Fifty years ago, the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay was almost entirely privately owned. Even if you’d wanted to go down and sit by the water, you couldn’t have. And you probably wouldn't have wanted to in the first place, says David Lewis.
"The bay was choked with sewage and toxic waste. There were no environmental laws, no regulations. The bay was really dying before our eyes."
Lewis is executive director of Save the Bay. For decades, he says, the bay had functioned as official and unofficial trash dump for nearly every city on its perimeter.
San Francisco Bay's Grim Future
Dumping garbage into the bay wasn’t only convenient, it served the larger goal of getting rid of the bay entirely.
"There was a proposal by the Rockefeller brothers," says Lewis, "to actually chop down the top of San Bruno Mountain and move it by conveyor belt to the west side of the bay, creating more fill the size of Manhattan out in the bay."
According to Richard Walker, a professor of geography at UC Berkeley, this was the ethos of the day: The bay served no purpose. To fill it up was to make it useful.
"We’d had the depression, the war. There was lot of money to be made in expanding cities, expanding highways, building bridges," he says.
In 1959, the United States Army Corps of Engineers released a study showing that 70 percent of the San Francisco Bay could be filled and transformed into usable land. The City of Berkeley, meanwhile, had proposed to double its size by extending three miles into the bay.
This caught the attention of three Berkeley women: Sylvia McLaughlin, Catherine "Kay" Kerr, and Esther Gulick. Married to prominent UC Berkeley faculty members, the women had strong political connections in the area, as well as to local groups such as the Sierra Club.
They decided to call a meeting of local conservationists (the word "environmentalist" didn't exist yet). Once those activists found out about the plans for the bay, surely they'd swing into action.
But they didn't.
"They were all busy doing their own things," recalls McLaughlin, who is now 94 and lives in the Berkeley hills. "They were saving the redwoods, this and that. They said they they understood the need but they were too busy to help."
A New Movement Takes Shape
And so, in 1961, Save the Bay was born as a campaign to stop cities from filling in the Bay. McLaughlin says it was not always a popular position to take. "I got called all kinds of names, not very complementary," she recalls.
But while developers complained, Save the Bay was growing as an organization, in ways that other groups hadn’t thought to do in the past.
"They very wisely turned themselves into a mass organization by charging $1 for membership," says UC Berkeley's Walker. "And they very quickly had thousands, even tens of thousands of members within two years."
In addition to its vast membership, Save the Bay rallied the media. Pete Seeger even wrote a song about the Bay, calling it a "sludge puddle, sad and gray."
Until this point, says Walker, environmentalism had been a small, elite movement. But Save the Bay changed that. It resembled other major movements of the day, civil rights, free speech, and, eventually, the anti-war movement: Popular movements of ordinary people, trying to change policy.
"Save the Bay is absolutely there at the birth of that kind of popular environmentalism," says Walker.
In 1965, California passed the McAteer Petris Act, which created a new agency, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which has the power to stop development on the Bay.
Thanks to that, to the 1972 Clean Water Act and other laws, the bay is much cleaner. And after decades of shrinking, it’s getting bigger, thanks to wetland restoration. That leaves a host of new challenges, including sea level rise and invasive species.
But we’re starting from a different place now than we were in the sixties. And that is thanks to the deceptively simple idea that occurred to Sylvia McLaughlin, while looking out of her window, half a century ago.
"This is something we don’t have a lot of other places," she says "and we have to take care of it."
You can watch excerpts of the wonderful, four-part documentary "Saving the Bay," on the show's website.