Not just fun and games, America’s Cup races have environmental toll

By Alison Hawkes

Photo: Port of San Diego

The America’s Cup races are two years away, but San Francisco is already bracing for the massive crowds and construction that will accompany the international sailing competition.

Among the first items of business is raising $32 million in private funds to pay for police, transportation, and other public services so that public coffers aren’t touched.

And a sped-up environmental review of the plans has recently launched in an effort to lessen the impact on the San Francisco Bay and shoreline, while not getting in the way of a tight timeline. So far, environmental groups are optimistic that such a goal can be achieved. They’ve banded together in a group of about a dozen to review the city’s plans and coordinate responses.

“I think we feel very uneasy but I think we’ve committed to helping to make this process work,” said Jennifer Clary, president of San Francisco Tomorrow.

Although the event plans are still vague, environmental groups have started identifying ways in which the races may harm water quality and wildlife, if not properly mitigated. A number of the spectator viewing areas align sensitive wildlife habitat, such as Crissy Field, the Marin Headlands, Angel Island, and Yerba Buena Island.

“The fact of the matter is people will go where people can see. You’re not going to have enough stands to accommodate the tens of thousands of people who come in,” Clary said. “We know that people gather where they can and nothing is sacred.”

To that end, the environmental groups may suggest the games be heavily staffed with monitors who will corral the crowds away from habitat areas, the construction of barriers, and good signage.

In the water, boat traffic is also a concern. Deb Self, the executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper, said recreational boaters, who will be allowed in certain areas on the bay during the races, could harm water quality if sewage outputs are not properly in place.

She also expects boatyards to see an uptick in business as boaters spruce up their beauties before they set sail. But the paint that’s scraped off is often copper-based to keep barnacles and grasses from growing on the hull and is toxic to wildlife.

“Most boatyards are on the edge because of the economy,” Self said. “They don’t have the money to invest in a big, $300,000 [water] treatment system.”

She said the city could offer a low cost loan program to help boatyards make the investment in water quality infrastructure.

The sewage system is also a problem along the Embarcadero, which is owned by the Port of San Francisco. If not upgraded to handle the extra load from the games, raw sewage could be flushed into the Bay, said Self.

Although the 2013 summer races will take place outside the height of migratory bird season, more boat traffic on the bay could disturb birds as they raft and forage, said Mike Lynes, conservation director for Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Construction of shoreline facilities could also impair water quality, while concrete spillage during pier construction or demolition could cover up sensitive foraging habitat at the bottom of the bay.

“They’re doing a lot of construction on the waterfront and disturbing soils. Some of those soils might be contaminated, so what does that mean?” Lynes said.

Oracle founder Larry Ellison chose San Francisco as the site of the next America’s Cup in late December, following the Oracle Team’s capture of the trophy earlier in the year, marking the first time a U.S. city stages the international sailing competition in almost two decades. Then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom negotiated a development deal with Ellison that allows the Oracle Team to invest $80 million in renovating city-managed piers in exchange for 66-year to 75-year leases on the the piers in the South of Market district.

Newsom upset many in the environmental community by initially proposing that the environmental review process be skipped in the interest of avoiding the obstacles of a prolonged governmental approval process. Preliminary races are scheduled to begin next year.

Following an outcry by environmental groups, a compromise deal was struck for an expedited environmental review. Officials have set a March 11 deadline for public comment and plan to have the final environmental review signed by the end of this year. Two public meetings on the project’s scoping plan were held last week.

Environmental groups say they wish the scoping plan had more details, but are nevertheless cooperating with the city to meet its deadlines. Some say the races could also be a positive influence on the San Francisco Bay.

“I and all the other groups believe it can be done right and believe the city wants it to be done right,” said Self. “We really want to showcase this amazing place we live in and … our environmental values.”

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12 Responses to Not just fun and games, America’s Cup races have environmental toll

  1. Daily Digest | Save The Bay Blog on 03/01/2011 at 9:29 am

    [...] Out West News 2/28/2011 Not just fun and games, America’s Cup races have environmental toll The America’s Cup races are two years away, but San Francisco is already bracing for the massive [...]

    • Todd Mehserle on 03/01/2011 at 10:28 pm

      @Deb Self; recreational boaters, in particular sailors, are very careful with pollution as it relates to our Bay. To say that boatyards now will do more bottom work because of the Americas Cup and now need to spend 300K on some equipment is just not substanciated by any fact. All boats periodicly have the bottoms redone at approved sites with good oversight by responsible marina yard personnel on an annual, semi annual and sometimes never timeframe. True, to “spruce up” their craft they may wax the boat and stock up the cooler, but bottom jobs going through the roof?? I just dont see it and am open to any info Ms Self has on this subject.

      We should be careful both on land with habitat and on the water. The key about waste isues is making sure the pump outs in the marinas ringing the bay have functional equipment during peak times so all are able to dispose of the effluent efficently and at an approved site where they already do it now. This is NOT new to boaters how to take care of these meanial matters.

