Scooping away the last narrow band of mud, a bright yellow excavator released a rush of brackish water into an area cut off from the tides for more than a hundred years.
The 1,200 acre field now filling with water, known as Cullinan Ranch due to its history as a hay farm, is once again becoming a tidal wetland.
On January 6, 2015, more than 100 people celebrated the reintroduction of tide waters to Cullinan Ranch in Solano County, California. For decades before, earthen levees had separated it from the nearby Napa River and San Pablo Bay, a northern corner of the San Francisco Bay Estuary.
With three more levee breaches planned by the end of January, restoration of this 1,500 acre site is nearly complete, with efforts to monitor the project’s progress to follow. Surrounded by state and federal wildlife lands, Cullinan Ranch will fill in a gap in coastal habitat as it becomes integrated with San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.How Low Can It Flow
For the most part, Cullinan Ranch will be covered in open water because years of farming, beginning in the 1880s, caused the land to sink below sea level. The open water will provide places for animals such as fish and birds—as well as the invertebrates they like to eat—to find food and rest after big storms.
However, some areas of the property will remain above the low tide level, creating conditions for the plant pickleweed to thrive. While a succulent like cacti, pickleweed can survive wet and salty growing conditions. (Fun fact: Some people enjoy cooking and eating pickleweed. When blanched, it apparently tastes salty and somewhat crispy.) The salt marsh harvest mouse, native to California and one of the few mammals able to drink saltwater, also will take advantage of the habitat created by the pickleweed in the recovering wetland.
Wildlife will not be the only ones enjoying the restoration of Cullinan Ranch. A major highway passes by the site, and Cullinan Ranch has experienced numerous upgrades to improve recreational access for people brought there by Highway 37. Soon anyone will be able to hike on the newly constructed trails, fish off the pier, and launch kayaks from the dock.Turning Money into Marshes
The restoration of Cullinan Ranch from hay field to tidal wetland has been in the works for a long time, brought about by a range of partners and funding agencies, including NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Wildlife Conservation Board, and Ducks Unlimited. NOAA provided several sources of funding to help finish this restoration project.
In addition to $900,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, NOAA contributed $650,000 through a community-based restoration partnership with Ducks Unlimited and $1.65 million awarded for natural resource damages through the Castro Cove trustee council. The latter funding was part of a $2.65 million settlement with Chevron as a result of the nearby Chevron Richmond Refinery discharging mercury and oil pollution into Castro Cove for years. Cullinan Ranch and Breuner Marsh are the two restoration projects Chevron funded to make up for this pollution.
Cullinan Ranch is one of the largest restoration projects in the north San Francisco Bay, but it is far from the only one NOAA is involved with in the region. Helping reverse a century-long trend which saw many of the bay’s tidal wetlands disappear, NOAA has been working on a suite of projects restoring these historic and important coastal features in northern California.
Watch footage of the earthen levee being breached to reconnect the bay’s tide waters to Cullinan Ranch.
While we have accomplished a lot in the last year, we know that we have plenty of work ahead of us in 2015.
As much as we wish it were so, we realize oil and chemical spills, vessel groundings, and marine debris will not disappear from the ocean and coasts in the next year. That means our experts have to be ready for anything, but specifically, for providing scientific solutions to marine pollution.
Here are our plans for doing that in 2015:
- Exercise more. We have big plans for participating in oil spill exercises and performing trainings that will better prepare us and others to deal with threats from marine pollution.
- Be safer. We work up and down the nation’s coastlines, from tropical to arctic environments. Many of these field locations are remote and potentially hazardous. We will continue to assess and improve our equipment and procedures to be able to work safely anywhere our services are needed.
- Keep others safe. We are improving our chemical response software CAMEO, which will help chemical disaster responders and planners get the critical data they need, when and where they need it.
- Get others involved. We are partnering with the University of Washington to explore ways average citizens can help contribute to oil spill science.
- Communicate more effectively. This spring, we will be hosting a workshop for Alaskan communicators and science journalists on research-based considerations for communicating about chemical dispersants and oil spills.
- Be quicker and more efficient. We will be releasing a series of sampling guidelines for collecting high-priority, time-sensitive data in the Arctic to support Natural Resource Damage Assessment and other oil spill science.
- Sport a new look. An updated, more mobile-friendly look is in the works for NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program website. Stay tuned for the coming changes at http://www.darrp.noaa.gov.
- Unlock access to data. We are getting ready to release public versions of an online tool that brings together data from multiple sources into a single place for easier data access, analysis, visualization, and reporting. This online application, known as DIVER Explorer, pulls together natural resource and environmental chemistry data from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill damage assessment, and also for the Great Lakes and U.S. coastal regions.
- Clean up our act. Or rather, keep encouraging others to clean up their act and clean up our coasts. We’re helping educate people about marine debris and fund others’ efforts to keep everyone’s trash, including plastics, out of our oceans.
