Bay Crossings Article

Defending the Right to Swimmable Waterways

Sejal Choksi
From the November 2009 edition of Bay Crossings

On a sunny Saturday morning in September, thousands of Bay Area residents marked the 25th Anniversary of Coastal Cleanup Day by picking up trash from Bay shorelines, beaches and parks. While these dedicated volunteers spent the morning protecting our local waters with trash bags and gloves, a small group of world-class athletes took action to defend our watershed in a very different way.  

Seven intrepid swimmers, along with a kayak and sailboat support team, were in the midst of a 43-hour relay swim from Sacramento to San Francisco Bay. The team had pledged to swim the 100-mile distance to support San Francisco Baykeeper’s work to protect the rivers, creeks and estuaries of the Bay-Delta watershed—waters that many of the swimmers consider their natural habitat.  

The “Relay for the Bay” swim team consisted of a wide array of community members: an architect, vintner, teacher, baker, psychologist and a lawyer. The swimmers are all members of the Dolphin Club, the well-known open-water swimming group, and log hours in the Bay every week without wetsuits. Swimmers—as well as windsurfers, boaters and kayakers—are exposed to pollution when they come into contact with the water, which can put them at risk for illnesses and infections. Accordingly, the health of the Bay and its tributaries directly impacts the daily lives and well being of these swimmers.

During their difficult 100-mile swim, the team encountered strong currents, six-foot tidal waves, submerged hazards, and even a bump from a sea lion. But the swimmers weren’t deterred. They were defending the right to clean, healthy, swimmable waterways and demonstrating that these waters aren’t solely a habitat for fish and wildlife—people depend on them too.

The swimmers traversed one of the most ecologically productive and sensitive watersheds in the nation. The route started in the Sacramento River, where the swimmers crossed Steamboat Slough, a critical habitat for the endangered Chinook Salmon. As they merged into the Delta and entered Suisun Marsh, they swam through an ecologically rich area that attracts vast numbers of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway and provides habitat for the endangered Green Sturgeon and Delta Smelt. On the last day of their journey, as the swimmers approached San Francisco Bay, they passed through the waters off Point Pinole, a critical site for eelgrass and native oyster restoration.

The swim route was also lined with polluted sites, which pose a threat to the health of the Bay-Delta. In the 100 miles of waterways from Sacramento to the Bay, there are four state-designated ‘Toxic Hotspots,’ twenty-plus sewage outfalls from wastewater treatment plants and many discharge pipes carrying pollution from oil refineries, power plants and chemical manufacturers. The swimmers also traveled past the Ghost Fleet, the decommissioned fleet of World War II ships that leach toxic metals like copper, mercury and lead into Suisun Marsh.

Baykeeper has been working for more than twenty years to keep pollution out of the Bay—from sewage spills and industrial chemicals to abandoned boats and invasive species—in order to create a healthy, thriving estuary that is swimmable, fishable and drinkable. We were honored by the epic journey that the seven Dolphin Clubbers made to highlight Baykeeper’s work and to defend the right to swim in healthy waterways. Their unique in-the-water perspective of the Bay-Delta will continue to inspire and inform Baykeeper’s work to protect the Bay.

To view a map of the race and see pictures and videos of the swim, visit

 For general information about Baykeeper’s work to keep pollution out of the Bay, visit