      Come on San Francisco ….Working together on the right issues, it will all go well. But, lets not treat this as some way to force more enviromental gobbledy goop on boaters. Herald this moment! It may never happen again in your lifetime. Todd Mehserle P/C Vallejo YC

  2. Mark on 03/01/2011 at 3:13 pm

    ahhh, CALI-fornya.. I’m truly embarrassed for your state. Environmental toll?hmm, well, let’s see…YOU get a world class event and all you can do is whine about what MIGHT happen?? Get a friggin life people! Your states problems exist because of the attitude of a few. The ‘life sucks and people shouldn’t be alive’ group makes it tough on everybody.

  3. oceanlover on 03/01/2011 at 3:45 pm

    Most of these problems already exist, regardless of the AC activity, right? It’s the city/counties fault the sewers stink. And what about the boatyards on the bay that ALREADY DO have environmental programs above and beyond current regulations? Bottom paints have been getting cleaner and cleaner. I see environmental organizations driving 2 strokes on the bay? Not to mention how many people drive cars everywhere and use toxic products daily. What we really need are some more good old fashioned bumper stickers made with plastic/petroleum on our polluting cars pointing out the other people’s contribution while ignoring our own. Boaters are on the Bay, who else would notice what the heck is going on out there? Shipping traffic might be diverted and keep the bay cleaner?

  4. Mike C on 03/01/2011 at 3:45 pm

    Interesting article, however in it you answer the question asked i na previous article on why kids do not believe global warming. The article is written as an alarmist peice. THis is the type of work that get published and read, however not taken very seriously, since the press has been printing the sky is falling stories for so long the press is not taken seriously. (Think Silent Spring, AL GOre’s coment that we only have until 20whatever to save the world.)
    It is a serious issue the fact that all economic activity has an impact on the world about us. The reality is that since people do not see the dead fish floating on the river, the oil soaked birds on the beach and the filthy air we used to have to breath (I used to joke that the smog in the San Gabriel Valley was so bad in the 1960 that I was suprised it did not ignite when my dad lit his cigarette)(no the air is not pure , but it used to be a LOT worse).

    Yes there will be environmental impacts due to the AMerica’s cup as thier is to the Red Bul races, the road races at Laguna Seca, and even running the web . (Which is actually a real impact on the world due to the HUGE power consumption of data centers.)

    What is the answer? I think a sober rational approach of reasoned estimation of the impact balanced by review of these estimates from well established data bases of similar activities, then a ration assesment of reasoned effective impact reduction efforts.

    The worst thing that can happen from the environmental preservation effort POV would be to over estimate the harm, parley this overestimation into a disaster scenario, then on the day after the event when the gereral population does not see the degradation, to watch what little goodwill they have built up go down the drain in the utterance of “I do not see the problem ” from all those who veiw the bay every day on thier way to and from work.

    • J Pollock on 03/02/2011 at 8:50 am


    • David on 03/02/2011 at 9:54 am

      Well said!

  5. oceanlover on 03/01/2011 at 3:52 pm

    There are also already sewage discharge laws in the bay.

  6. Errol on 03/01/2011 at 4:35 pm

    Oh come on now. Let’s eliminate all sports. Sports cause an environmental toll. Anything man does causes an environmental toll, Eliminate ourselves, then there will be no environmental toll. I think your head is turning green, enough already!

  7. Mike on 03/01/2011 at 5:03 pm

    Some of these environmental groups are really out there. When San Leandro Marina needed to dredge their marina, the spoils were considered toxic and were not allowed to be dumped in the bay. They came from the bay but cannot go back to the bay?

    Environmental concern is good, but they need to stay realistic when looking at these things. Nature has the ability to be resilient, and fix it self more times then not. Let’s hope the do not strangle hold the city and event on overstated environmental concerns.


  8. Drew Harper on 03/02/2011 at 7:51 am

    I think the citizens, the stakeholders and the sailing community at large in the Bay area have a clear vision on just what this is going to take to do it right. I believe this to be a case where private/public development, overseen by a reasonable and rational team of regulators will generate a solid win for the waterfront. We have piers literally falling into the water that will see full restoration up to current seismic code, keeping in mind public access as per BCDC requirements.

    As a RESULT of the America’s Cup, boatyard owners and developers will have the cash flow to implement the best containment and treatment systems in the US. Many of the larger yards in the area already have installed such systems and have full implementation of best practices for the environment in place.

    San Francisco has little opportunity to refurbish it’s dilapidated infrastructure without events such as America’s Cup. We’ll never see the Olympics for odd political reasons and the America’s Cup is just what the City and surrounding communities needed.

    Let’s all work together to make San Francisco’s version of this worldly event the best ever seen. Let’s fill the City with enthusiastic sailors, with kids and parents and grandparents all looking towards the future of sailing and the City itself. With some careful thought and planning we can turn the dilapidated San Francisco waterfront into the sailing mecca we all know it can become… Truly a ‘bucket list’ destination for sailors from all over the globe.

  9. Todd Mehserle on 03/02/2011 at 11:56 pm

    Cheers Drew, well said!


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