Bay Area Report Card: Environment Doesn't Make the Grade

New Web site rates environmental health and offers local guide to green living

SAN FRANCISCO (October 1, 2001) - The San Francisco Bay Area is the birthplace of the modern environmental movement and a magnet for visitors the world over. So it comes as some surprise that the region's renowned and breathtakingly beautiful natural resources are… well, not doing so well, according to a new, Web-based environmental health report card by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), a national environmental group with offices in San Francisco.

"The Green Gate: NRDC's Environmental Guide to the Bay Area" ( examines 29 environmental indicators, which taken together offer a broad picture of the 9-county Bay Area's environmental health. The report concludes, "Overall, the Bay Area's environmental health is troubled. A once thriving ecosystem has lost much of its vigor - the result of human intervention in the form of pollution, urban sprawl, poor stewardship, and overcrowding."

Yet the report is not all doom and gloom. In fact, it is surprisingly upbeat and written with apparent affection and optimism that the region's enlightened citizenry can turn things around. Members of this wired metropolis will want to bookmark the site, as it offers a wealth of green living tools and resources for anyone who believes the area's quality of life depends on a healthy environment.

"We know that people take great pride in living in the Bay Area," said Johanna Wald, NRDC senior attorney and The Green Gate project director. "We also know that collectively we can do a better job protecting its environment. The first step is knowing what's wrong. The next step is knowing what to do about it."

29 indicators of environmental health
NRDC researchers gathered and analyzed the most recent data available on 29 indicators divided into five categories: air and energy, water, wildlife and habitat, urban living, and health.

Each indicator is rated on whether the overall trend is improving , worsening , or unclear . The report says only four indicators (wetlands, public transit use, area legislators and childhood lead poisoning) are improving, while 12 are worsening. Thirteen indicators show no clear trend, yet offer ample cause for concern.

"The trend lines speak volumes," said Barry Nelson, NRDC senior policy analyst. "They show where efforts at environmental protection and restoration have succeeded or failed. They tell us about looming threats, and they identify emergency situations."

Water: Delta diversions increase; record amounts taken last year
NRDC looked at data on water diversions from the San Francisco Bay Delta by the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project over the last five decades, compiled into five-year averages. The data show a steady increase in the quantity of water diverted - coinciding with increasing damage to the delta's natural resources. In fact, record amounts - about 6.3 million acre-feet - were pumped last year. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land one foot deep.) That's bad news because the delta is the lifeblood of the Bay Area's ecosystem. Bay water quality sometimes is sufficiently toxic to kill laboratory fish and shrimp, and bay sediment remains contaminated by decades of pollution.

Drinking water is generally safe, but San Francisco sometimes has high levels of trihalomethanes (THMs), contaminants that are suspected of causing cancer and have been linked to miscarriages. & water use is up in areas served by five major Bay Area water agencies - East Bay Municipal Utility District, Alameda County Water District, Contra Costa Water District, San Francisco Water Department and the City of San Jose - which collectively serve more than 5.5 million people.

Indicator Trend
Drinking Water Quality Drinking water generally safe, but San Francisco sometimes has high levels of trihalomethanes (THMs)
Beachwater Quality Better monitoring protects swimmers' health but reveals extensive pollution
Bay Water Quality Periods of acute toxicity seriously threaten bay life; Comprehensive testing is lacking
Sediment Contamination Bay life at risk from contaminated sediment but no clear trend
Residential Water Use Residential water consumption steadily increasing
Water Diverted from the Bay-Delta More and more water diverted from delta: Record amounts taken in 2000

Air and Energy: Rising energy consumption causes air pollution and contributes to global climate change
NRDC identified six measures of air pollution and global-warming gases and concluded that the trend for the Bay Area's air quality is going in the wrong direction. Home energy consumption rose from 1992 to 1997, with electricity use up 10 percent and natural gas use constant. In the first half of this year, however, in response to the state's energy crisis, the Bay Area made significant reductions in electricity use. Miles driven in vehicles rose 20 percent between 1990 and 2000. Gasoline consumption grew by 13 percent between 1995 and 2000. Diesel fuel consumption doubled between 1980 and 1999. The resulting smog and particle pollution from all these sources makes Bay Area air unhealthy several days a year.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to calculate precisely the Bay Area's contribution to global climate change. However, The Green Gate points out that the two chief culprits of global-warming pollution in the United States are vehicle use and electricity consumption. Both are rising in the region.

Air & Energy
Indicator Trend
Individuals' Contribution to Global Warming Energy consumption contributes to this global -- and local -- problem
Residential Electricity and Natural Gas Consumption Overall consumption up, but recent reductions in electricity use are encouraging
Gasoline Consumption and Vehicle Use Bay Area residents driving more and guzzling more gas
Diesel Fuel Consumption Diesel consumption up sharply, with more increases projected
Particle Pollution Air pollution increasing again after earlier decline
Ozone Pollution Ground-level ozone problem persists but trend unclear

Wildlife and Habitat: Habitat loss and invasive species threaten Bay Area wildlife and plants
More than 100 species of animals and plants that can be found in the Bay Area are on the federal list of endangered and threatened species. For example, the historic winter-run chinook salmon population has shrunk dramatically. Four decades ago, as many as 100,000 of this now-endangered fish traveled through the Golden Gate to spawn in the Central Valley. But in 1994, just 189 fish made the trip. Last year, that number rose to 1,352. NRDC says it is too soon to tell if this represents a true reversal and beginning of recovery. Another Bay Area native, the southern sea otter, was nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th Century. Since gaining protection, they have started to come back, but none have been sighted in San Francisco Bay in close to 150 years.

The biggest threats to Bay Area wildlife and plants are habitat loss and invasive species. Nearly 22,000 acres of wetlands were restored and enhanced between 1993 and 1999, but the fact remains that nearly all the bay-delta's original tidal wetlands have been lost. Likewise, much open land has fallen victim to development. Meanwhile, invasive species are pushing natives out of the remaining habitat at an alarming rate. According to the report, more than 200 invasive species, such as scotch broom (a shrub from Europe) and mitten crabs (from Asia), have taken root in the Bay Area. Non-native plants and wildlife are invading the bay-delta ecosystem at a rate of about one new species every 14 weeks.

Wildlife & Habitat
Indicator Trend
Wetlands Restoration increasing; More needed to reverse past losses
Endangered and Threatened Species Bay Area is home to more than 100 species on the federal endangered and threatened species list
Winter-Run Chinook Salmon Significant decline in 2000 after several years of encouraging increases
Southern Sea Otter Sea otters still have not returned to bay
Duck Populations Numbers fluctuating but still below historic levels
Oil Spills Number and volume of oil spills in California down, but bay remains at risk
Invasive Species Invasive species crowding out bay animals and plants; Rate of invasion increasing

Urban Living: Growing population strains the environment, but there is some improvement
The Bay Area population grew by more than 750,000 people (12.6 percent) from 1990 to 2000, adding further strain on the environment. Sprawl threatens half a million acres of open space and agricultural land. Even if half this area is lost to development, the result will be extensive, Los Angeles-style urbanization, increased traffic congestion and further loss of habitat.

Bay Area counties are doing a better job of diverting garbage from landfills - mostly through recycling. However, the amount of garbage per person is increasing, offsetting gains made in diversions. In fact, the Bay Area has the second highest rate of per capita garbage generation in the state.

Two bright spots were indicators for public transit use and local legislators. Ridership on the Bay Area's eight major transit systems increased between 1995 and 1999. CalTrain showed the most impressive growth - 56 percent - while BART ridership grew by 10 percent or 7.6 million annual passenger trips.

Citing data from environmental watchdog groups, the NRDC report states that Bay Area state and federal lawmakers have solid pro-environment voting records. Not only have the region's delegations earned ratings significantly higher than both the national and state averages, but they generally are getting greener.

Urban Living
Indicator Trend
Population Increasing population straining limited and sensitive resources
Sprawl 500,000 acres threatened by development despite successes in protection
Public Transit Use Public transit use increasing
Garbage More trash being generated, offsetting gains made in garbage diversions
Area Legislators Bay Area delegation consistently friendly to the environment

Health: Overall cancer down, but breast cancer rates among the world's highest
The NRDC report found slow progress being made at the intersection of the environment and public health. For example, the incidence of new cancer cases in the Bay Area (excluding Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties) declined by 11 percent between 1991and 1997, probably due to decreased tobacco use. (In Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties, cancer rates declined by 5 percent, 8 percent and 17 percent, respectively.) However, for unknown reasons the region has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the world. Experts estimate that environmental factors account for nearly three-quarters of all cancers. Tobacco use is by far the leading cause.

The overall trend for pesticide use is uncertain. Total commercial applications have remained steady since 1993, at around 11 million pounds applied per year. However this obscures considerable increases and decreases in individual counties. Furthermore, statistics for the Bay Area are only available for commercial applications - even though past research has revealed that a significant share of pesticide use occurs in and around the home.

On the bright side, reported cases of childhood lead poisoning declined by 40 percent between 1992 and 1999. Efforts to ban lead in many products, most notably gasoline and paint, have clearly been successful. However, many buildings built before 1978 still contain leaded paint, and the extent of lead poisoning may be underreported because most children are never tested. Less than a quarter of high-risk children enrolled in California's MediCal program have been tested.

Indicator Trend
Childhood Asthma Hospitalizations down but asthma remains serious public health concern
Childhood Lead Poisoning Reports of lead poisoning down, but many cases may go unreported
Cancer Rates Overall cancer rates down, but breast cancer rates among world's highest
Contamination of Fish from San Francisco Bay Contamination of Fish from the bay poses health threat to those who catch and eat them
Pesticide Use Decreases in licensed pesticide use in San Francisco offset by big increases in several counties

Website offers green living tools and resources
What's a person supposed to do in the face of these alarming environmental statistics? According to The Green Gate, plenty. And the site offers one-stop shopping for anyone determined to make a difference.

For starters, every indicator offers tips on "what you can do." For example, the section on home electricity and natural gas use advises people to buy energy-efficient products and turn off nonessential lights and appliances. That may be old hat to Californians who have been bracing for rolling blackouts, but did you know that cleaning the lint filter in your clothes dryer will help save energy? Or that you'll get better gas mileage if you buy more efficient tires for your cars?

In addition to indicator specific tips, the Web site offers a list and tips for the top 10 ways to make a difference, detailed information on hiking and biking trips that are accessible by public transit, book reviews, a county-by-county list of certified farmers' markets, and an extensive list of Bay Area conservation groups with links and contact information.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
The Green Gate: NRDC's Environmental Guide to the Bay Area