal every 20 to 30 minutes between 6 am and 10 pm. The route, subject to city approval, would enter Alameda via the Fruitvale Bridge and turn from Tilden Way onto Fernside Blvd. It will continue down Fernside Boulevard, right on High Street, right on Encinal Avenue, into Central Avenue, right on Webster Street, left on Appezzato Memorial Parkway, and right on Main Street to the terminal.  

Line 50 service to schools:  Line 50 would provide bus service to these schools along the route:  Alameda Community Learning Center on 3rd Street at Appezzato Memorial Parkway; Academy of Alameda Middle School on Pacific Avenue on 4th Street; College of Alameda on Appezzato Memorial Parkway at Webster Street; Encinal High School on Central Avenue at 3rd Street.

WETA 2009 Transition Plan: In 2007, WETA was created by passage of SB 976 as the successor to the Water Transit Authority. In June of 2009, WETA issued its transition plan in conjunction with the cities of Alameda and Vallejo, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The 2009 plan anticipated closing down the Main Street Ferry Terminal once a new ferry terminal is built nearby in the Seaplane Lagoon at Alameda Point.  2009 Transition Plan

Due to a surge in ridership, current plans assume that the Main Street Ferry Terminal will continue to operate after the Seaplane Lagoon Terminal is constructed. The recently approved development agreement for Site A, adjacent to the Seaplane Lagoon, includes a $10 million commitment from the developer toward the new terminal. WETA has yet to complete its feasibility study for the new terminal.

Alameda Point vs. Main Street: Alameda Point development will attempt to discourage automobile usage. Residents will be able to walk to the Seaplane Lagoon ferry terminal. Shuttles will offer rides from Alameda Point to Oakland BART stations. AC Transit is expected to operate a rapid transit bus from Alameda Point through the Tube into Oakland. Meanwhile, at the Main Street ferry terminal a mile away, AC Transit will provide no assistance in discouraging automobile usage.

Federal Fisheries Service turns its back on harbor seals at Alameda Point

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS or Fisheries Service) issued a permit to the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) on February 25, 2015, for proposed in-water dock construction activities at Alameda Point that may impact resident harbor seals.

WETA site plan and vicinity Oct. 2014

In its permit, they brushed off concerns of the Sierra Club, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), and many residents that removal of the old dock used by harbor seals as a haul out could cause them to abandon the area.

Harbor seals on Alameda Point haul out

The Fisheries Service doesn’t seem bothered that the seals might abandon the area. They suggest the harbor seals could use a nearby rocky breakwater or a beach on Yerba Buena Island about four miles away. The Fisheries Service even went as far as belittling the dock structure and location preferred by the harbor seals as being “artificial” and “manmade,” even though examples of artificial wildlife habitat enhancements are widespread, some of them sanctioned by the Fisheries Service.

Western tip of Breakwater Island where Fisheries Service said harbor seals should go.  This city-owned property is ill-suited to raising seal pups and not inviting as a resting site, as evidenced by where the seals currently go.
Western tip of Breakwater Island where Fisheries Service said harbor seals should go. This city-owned property is ill-suited to raising seal pups and not inviting as a resting site, as evidenced by where the seals currently go.

The Fisheries Service stated, “NMFS does not consider building an artificial harbor seal haul-out is a good conservation measure to compensate for the loss of the old floating dock that is being used as a haul-out by 10-20 harbor seals. The floating dock proposed to be removed is a manmade structure that is bound to disappear as it deteriorates and falls apart. To build another new structure without maintenance will likely have the same issue in the near future. Therefore, NMFS considers it better conservation practice not to construct a new structure just to replace the current deteriorating artificial one.”

The one remaining beam moored to old dock - similar to log booms used by harbor seals elsewhere to haul out.
The one remaining beam moored to old dock – similar to log booms used by harbor seals elsewhere to haul out.

