Oakland's Contortionists

Oct. 8, 2001


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 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, 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.
Above, a seasonal wetland near the AOA and main runway; Below, the terminal at Oakland Int’l

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

Wetlands restoration projects are underway all around the San Francisco Bay Area. The National Audubon Society and a number of environmental groups are pushing for a total restoration of 100,000 acres. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is involved in a number of these projects with a goal of 558 acres improved at approximately $16,500,000.

• Mountain Lake Park: restoration of Mountain Lake Park; partnership with Department of Recreation and Parks and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; $500,000 from SFO
• Crissy Field: restoration of 20 acres of tidal marsh in the Presidio; partnership with Golden Gate National Parks Association; $ 3 million from SFO; under construction
• India Basin — Hunter’s Point Recreation Area: restoration of 3.4 acres of tidal salt marsh; extension of San Francisco Bay Trail; partnership with the Department of Recreation and Parks
• Bayview Hunters Point Shipyard: creation of 18 acres of wetlands; partnership with San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency
• Candlestick Point State Recreation Area: feasibility studies for tidal/seasonal marsh creation; partnership with California Department of Parks and Recreation; $500,000 from SFO for studies and future construction
• Oliver Brothers Salt Ponds: restoration and enhancement of 324 acres of wetlands; partnership with the Hayward Area Recreation & Park District; completion by end of 2001
• West-of-Bayshore: enhancement of 8.5 acres of seasonal marsh on airport property
• Outer Bair Island: creation of 37.5 acres of wetlands; enhancement of 140 acres of existing wetlands; partnership with California Department of Fish and Game
• Palo Alto Harbor Point: restoration of 7.2 acres of tidal marsh; partnership with the City of Palo Alto
Source: San Francisco Int’l Airport

Staba says, "It took this major effort to be able to talk to the Corps of Engineers in their language; to get scientific evidence that in fact there were areas that they were considering things that were helping the natural ecosystem, which were in fact just [normal land]."
The delineation project was a $750,000 effort. The airport and Port of Oakland feel it was well worth the money, as they were able to prove with scientific evidence that about 125 acres believed to be wetlands were in fact normal and available for development. Five hundred acres of Oakland International Airport’s 2500-acre property are jurisdictional wetlands.
"It was a major concerted effort to just delineate wetlands. Typically that would be a much smaller amount of dollars spent, a much quicker process," says McKenney.
She explains that many airports wait until they have a specific project in mind and rush through delineation. Oakland’s delineation efforts are not directly tied to a project. Expansion projects are on the horizon, but determining the wetland areas was done in an effort to better understand the make-up of the airport’s property and its effect on the local ecosystem, says McKenney.
Staba says it seemed that every time something needed to be expanded or built to further the operation of the airport they had to go through the same delineation process.
"Kristi [McKenney] decided this time around it would make sense to actually do the science and to have a good delineation," says Staba. "So we went to the Corps of Engineers and said, ’We’ve looked at everywhere on our airport. This is what we think.’ And we went through this negotiating process."

McKenney says that looking at a map of Oakland International Airport often begs the question, Why did they build that there? It is often followed by, Why didn’t they build it over there?
Those questions are usually in reference to the Central Basin, a large salt pan northeast of the main runway. The nature of the Central Basin as a contiguous, high-quality wetland and a habitat for shore birds makes it too environmentally important to disturb for airport development.

There are similar arguments for wetland areas all around the airport. McKenney says that over the years projects have been shaped around those areas, rather than disturb them, making for somewhat unusual architecture.
In planning the airport development program, working around the wetlands was again a priority.

Oakland’s Airport Development Program

Expansion projects include additional
cargo space for FedEx and other carriers

Although the wetlands delineation was a project in and of itself, the airport is in need of some major improvements, and will have them soon.

Oakland’s airport development program consists of 18 separate projects in cargo facilities, terminal expansion, parking, roadways, and other landside areas. There is little planned for the airfield aside from minor improvements, although the airport will have additional ramp space for aircraft parking overnight.
In the late ’80s, Federal Express decided to make Oakland Int’l its West Coast hub. The airport’s cargo facilities are now dominated by FedEx and UPS and serve a number of other carriers as well.
"Nationwide, we are the 13th largest air cargo airport. And in the world I think we’re 25th," says Cyndy Johnson, aviation marketing and media relations.
Development plans include new cargo areas. Of note is a planned multi-tenant cargo facility that will service operators who will only use the airport once or twice a week and don’t want to establish a base.
Terminal expansion is also a major part of the development plans. After Southwest Airlines initiated service in 1989, the airport saw a sharp increase in passenger traffic. With cheaper fares and the option to avoid Bay Bridge traffic, much of the population east of San Francisco Bay began to take advantage of flights out of Oakland. Johnson estimates that the airport is handling 4 to 5 million more passengers each year than its "comfort" capacity.
The new terminal will have 12 gates, a 50 percent increase for Oakland, and a double-level roadway with ticketing and departures on the upper level and arrivals and baggage claim on the lower level.
Kristi McKenney, aviation planning manager, adds, "This is by no means a build it and they will come. This is they’re already here, we need a place for them to go."
Additional plans include:
• Airport roadway project
• Airport Drive access reconfiguration
• Parking garage
• Replacement parking lots (during construction of garage)
• Replacement rental car facilities (relocated to garage upon completion)
• Runway 11/29 taxiway access widening
• Taxiway U widening
• North Field replacement T-hangar facilities
• Provisioning building (in-flight catering, etc.)
• Ground equipment service center
• Jet fuel dispensing facility
• United Airlines maintenance base expansion

"At the end of the day, after going through and massaging the projects down to keeping them on as much upland or existing developed property as possible, we ended up with 7.76 acres of wetlands that would need to be filled to build all of these projects," says McKenney.
McKenney stresses that those 7.76 acres are not contiguous, but rather 0.4 acres of a ditch, 0.1 acres somewhere else, an acre in another area, etc.
"They’re very much discreet little pieces of drainage channels, of other things. Some of them we’ve determined in our new map wouldn’t even be considered wetland anymore. But at that time, we accepted them; we’re mitigating for them anyway," says McKenney. "So our argument was twofold. One, that we were developing about 160 acres of paved area in an area with this many wetlands, and yet only taking 7.8 acres. And two, that those acres were all at the edges, bits and pieces."

The airport and Port of Oakland considered a few options before deciding on a plan to mitigate for the 7.76 acres, agreeing to replace the wetlands at a ratio of at least 1.14:1.
The Port purchased 16 acres of land in San Lorenzo, to the south of Oakland. The land was already designated conservation easement land, meaning that no developments could be built on the property. It is also near the Bay and adjacent to other wetland habitats.
"We had this firm design it, build it, and is continuing to monitor it," says McKenney. "So that we’re not doing it with our own staff and we’re not managing the project in terms of going out and getting somebody to design it and then going out and getting somebody to build it. You’ve got experts who are in that area and field dealing with it, and we pay them as a package deal."
For $2 million the Port purchased the 16 acres and paid the design/ build firm to complete the project. The project was funded as part of the airport development program, mainly through passenger facility charges (PFCs).
Staba says, "We’re on the hook to monitor and maintain it and make sure it actually serves [its] purpose ... and comes back to a natural area for five years. And at that time we’ll start negotiating to give it back to the other groups."