Comments on the "Scope of Services" for the State Parks Waterbird Study of the North Sailing Basin

by Jim McGrath, Port of Oakland

From Wed Dec 17 00:16:49 2003
Date: Wed, 10 Dec 2003 15:42:16 -0800
From: Jim McGrath
Subject: Study of rafting birds in North Basin

I came across a copy of a scope of services and your e-mail on Paul Kamen's site; apparently you are managing a study effort to look at the compatibility of non-motorized boating activities and bird use within the Eastshore State Park. I think that your study is not properly scoped for meeting the purposes established in the Eastshore State Park Master Plan, and needs modification. These constitute my comments, as well as a request for notification of such study efforts.

My qualifications include more than 30 years in the environmental field, including 14 years running the Environmental Planning Department at the Port of Oakland, where I completed CEQA documents as my primary mission. I have also worked on approximately 20 different wetland restoration projects, including projects that the Port of Oakland has implemented in San Francisco Bay, and many wetland restoration projects that were reviewed and permitted by the California Coastal Commission. I also spend about 130 days each year on San Francisco Bay; about 100 days on a windsurfer, 30 days in a kayak, and multiple other days in miscellaneous shoreline and water-based tours. I have been active in planning for the Eastshore State Park for over 20 years, and have kayaked every bit of the park, during different seasons and weather conditions.


The scope of services suggests that the standard for analysis is that "waterbirds are not adversely affected." This is incorrect; the established standard for impact, under CEQA and under the adopted plan, is that impacts to rafting birds cannot be significant. This recognizes that some impact may be tolerated, and requires the Department to develop a standard of significance. I will tell you from my experience that diving ducks, which consititute the vast majority of rafting birds in the Eastshore State Park and other portions of the Bay, flush when a kayak approaches within about 100 feet. Such ducks also flush at loud noises; particularly with power boats, where they flush at much greater distances from the noise source. The Audubon Society argues that flushing is an energy expenditure, which it no doubt is. The analytical question is whether that energy expenditure, on an occasional basis on a small part of the Bay's rafting habitat, constitutes a significant impact. Right now, the study is too narrowly focussed to answer that question.


The portion of the Eastshore State Park in the North Basin that supports rafting birds is only a small portion of the water area within the Park that supports rafting birds. I have kayaked throughout the park, and notice rafting birds at different locations. For example, on November 30, I kayaked from the beach park near the Ashby off-ramp to the marsh adjacent to the toll plaza. At that time, there were rafting birds offshore of the beach, but the heaviest concentration of rafting birds was parallel to the shoreline, at about the location where the Bay Bridge leaves the land. I suspect that the location of rafting birds depends on tides and wave state, but I don't have enough, or systematic enough observations, to support that hypothesis in any detail.

Rafting occurs throughout other areas of the bay as well. For example, on November 2, 2003, I saw very large groups of diving ducks and shorebirds immediately offshore of Hamilton Airfield's fringing marsh. I also saw many thousands of birds disturbed by the passage of a racing boat about a half mile offshore.

I establish these facts to argue that a study of rafting birds must look at the entire resource within San Francisco Bay, not merely the possible presence of rafting within a small portion of the State Park. It is axiomatic in ecology that the survival of individuals is not the critical concern; rather survival and successful reproduction of a stable population is the critical concern. To narrow the focus to only a portion of the Park and ignore the rest of the Bay ignores ecology, and calls the results into question. At a minimum, the study needs to map areas of the Bay that are used by rafting ducks. There are ample sources in the literature, including the annual Christmas count by the Audubon Society, to identify and map such areas.

It may well be that there are inordinately high values with the State Park that give this area substantially greater value for rafting ducks than other areas. If that is the case, a threshold of significance can be drawn at a much lower level of disturbance. However, this should be based upon comparisons between the values observed here and the values observed at at least one control site.


Currently, I kayak throughout the Bay, and, upon occasion, disturb waterfowl. Since I bird by kayak, I try to be careful, but have a disturbance effect. I also observe such disturbances from other motorized and non-motorized craft. All of this use is established, and protected under the Public Trust Doctrine. The Bay is publicly owned land, and I have certain use rights. An adequate baseline study of the habitat values in question must evaluate current usage and effects, because the question to be answered is whether or not development of formal boating facilities, as called for in the Master Plan, would have significant impacts. Thus, the study must identify the increment between existing and potential uses, and associated disturbances.

Please keep me informed of the results of this study. I would prefer to be given written notice of such matters to:

Jim McGrath
2301 Russell Street
Berkeley, CA 94705