- Say farewell. To oil tankers with single hulls, that is. January 1, 2015 marks the final phase-out of single hull tankers, a direct outcome of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
NOAA is offering assistance to a United Nations (UN) team that has arrived in the Sundarbans to serve as part of a larger assessment team providing assistance to the Government of Bangladesh following the release of approximately 325,000 liters of heavy oil. On December 9, 2014, the oil tanker Southern Star 7 sank near the port of Mongla in the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh after being struck by the freighter M/V Total.
The UN assessment team will be divided into four subgroups: Aquatic, Mangrove, Wildlife, and Human/Livelihood. NOAA will lead the Mangrove and Wildlife groups and will be a part of the other teams. After the initial assessment, the UN team hopes to be able to provide more detailed recommendations on protecting and restoring this sensitive habitat.
As part of NOAA’s study of oil spill impacts to mangrove shorelines, NOAA has recently updated a report summarizing current research on mangrove ecosystems. Written for those who work in spill response and planning in these sensitive habitats, it aims to help minimize environmental impacts in mangroves when oil spills threaten them.How Oil Spills Affect Mangroves
Tangles of roots rising out of the water are a classic characteristic of mangroves. These unique coastal forests are made up of a variety of tree and shrub species that have adapted to living in areas where they are alternately flooded and exposed to air. Growing in tropical and semi-tropical environments, mangroves can also withstand high levels of salt and as a result, they are often found in salty waters along deltas, estuaries (which have a mix of salt and freshwater), lagoons, and islands.
However, their maze of aerial roots which allow them to thrive in tidal areas also presents a particular challenge for responders when an oil spill happens near mangroves. Changing water levels in tidal environments means spilled oil has the potential to coat portions of the trees from bottom to top, including the jungle of exposed roots. These specialized roots not only anchor the trees into soft mudflats, but they also absorb nutrients to feed the plants and exchange gases as part of normal metabolic processes.When Oil Meets Mangrove
Mangroves are highly susceptible to oil exposure; oiling may kill them within a few weeks to several months. Lighter oils are more acutely toxic to mangroves than are heavier oils. Increased weathering generally lowers oil toxicity. However, heavier oils can result in substantial physical smothering and coating impacts. Oil-impacted mangroves may suffer yellowed leaves, defoliation, and even death of the tree. More subtle responses include a loss of canopy cover, increased rate of mutation, and increased sensitivity to other stresses.
Mangroves have developed a complex series of physiological mechanisms to enable them to survive in a low-oxygen, high-salinity world. Many, if not most, of these adaptations depend on unimpeded exchange with either water or air. When oil coats mangroves, this ability can be compromised.
The severity of oil’s impacts on mangroves is linked to the amount of oil reaching the mangroves and the length of time spilled oil remains near them. The invertebrates and plants that live in and around mangroves recover more quickly from oiling than the mangroves themselves. This is due to the longer time for mangroves to reach maturity. Under severe oiling conditions, mangrove impacts may continue for years to decades, resulting in permanent habitat loss.
If trees die in mangrove communities, most deaths tend to occur in the first six months after being exposed to oil. In fact, obvious signs of mangrove stress often begin occurring within the first two weeks of a spill, and these can range from defoliation to tree death. Research shows seedlings and saplings, in particular, are susceptible to oil exposure.Cleaning up Oil Spills in Mangroves
Past experience has also taught that such forests are particularly difficult to protect and clean up once a spill has occurred because they are physically intricate, relatively hard to access, and inhospitable to humans. In the rankings of coastal areas in NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Indices, commonly used as a tool for spill contingency planning around the world, mangrove forests are ranked as the most sensitive of tropical habitats.
Mangroves offer a variety of benefits to the surrounding ecosystem, benefits which are jeopardized in the case of oil spills. In particular, mangroves can help protect water quality, especially around coral reefs. Their massive root systems somewhat filter the water, trapping sediments and some types of contamination with them.
Read more in NOAA’s report: Oil Spills in Mangroves: Planning and Response Considerations.
Across the United States, the winter holiday season is upon us and many people are gathering with family and friends to celebrate. But as you go about trimming trees, lighting candles, and nipping eggnog, keep in mind a few tips for lowering your impact on the ocean.
After all, a clean and healthy environment sounds like a great gift to give others—along with world peace.
- Host a no- or low-waste holiday soiree. Set out reusable dishes for guests or use recyclable items and have a clearly labeled recycling bin at the ready. Compost napkins, half-eaten gingerbread people, and that fruitcake leftover from last year. Get more tips from the Marine Debris Blog. As they point out, “According to the EPA, the volume of household waste in the United States generally increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day—about 1 million extra tons.”
- Do your holiday shopping with reusable bags. Plastic shopping bags are among the top 10 items collected each year at the International Coastal Cleanup.
