Oakland's Contortionists

OAKLAND’S CONTORTIONISTS A commissioned study helps reclaim acres thought to be wetlands By Lindsay M. Hitch, Assistant Editor October 2001 OAKLAND — Working around wetlands has been a fact of life in developing airports for...


OAKLAND’S CONTORTIONISTS

A commissioned study helps reclaim acres thought to be wetlands

By Lindsay M. Hitch, Assistant Editor

October 2001

imageOAKLAND — Working around wetlands has been a fact of life in developing airports for years. The Port of Oakland has taken a different approach: delineating what is — and is not — by definition a jurisdictional wetland. In doing so, the airport has an additional 125 acres for cargo and terminal development, and has saved potential millions along the way in reduced mitigation costs. All of this on a patch of land that was once open water in the San Francisco Bay.

"Probably almost any place you can go, you’re not on original Bay shoreline. You’re on some kind of fill," says Kristi McKenney, aviation planning manager for the Port of Oakland. "This was all open water bay, that wasn’t even marsh or wetland, that was filled."
McKenney says that the same is true for San Francisco International Airport and the piers around San Francisco and Oakland.
"That wasn’t a unique thing at the time, to just be filling like that. And of course, now that’s all changed," she says.
What was a common practice fifty years ago is presenting some unusual challenges for those in the Bay Area. Gail Staba and Kristi McKenney Gail Staba, left, and Kristi McKenney of the Port of Oakland

WALKING ON WATER
The South Field, home to Oakland International Airport’s commercial operations, was filled from a borrow pit in the Bay during the 1950s and opened in 1962. Land for critical components like runways, taxiways, and the terminal were filled. To keep costs down, future growth areas weren’t filled to the point of being dry land.
McKenney explains, "Filling is a really expensive activity. And so if you don’t need the land at that time, you don’t want to spend money on that."
Airport planners left large areas of airport property to be completely filled at a later date. Unfortunately for the airport, they didn’t foresee that they were creating wetlands that would become heavily regulated.
The airport’s wetlands were at one time open water and for that reason a lot of people argue they always have been wetlands. The point, says McKenney, is that the wetlands on the airport property are man-made. image Above, a seasonal wetland near the AOA and main runway;
Below, the terminal at Oakland Int’l image

THE BIG DIG
To further that point, the Port of Oakland brought in a team of consultants to determine which areas truly are jurisdictional wetlands.
Gail Staba, transportation planner and environmental planning supervisor, explains that there are a number of wetland "indicators". The process required figuring out which of those indicators were present on Oakland’s property, and which were legitimate.

"The way you determine a wetland has to do with the type of soil you have. When they’re wet for a long time they don’t have oxygen in them, so they turn a color," says Staba. "It has to do with vegetation, and [whether] water’s there or not. If you have one of those indicators, then you have a wetland."

A team of consultants worked on the airfield for about six months, digging holes and checking the soil color and looking at the types of vegetation. Even in an area made of fill from the Bay, the scientists were able to prove that much of the airport property is not wetland.
"That’s one of the more interesting aspects to me," says McKenney. "The airport has been filled over decades and decades from a whole bunch of different sources, including the bottom of the Bay sources; looking at the soil you don’t know. That’s not original soil. So is it a wetland or did it become a wetland or is it just the old Bay mud that you had in there that isn’t a wetland anymore?"

Mitigation Efforts Across The Bay

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