Making Waves at 35: Protecting the Bay’s Bottom

Ocean Beach from the air

In celebration of our 35th year of defending San Francisco Bay, each month we’re sharing significant victories that we’ve won together. And we’re highlighting how these wins are still making waves today! 

Protecting the Bay’s Sand and Sediment

One of the biggest threats to the health of San Francisco Bay happens out of sight along the Bay floor, where private companies have been mining sand for over a century. 

Sand is a limited natural resource that’s being removed from the Bay faster than it’s replenished. Mining it unsustainably means there will be less sand to support the organisms, like Dungeness crab, that depend on a healthy Bay floor. And there will be less sand to naturally shore up wetlands and areas with severe erosion like San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.

In 2011, Baykeeper’s staff scientist was testifying at an agency hearing when he learned that two private mining companies had applied for permits to double the amount of sand that could be taken from the Bay. That meant they would be able to remove and sell an unprecedented 2 million cubic yards of sand every year. The Bay’s sand would be sold for a profit to make building materials like concrete used for parking lots and buildings.

So Baykeeper took legal action. Our lawsuit challenged the state’s approval of those permits allowing sand mining at unsustainable levels. We argued that the state must protect the Bay’s sand on behalf of all Californians, under a legal principle called the public trust doctrine. 

In response, the state made the brash claim that it has the authority to sell Bay sand for any purpose, regardless of the harm to the Bay’s wetlands or public beaches.

While the case made its way through the legal system, our advocacy efforts resulted in a decision by local regulatory agencies to limit allowable sand mining levels to just 1.4 million cubic yards a year, which was a good first step.

Then in 2018, in a landmark public trust decision, the California Court of Appeal agreed with Baykeeper that the Bay’s sand belongs to YOU—and to me, and to everyone else who lives around the Bay. That means the state cannot allow private sand mining, unless it first ensures that the activity won’t harm public resources, like local beaches and wetlands.

In fact, because of the broad language of the ruling, the state’s approval ofany resource extraction, inanywaterway in California, will likely require a higher standard to demonstrate that the removal won’t harm public resources.That’s a major victory!

And there are other ways we’re protecting the Bay’s bottom—notable wins include:

  • 1990 Stopping illegal dredging: Soon after Baykeeper’s founding, an anonymous tipster reported that a San Francisco shipyard was illegally dredging the Bay at night without permits. Our volunteer investigators paddled out in kayaks after dark to monitor and take detailed notes, unseen by the company’s operators. We turned the evidence over to the EPA and called on the Department of Justice to take action. A trial resulted in a criminal conviction that imposed fines on the company and sent two employees to jail. It was one of our first victories to protect the Bay’s bottom.
  • 2020 Stopping a favor to Big Oil: The Army Corps of Engineers planned to deepen a shipping channel through the Bay to Stockton. The project—all at taxpayers’ expense—would primarily benefit oil refineries, since deeper channels allow refineries to load even larger oil tankers. The dredging would have caused lasting damage to the Bay floor and involved dredging machinery that could have harmed fish and crab. And, bigger oil tankers would mean even more oil on the Bay, a higher risk of spills locally, and more dirty fuel stoking the global climate crisis. Baykeeper and our allies actively opposed the Army Corps’ dredging plan, raising significant legal and technical concerns during the public rulemaking process. Our efforts paid off, and the Corps withdrew its plans.
  • 2024 Release of new sand mining studies: Responding to Baykeeper’s advocacy, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission required the sand miners to fund scientific studies to identify how sand mining affects the Bay’s wetlands and coastal beaches. Among other findings, newly released reports confirmed that sand in the Bay is associated with sand along the coast, and this resource is mined from the Bay more quickly than the watershed can replenish it. The studies confirmed what Baykeeper already knew: Bay sand is a critical non-renewable resource. Baykeeper scientists will review the new studies and get ready to make an even stronger case for sustainable sand mining the next time the state considers new permits.

Together, we’ve been successful in protecting San Francisco Bay and its sand and sediment. We’ll keep fighting to hold government agencies and private companies accountable, and make sure they work to protect our precious public resources.

Baykeeper’s work has made waves across the Bay—and your support over the years has made it all possible. You can learn about our victories against sand mining, and more, by clicking on the image of Baykeeper’s timeline of historic wins below.

Photo of Ocean Beach by Robb Most with thanks to our partners at LightHawk Conservation Flying