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Senator Feinstein in 2010 cuts the ribbon to open the first Restoration Project trail and shorebird habitat enhancements at Ravenswood
Senator Feinstein in 2010 cuts the ribbon to open the first Restoration Project trail and shorebird habitat enhancements at Ravenswood

Remembering and Thanking Dianne Feinstein

Those of us who work on environmental projects in and around the edges of San Francisco Bay experienced a meaningful loss last week.

I’m referring to the passing of Senator Dianne Feinstein at the age of 90, which most of us read or heard about as part of an already complicated Friday morning, what with the end of the federal fiscal year and a possible federal government shutdown looming.

I first heard the name “Dianne Feinstein” when I was a little kid growing up in San Francisco. I was too young to know about politics or government and certainly not political parties, but I knew what a mayor was. And I learned from my grandparents that San Francisco was about to have its first female mayor – for a reason that was both complicated and scary, for a little kid, at least. 

As I grew, I tracked her career in politics because in a weird way, I felt like I knew her, even though I didn’t. My childhood mayor went on to serve effectively in that role for almost a decade and was elected a U.S. Senator in 1992. She served there until just a few days ago. This is all news, and you aren’t here to get your news. But I wanted to set a little context for the rest of this post.

My career-based interest in Dianne Feinstein continued, though. In the early 2000s, I was a research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and my Chief Scientist had a project involving modeling the environmental outcomes of different land use policies at Lake Tahoe. It was around that time that Senator Feinstein was directing national attention (and a lot of federal money) to the Lake Tahoe basin in attempts to offset the loss of clarity in the famously clear blue waters of the lake itself. More than once, she spoke at the annual Lake Tahoe Summit events she helped initiate. I met her briefly at one of those and was impressed with her forceful personality and commitment to that cause.

In 2003, she again made huge headlines for her success in personally championing and negotiating the $100 million acquisition from Cargill, Inc. of the 15,100 acres of former salt-production ponds that now comprise the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. That was a tremendous accomplishment. Though of course Cargill was a willing seller and donator of those lands (this was not a taking, after all), the return to public management of an area the size of Manhattan doesn’t just happen. She led that charge – it wouldn’t have happened without her. She not only convened the people in the organizations to make the acquisition happen, but I’m pretty sure (I have no evidence for this, of course, but…) she helped negotiate the price and the terms of the deal and then helped raise the federal government’s share of the cost. That deal was completed over 20 years ago now, as I wrote about earlier this year, and we have been working on restoring those ponds to tidal marsh ever since.

Her work for Bay restoration continued. In 2016, she was also a hugely prominent and influential backer of Measure AA, the 9-county voter initiative that set up an annual parcel tax to raise $25 million per year for 20 years to fund water quality, flood protection, public access, habitat restoration, and sea-level rise adaptation projects in San Francisco Bay. More generally, her efforts helped raise the profile of San Francisco Bay in Washington, D.C., to levels that were closer to those of other large American estuaries such as Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, and the Great Lakes. For decades, those interior U.S. waters had received federal attention and dollars that dwarfed those directed to San Francisco Bay. But Senator Feinstein and the rest of the California congressional delegation began to change that.

Politics are complicated and personal, and it’s not my intent to make this blog a place to discuss personal opinions on controversial topics that aren’t relevant here. But it’s both appropriate and important to acknowledge that the natural environments of San Francisco Bay, Lake Tahoe, and California as a whole are unquestionably better thanks to her actions. Those of us working in those fields owe her a debt of gratitude for the acquisition of the salt ponds and for her broader commitment to environmental issues.*

Please feel free to join me in a tip of the cap to Senator Dianne Feinstein for a life well-lived and a job well-done.

*She also had a tough row to hoe as a woman in politics in that generation, but a discussion of everything connected to those challenges would take more words than this blog can support. 

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