Saving the bay

Pub date October 6, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion

GREEN CITY When three women from the Berkeley Hills banded together in 1961 to halt monstrous development plans that would have filled in huge swaths of the San Francisco Bay, it became what some have characterized as the first-ever grassroots environmental campaign in the Bay Area.

Critics dismissed Catherine Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick as "enemies of progress, impractical idealists, do-gooders, posy pickers, eco-freaks, enviro-maniacs, little old ladies in tennis shoes, and even almond cookie revolutionaries," Gulick once told a crowd at UC Berkeley. But their critics were defeated in the end, and popular support for preserving the bay prevailed.

Organizing initially over almond cookies and tea, the trio of housewives forged ahead with the Save San Francisco Bay Association, which later evolved into Save The Bay. They drummed up widespread support for stronger coastal protections to curb rampant bay fill and garbage dumping along the waterfront.

Their efforts eventually helped spur the creation of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), which later served as a template for the creation of the California Coastal Commission and influenced the push for federal coastline protection.

This bit of history is the key narrative to Saving The Bay, a four-part documentary series produced by filmmaker Ron Blatman, KQED, and KTEH to tell the story of the San Francisco Bay. Narrated by Robert Redford and featuring luminaries like oceanographer Sylvia Earle, former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and renowned California historian Kevin Starr, the four-hour documentary is the most comprehensive history of the bay ever produced.

The filmmaker refers to it as "the project that ate my life," since it took seven years to complete. His production crew amassed about 1,000 images from 70 different institutions, he says, and even collected historic film clips to illustrate the story through the lens of various eras. The funding was provided by a host of public agencies and corporate donors.

"The title comes from the three women in the Berkeley Hills," explains Blatman. But the series begins at a much earlier point in history: the time when the Miwok and Ohlone were the only people who inhabited the area, which was rich with natural wonder and teeming with fish and wildlife.

In some ways, the story of the San Francisco Bay is depressing. Viewers are confronted with the dramatic impacts that 160 years of industry and development have had on the region’s once-thriving ecosystem. From the loss of native tribes to the collapse of fisheries, to fill projects that permanently altered wetlands to lingering toxic byproducts of heavy industry, San Francisco’s transformation from a sleepy little town before the Gold Rush era into today’s thriving metropolitan hub has brought no shortage of irreversible environmental consequences.

Still, Blatman says that in the end, it’s a feel-good story. "If you went back 40 years and drew a projection of what the bay would look like today, you’d never get this picture," he points out. The Save the Bay movement revolutionized the way people thought about the San Francisco Bay, he says, and the preservation mindset has marked a positive turnaround. Today, wetland restoration projects abound, and people are accustomed to the idea that the shoreline is a resource that is equally shared by all members of the public — even though these were radical concepts several decades ago.

The inception of this documentary project was accidental, Blatman says. It started because Will Travis, executive director of BCDC, needed something better than the low-quality educational slideshow he used to bring new BCDC commissioners up to speed on the natural history of the bay. A mutual friend introduced the two, and the filmmaker agreed to produce a half-hour educational piece. But the project grew deeper, wider, and much longer.

Lately, Travis says his focus has shifted from educating people about the past to warning them about the future. As a consequence of climate change, sea levels are rising, and the bay is projected to expand. "I hate to tell Ron," Travis jokes, "but he’s going to have to make another film."

Saving the Bay premieres on KQED Channel 9 Thursday evenings Oct. 8 and 15 from 8-10 p.m. (repeating overnight and Sundays Oct. 11 and 18 noon-2 p.m.). The series will then run on KTEH four successive Thursday evenings Oct. 22 to Nov. 12 from 9-10 p.m. For more, visit