- Consider giving gifts that won’t end up on the shelf or in the trash. It takes a lot of oil (which can spill) to produce and transport the many items for sale starting Black Friday. What about giving the people you care about gifts they can experience, such as tickets to a show or gift certificate to their favorite restaurant? Or something they can use with little or no accompanying waste, such as homemade hand salve or your famous family latke recipe, along with a tasty batch to go with it?
- Keep your gifts under reusable wraps. Skip the plastic ribbons and bows and wrap your gifts in stylish fabric gift bags (which the recipient can then re-gift). At the very least, save what wrappings you can and use them again next time.
- Avoid giving gifts that contain tiny plastic microbeads. It may be tempting to give your sister-in-law a bottle of Cinnamon Stick Glitterburst Exfoliating Body Scrub, but check the label first. Personal care items, such as cleansers and body wash, often contain “microscrubbers” made of plastic that go down the drain, most times making it past waste treatment and into rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Look for “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” in the ingredient list.
- If you have a blast, clean it up. If you use fireworks to ring in the New Year, please do so responsibly. Fireworks can shatter into little plastic bits, which can be swept into storm drains and end up in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Volunteer for a beach cleanup on January 1, track what you pick up, and make sure marine debris doesn’t pollute 2015.
- Give public transportation the green light. Holly and mistletoe shouldn’t be the only green part of this season. When possible and safe, opt for lower-impact transportation options: walking, biking, or public transportation. NOAA responded to 138 oil and chemical spills in the past year. Less oil used means less oil transported and potentially spilled.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more great suggestions for greening your holiday season and all winter long. Do you have any tips? How are you keeping your holiday season happy and light on the planet?
January 1, 2015 marks a major milestone in preventing oil spills. That date is the deadline which the landmark Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90) specifies for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters. That act, passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, required that all new tankers and tank-barges be built with double hulls.
Recently constructed single-hull tankers were allowed to operate, but 25 years after the Exxon Valdez, those vessels are now at the end of their operational life and will no longer be able to carry oil as cargo. The requirement was phased in gradually because of the difficultly of converting existing single-hull tankers to double hulls, and retiring the single-hull tankers more rapidly would have been a major disruption to world shipping.Counting Down to a New Era
There won’t be a dramatic change-over on New Year’s Eve; most of the tankers calling on U.S. ports have had double hulls years before this deadline. However, one ship which was not switched over to a double hull soon enough was the tanker Athos I. This ship, carrying 13.6 million gallons of heavy crude oil, struck a submerged anchor in the Delaware River and caused a relatively large, complicated oil spill near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 10 year ago.
In 1992, two years after the Oil Pollution Act, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (the MARPOL Convention) was amended to require all newly built tankers have double hulls. MARPOL has been ratified by 150 countries, representing over 99 percent of merchant tonnage shipped worldwide.Stay out of Trouble by Going Double
So, what is the big issue around single vs. double-hull ships? Historically, tankers carrying oil were built with a single hull, or single shell.
While we measure oil in barrels, it is not actually shipped that way. Instead, oil is pumped into huge tanks that are part of the structure of tankers and barges. For vessels with a single hull, one plate of steel is all that separates the oil on board from the ocean. If the hull were punctured from a collision or grounding, an oil spill is pretty much guaranteed to follow. On the other hand, a ship with a double hull has two plates of steel with empty space in between them. The second hull creates a buffer zone between the ocean and the cargo of oil.
Naval architects have debated the merits of various hull designs in reducing oil spills, and using a double hull, essentially a hull within a hull, was selected as the preferred vessel design.
However, the double hull requirements only apply to tankers and tank barges. Container ships, freighters, cruise ships, and other types of vessels are still built with single hulls. While these ships carry a lot less oil than a tanker, a large non-tank vessel can still carry a lot of fuel oil, and some have caused some pretty big spills, including the 2007 oil spill caused by the cargo ship Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay.
Of course, double hulls don’t prevent all oil spills from tankers either, but the design has been credited with reducing the amount spilled, especially in the cases of low-speed groundings and collisions.
And some pretty spectacular collisions have resulted in double-hull tankers not spilling a drop.
Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The collision tore a huge hole in the side of the oil tanker, but, thankfully, none of the 41 million gallons of crude oil it had on board was spilled.
NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of February 23–27, 2015 at the NOAA Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Alabama.
We will accept applications for this class through Friday, January 9, 2015, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, January 16, 2015, via email.
SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.
These trainings cover:
- Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
- An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
- A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
- Spill case studies.
- Principles of ecological risk assessment.
- A field trip.
- An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
- Determining cleanup endpoints.
To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].
Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.
Additional SOS courses will be held in 2015 in Houston, Texas, (April 27–May 1, 2015) and Seattle, Washington (date to be determined).
For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.