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Mark Welther Headshot

America's Cup - Why We're Still Worried

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Last week's collapse of the real estate deal between America's Cup organizers and San Francisco city officials left critics of the race cheering and backers shaking their heads.

But demise of the controversial deal didn't change the reasons that we're worried by the America's Cup -- which have to do with those residents of our beautiful Bay Area who don't have the wherewithal to negotiate development deals or even lobby City Hall.

Yes, I'm talking about wildlife. And in particular, birds.

Despite a 2,200-page-long environmental impact report, San Francisco city officials haven't taken a hard, honest look at how the race could harm the local environment, including populations of birds such as Brandt's cormorants, pigeon guillemots or the threatened snowy plover.

A world-renowned yacht race might seem at first glance like a benign environmental event. The America's Cup isn't a race among oil tankers, after all. And the race itself will last only about 40 days in 2013.

But we need to look at the America's Cup -- and other projects affecting our Bay Area environment -- in context. Eighty to ninety percent of the wetlands that existed around San Francisco Bay in 1850 are now gone. Forty percent of the bay's open water has also vanished -- taken over by landfill, salt ponds, bridges and other development.

Many Bay Area birds are already living under stress due to urban encroachments on their habitat. Pelagic cormorants, which nested on Alcatraz a decade ago, have completely stopped breeding there in the past few years. Pigeon guillemots -- a black and white seabird with astonishing red feet -- have only one breeding colony in the entire bay, on Alcatraz, and it totals only about 30 nests.

The America's Cup will place even more stress on local bird populations by:

  • Bringing heavy boat and air traffic close to bird colonies on Alcatraz, where breeding season for cormorants, gulls and pigeon guillemots runs from February through August. Many colonies are sensitive to even minor disruptions during breeding: In one 2008 incident documented by scientists, a single kayak within 100 feet of the island flushed approximately 600 birds from their nests or roosting spots.
  • Disturbing birds that are "rafting" on open water. Birds like cormorants, grebes, and scaup often float together in large groups for protection or foraging. The heaviest rafting season on the bay is late autumn and winter, after most of the America's Cup events will be over. But those birds that rely on the bay in the summer and early fall will certainly be disrupted by the addition not just of the racing yachts but of as many as 1,800 spectator boats coming and going across the bay to view the race.
  • Drawing large crowds to Crissy Field, a key site for threatened snowy plovers that have already lost almost all their suitable habitat in San Francisco.
  • These threats to birds come alongside other ecological concerns, such as impacts on air and water quality, disturbance of marine life, and introduction of invasive species that may be carried in by spectator boats.

While none of these challenges is insurmountable, the America's Cup organizers and city officials have appeared more interested in fast-tracking the environmental review process and proclaiming victory than in minimizing the race's impact on local wildlife.

For instance, neither race organizers nor city officials have committed to pay for resource monitors to ensure that visitors stay a safe distance away from bird colonies. Without specific commitments for funding and for personnel, promises of protective signs or fencing are just token gestures.

Nor have organizers and officials taken responsibility for potential damage to "secondary" viewing areas, natural areas along the shoreline that are not official race-viewing sites but will still draw crowds.

And they haven't offered any meaningful plan to offset the trash, food, waste and toxics that will inevitably be dumped into the bay by spectators. Nor have they committed funding to fix ecological damage caused by the race or spectators.

The good news is that there's still time for the City of San Francisco and America's Cup organizers to address these issues. They need to work with the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, and environmental groups such as ours to ensure adequate mitigation measures that are fully funded as part of the event's budget -- not as additional burdens on already overextended agencies.

San Francisco likes to tout itself as a "green city," but it consistently fails to prioritize wildlife and habitats in development or city planning.

It's ironic: The natural beauty of San Francisco Bay is part of what drew the America's Cup here. Yet organizers seem unwilling to provide meaningful accommodations for the wildlife and ecosystems that make the Bay such an amazing place -- even while spending tens of millions of dollars on development, viewing facilities, and lavish parties.

We can and should do better.