No one suggested that conservation measures come “without maintenance.” Some periodic maintenance would obviously be necessary.

Fisheries Service philosophy out of touch

If “manmade” artificial landscape features were poor conservation measures, then we would have to assume the Fisheries Service would not approve of fish ladders in rivers and streams to aid fish migration. Nor would they have approved of the artificial reef constructed off the coast of Texas using decommissioned and cleaned ships, and decommissioned oil rigs. A thriving marine reef habitat — through artificial means — has been the result.

At Alameda Point, the entire least tern nesting site is artificial, from the imported sand, oyster shells, shelters and fence to the entire land mass underneath it created by filling in a marsh. Likewise, the least tern nesting island in the Hayward Shoreline marsh is artificially constructed and may someday be underwater. Both of these artificial sites are successful in aiding endangered birds by replacing habitat lost due to human development and uses.

The Fisheries Service response to the comments on the impacts of the ferry maintenance facility gives the appearance of being out of touch. Instead of calling for a small mitigation measure in the form of a new haul out by the agency that is altering the ecosystem, they have shifted the burden to the harbor seals. This is backwards. It sets the baseline conditions as “tomorrow” rather than “yesterday” before modern development ruined most of the shoreline habitat in the Bay.

But there is still hope. The Alameda City Council will have an opportunity at its Tuesday, March 3 meeting to rectify the pending lease agreement with WETA that fails to include provisions for the harbor seals. And a few weeks later, BCDC will have an opportunity to ensure that its permit for the project contains harbor seal haul-out requirements.

Appendix pelican graphic

Harbor seal feeding on bat ray in Alameda Point Channel where new haul out could potentially be located.
Harbor seal feeding on bat ray in Alameda Point Channel where new haul out could potentially be located.
Breakwater Island landscape that Fisheries Service and city of Alameda say is suitable harbor seal haul-out habitat.
Breakwater Island landscape that Fisheries Service and city of Alameda say is suitable harbor seal haul-out habitat.

Sierra Club comment letter to Alameda City Council on WETA lease

BCDC comment letter to National Marine Fisheries Service on WETA permit

Sierra Club comment letter to National Marine Fisheries Service on WETA permit

News updates: Main St. neighborhood planning, Veteran Affairs project, ferry service

Alameda Point is on the cusp of a new era in civilian reuse. Plans for construction of residential neighborhoods and commercial space are taking form, alongside growing productive reuse of aircraft hangars. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is poised to begin the first phase of their $240 million clinic and columbarium project. In addition, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) is studying plans for accommodating their increasing ferry ridership.

Designing the Main Street neighborhood

Alameda Point zoning - Main St. neighborhood

At next Tuesday’s city council meeting, the council will be updated on the pending 68-acre Site A residential and retail plan. They will also consider authorizing an urban design firm to draft detailed plans for a 100-acre residential neighborhood along Main Street near the ferry terminal. Continue reading “News updates: Main St. neighborhood planning, Veteran Affairs project, ferry service”

Ferry agency seeks harbor seal harassment permit

Construction of the ferry maintenance facility at Alameda Point is delayed another year. Originally scheduled to begin in August of this year, the project is on hold while the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) seeks a federal permit allowing for harassment of harbor seals during demolition and construction.

Harbor seals at Alameda Point 2014

The public, beginning in January of 2014, raised concerns about the harbor seals being displaced at the project site. The Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility is slated for construction east of the USS Hornet where the Navy operated a recreational boating dock.

14 harbor seals resting on June 4, 2014, at Alameda Point dock where ferry facility is planned.
14 harbor seals resting on June 4, 2014, at Alameda Point dock where ferry facility is planned.

Part of the dock structure has sunk, but the main dock and remnant timbers have attracted harbor seals in recent years that manage to haul themselves up onto the wooden islands to rest. In May 2014, a female harbor seal was observed nursing a pup on the old dock and leading the pup in training exercises around the dock area.

