SAUSALITO -- Thought I’d go for a little jaunt.
Maybe start somewhere in the Delta – why not, Locke, perhaps? – follow the river down to Honker Bay, stroll over the foothills to go through Napa County and over to San Pablo Bay, before circling around to Marin County and over the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, then skirting the Peninsula and inland clear to the San Joaquin River before hustling back to Sacramento.
Easily done. Should take me 15 minutes, a half-hour at most.
Well, it turned out, I needed a full hour to make the trip. Please forgive the humble-brag, but I must be slowing down in my dotage.
Then again, it’s easy to get distracted when circumnavigating the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary, that vast maze of waterways that encompass 1,600 square miles, from the mouth at the Golden Gate to 70 miles inland where the Delta is fed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which, in turn, rely on the always-precarious Sierra snowmelt.
There’s so much to drink in, so to speak: those sinuous Delta channels weaving among sloughs and levees, the 72,000 acres of tidal wetlands in Suisun Bay and the deep mingling of salt and fresh water in the so-called Null Zone at the Carquinez Strait, the riparian splendor of San Pablo Bay and China Camp, the commercial bustle of ports and marinas around Oakland and San Francisco and the stagnant, salinity-rich shallow reaches of the South Bay.
Of course, you must know that I didn’t actually hoof it around Northern California’s watershed. I did make my way around the Bay Model, which, as everyone knows, is the really cool building at a 11/2-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s facility here that reduces the bay estuary 1:1,000th scale, where the 24-hour tide cycle is pared to 14.9 minutes, as 180,000 gallons of water flows via hydraulics through channels, straits and bays, writ small, contoured precisely like the physical features of the environment.
But you knew all that, right?
Probably not … unless you went to grade school in the Bay Area and made a field trip here.
The Army Corps reports that about 160,000 people visit the Bay Model each year, a surprisingly small number given that it resides within a short walk from downtown Sausalito, which teems with camera- and map-toting tourists who’ve made the ferry or bus ride over from San Francisco for a day trip. As I was making my way one recent afternoon to the Bay Model, I got stuck behind one of those open-topped red buses. It stopped in downtown Sausalito and disgorged a dozen or so passengers and then continued on down the Bridgeway to the entrance to the Bay Model, where it stopped and, well, didn’t let out a soul.
Their loss. Lest you think the Bay Model only appeals to science geeks and ardent environmentalists, bear in mind that I got a C-plus in Mr. Pence’s science class in high school, and I don’t spend nights of existential anguish over the paper-or-plastic question.
But I was fascinated by the Bay Model. I actually learned something about the flow and flux of water, that precious resource, how drought, floods, dredging and damming and, yes, diversion to other locales, affects our eco-system’s delicate balance. There’s no mock-up – yet – of the proposed Delta Tunnels, the controversial water-diversion plan, but with a little work you can suss out the spot deep in the Delta.
If you’ve got any type of conscience, you will leave the building having renewed a vow to refrain from 20-minute showers, asking at restaurants for water that you don’t drink and turning on the lawn sprinklers.
Even if you don’t give a whit about conservation, it’s simply dazzling to see a miniature Bay Area and its waterways spread out in a former warehouse built during World War II to store parts for Liberty ships.
It’s, like, the coolest science fair experiment ever conceived. The land- and seascapes are rendered with precision, every tiny island and winding levee dutifully included. Even the ugly Carquinez Bridge is immediately recognizable, and someone had the gumption to add a scale-model of AT&T Park and the “Splash Zone” at McCovey Cove in its rightful spot.
Actually, it once served a purpose and, in fact, helped prevent what might have been an environmental calamity about 55 years ago.
The Bay Model owes its very existence to some governmental forward-thinkers (oh, stop laughing, and don’t send me emails) who wanted to find a way to determine whether a controversial plan in the 1950s to dam the San Francisco Bay in two locations would be feasible and environmentally sustainable. Yes, hard to believe, but at one time, some policymakers wanted to solve the Bay Area’s enduring water-supply shortage by putting one dam just south of the Bay Bridge and another near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to make freshwater lakes fed by the Delta and clog much of the bay with landfill.
In 1954, the federal government spent about $400,000 to build what would become the largest hydraulic working model of an eco-system in the United States. By the early 1960s, an Army Corps report based on data gleaned from simulating dams and landfill showed that the plan would result in some serious flooding, sewage backup and failed levees, while devastating ports in Oakland, Sacramento and Stockton.
That plan was subsequently scrapped. But the Bay Model endured. Researchers used it to simulate how oil spills and coastal development could affect the bay and determine what consequences would ensue during a long-term drought.
But since 2000, the Bay Model has been just that – a model – used only for educational purposes and to entertain the curious. That’s because, as with most things, virtual computer modeling now yields the same results, only much cheaper.
Rather than let the Bay Model dry out and rot, the Army Corps poured $15 million in renovations in 2012 to keep it looking spiffy and to improve the gift shop and visitors center. I just would like to see a few more visitors, though as I was leaving, another open-top red tour bus was pulling up and a few brave souls wandered out to take a look-see. They had their cameras poised.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis