A new pilot program is aimed at conserving habitats such as wetlands, which are home to wildlife like the tiger salamander. Photo by John Cleckler-USFWS

The San Francisco Bay Area is already crowded, ranked among the nation’s top ten most congested metropolitan regions, and soon it will be even more packed. Over the next two decades, our population is projected to swell by about one third, surpassing 9 million people. To get ready for this influx, hundreds of regional transportation projects are in the works. But while extra lanes and streamlined interchanges will help ease congestion, road construction can also divide open spaces and destroy wetlands. The Bay Area is piloting a new state program designed to optimize offsets, or mitigation, for these environmental impacts.

Mitigation projects — which include protecting habitat for endangered species and restoring wetlands — are often done as one-offs rather than in the context of regional conservation priorities. “California conservation is fragmented,” said Elizabeth O’Donoghue, director of the Sustainable Development Strategy for The Nature Conservancy’s California Program. “It’s hard to stitch together a greater vision.”

Wetlands are a small part of that vision by acreage but have an outsized importance to conservation. Forming where water meets solid ground, wetlands include the swathes of tidal marsh that ring the Bay as well as the ribbons of riparian forest that flank streams. Many of these transitional habitats are year-round but some, like vernal pools, are ephemeral. These shallow depressions fill with winter rains, burst into life with flowers and aquatic creatures in the spring, and then dry out in the summer. Wetlands support so many species that they rank up there with rain forests and coral reefs as among the most productive ecosystems on the planet. Likewise, they are also among the most imperiled.

The continental United States has lost more than half its original wetlands, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service analysis, and California has the unfortunate distinction of leading the country in percentage of wetlands lost. We have lost 90 percent of our original wetlands, a decrease from 5 million acres to 500,000 acres. This puts wetlands at just 0.5 percent of our total land area — far less than the 5 percent across the lower 48 states as a whole.

To optimize mitigation for impacts to wetlands, other wildlands, and at-risk species, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is developing a program called the Regional Conservation Investment Strategy (RCIS). The program was authorized in 2016 by Assembly Bill 2087 (Levine), and is launching with four pilots, including one in the East Bay (Alameda and Contra Costa counties) and another in Santa Clara County.

Each RCIS identifies top conservation needs, such as habitat for sensitive species, which include those that are endangered or declining, as well as linkages between protected areas. More than half of the 16 sensitive animal species in the East Bay RCIS depend on wetlands for all or part of their lives, including red-legged frogs and tiger salamanders.

O’Donoghue, who is involved with both of the Bay Area pilots, explained that RCIS also promotes conservation with a key provision called advance mitigation. This approach essentially frontloads offsets for the environmental impacts of, say, highway projects. Currently, ecological damage is not mitigated until construction is well underway and, as O’Donoghue noted earlier, this tends to result in piecemeal conservation.

Under RCIS, however, mitigation can be done well before even breaking ground on a project. This will let transportation agencies do bulk mitigation for future projects, accelerating conservation of the highest priority ecological needs. “Advance mitigation will get us ahead of the curve,” O’Donoghue said. Draft versions of the East Bay RCIS and the Santa Clara RCIS are now before the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and final approval could come by the end of the year.

Kenneth Kao of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is poised to take advantage of these Bay Area RCIS pilots. “Right now, we don’t know what we will need to mitigate for,” said Kao, who leads the Programming and Allocations Department of MTC, which serves the nine-county Bay Area. “It’s hard to predict the environmental costs and a lot of the time it’s a scramble to find more money.” Besides straining the budget, surprise costs can also delay projects. Advance mitigation will give transportation agencies certainty over their environmental obligations. “We’ll be ahead of the game,” Kao said, echoing O’Donoghue. “If we know we’ll need to mitigate for 100 acres, we can just say, ‘Let’s do it now.’”

Not all projects require mitigation. When infrastructure and conservation planners coordinate, they can often avoid or minimize ecological harm. For wetlands, the law requires avoiding impacts whenever practicable. Kao anticipates that mitigation will be required for roughly one quarter of the nearly 400 transportation projects identified in Plan Bay Area 2040, including widening a stretch of I-680 in Santa Clara County and building a new highway through Contra Costa County to the Tracy area.

MTC is working with UC Davis researchers to estimate the environmental impacts of and mitigation for these projects. “If we can do it all in advance, we can get the transportation and environmental benefits sooner,” Kao said. “It’s a win for the region.”

Travis Hemmen, who works on the mitigation side at Westervelt Ecological Services, also sees benefits to the RCIS approach. The company protects and restores wildlands in the Bay Area as well as other parts of the country, and regional conservation planning could add assurances that they are choosing the best sites locally. “It’s really hard to find pieces of property that meet the standards,” Hemmen said. “Location, location, location is key in real estate and it’s true for restoration sites too.”

Many environmental offsets are relatively straightforward. Mitigation for a project that affects oak trees, for example, would entail preserving oak woodland elsewhere in the area covered by the RCIS. Likewise, mitigation for a project that affects mountain lions could entail connecting habitats for them in another part of the region. But wetland mitigation is far more complex due to stringent protections that reflect their rarity and ecological importance. Federal and state laws stipulate “no net loss” of wetlands: for every wetland that is destroyed, another must be restored.

“Wetlands mitigation is ten times harder,” Hemmen said. “You look for places where mother nature had wetlands before, and then you have to convince a farmer to sell.” And all that comes before actually restoring the wetland. Farmers reshaped the land to drain it and Hemmen’s company does the reverse, for example, returning the land to its natural contours so streams flow through it once again.

RCIS could also give his company clarity on the market for offsets, Hemmen says. The wildlands they protect are called conservation or mitigation banks, and they sell credits in these banks to offset environmental damage elsewhere. Advance mitigation could help them gauge demand for credits, spurring timely sales.

Hemmen and other mitigation bankers have to be poised to act fast when ecologically valuable properties become available. “Those landscapes aren’t around forever — you need to buy and restore them now,” he said.

Robin Meadows covers water for the Monitor.