Nursing harbor seal pup - May 2014 - Alameda Point
Nursing harbor seal pup – May 13, 2014 – Alameda Point

In its permit application published in the Federal Register on September 17, 2014, the description of the type of harassment for which WETA is seeking a permit is limited to sounds emitted during demolition of the existing pilings and hammering in new ones.

The application makes only passing reference to residents having observed seals at the site. The loss of a resting site is not contemplated in the federal review, even though the Marine Mammal Protection Act lists habitat loss as a form of harassment. A haul-out resting site is considered habitat integral to the welfare of seals.

Adult harbor seals with silver pup - May 29, 2014
Adult harbor seals with silver pup – May 29, 2014

The permit is being processed as part of a federal Environmental Assessment and is being prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The NMFS is an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that enforces the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), as well as aquatic components of the Endangered Species Act.

The permit being applied for by WETA is called an Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA). An IHA “Level A” involves injury to a marine mammal. “Level B” involves disruption of behavioral patterns. The WETA permit is Level B.

The preliminary conclusion of NMFS is that no significant impact will occur, especially in light of the acoustical mitigation measures worked out between WETA and NMFS. The mitigation measures call for gradual start-ups to demolition and dock construction work, a sound curtain in the water, and NMFS-approved biological monitors.

Silver-colored harbor seal pup nursing on May 13, 2014.
Silver-colored harbor seal pup nursing on May 13, 2014.

Despite the fact that a regular haul-out site will be eliminated with the dock removal, NMFS concludes, “No permanent impacts to marine mammal habitat are proposed to or would occur as a result of the proposed Project.” WETA’s proposed facility “would not modify the existing habitat. Therefore, no restoration of the habitat would be necessary,” stated NMFS.

The most recent harbor seal data for the area cited by NMFS in the application is from 1998. It highlights Breakwater Island, the rocky barrier forming the south side of the Alameda Point Channel, as “the only haul-out site in the Central Bay that is accessible to seals throughout the full tidal range.”

The Alameda Point seals have been seen again in the project area in recent weeks after an absence of a few months, which corresponds with behavior predicted by NMFS.  Citing harbor seal research, NMFS stated,  “Haul-out sites are relatively consistent from year to year, and females have been recorded returning to their own natal haul-out when breeding.” 

The public can submit comments no later than October 17, 2014. Pending review of the comments, the NMFS may impose additional mitigation measures. Comments can be sent via email to: itp.guan@noaa.gov. Paper mail to: Jolie Harrison, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

Adult harbor seal with pup at proposed ferry facility site, Alameda Point, May 13, 2014.
Adult harbor seal with pup at proposed ferry facility site, Alameda Point, May 13, 2014.

WETA will also need a permit from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which follows state rules regarding marine mammal impacts. WETA will be leasing the site from the city, and still needs to conclude a lease agreement and obtain a building permit. Demolition and dredging at the site can only occur between August 1 and November 30 due to foraging by least terns in the spring and summer and fish migration in late fall. The permit is for 2015.

The project was authorized by WETA in 2009 and has been undergoing review ever since. It will include berths for 11 ferries, a service yard and a four-story workshop and administration building. The facility would also function as an emergency operation center for passenger service in the event of an emergency.

National Marine Fisheries Service permit page

Federal Register notice

Related story:  “Ferry Maintenance Facility Shoreline Public Access Hearing”

Harbor seal adult and pup

Harbor seal at Alameda Point

Harbor seals on dock remnant at Alameda Point, January 5, 2014.
Harbor seals on dock remnant at Alameda Point, January 5, 2014.

Harbor seal at Alameda Point

Recreational boating dock where harbor seals haul out, as it appeared on May 9, 2014.
Recreational boating dock where harbor seals haul out, as it appeared on May 9, 2014.
Proposed WETA ferry maintenance facility at Alameda Point.
Proposed WETA ferry maintenance facility at Alameda Point.