Designed to mimic natural-occurring structures — like mangrove roots and coral growths — that harbor marine biodiversity, installing living seawalls is becoming a popular practice that better traditional exposed concrete ocean barriers. And San Francisco is getting one along the Embarcadero over the course of the next few years.
Within the next hundred years, a hypothetical 25’ sea-level rise could effectively wipe out the Embarcadero — as well Bayview-Hunters Point, the Mission District, and the Marina District. Though that severity of sea-level rise won’t come our way for some time, the next three decades might see the San Francisco Bay swell by nearly two feet. It's not a question of if sea-level rise will affect SF's waterfront areas, it's merely just a question of when… and how prepared we are for that inevitable future.
Alas, how the City and its residents can mitigate those effects and coexist with that reality remains a top priority. Case and point: SF’s first-of-its-kind floating firehouse was moved across the Bay to its new permanent home at Pier 22 1/2 back in 2020, which is part of the San Francisco Fire Department's preparedness efforts for both earthquakes and rising sea levels.
In an effort to help lessen the impact from rising tides, as well as bolster the San Francisco Bay's marine ecosystems, the Port of San Francisco is working in tandem with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to erect a series of living seawalls along the Embarcadero.
Announced Friday, the launch of the pilot project, named the "Living Seawall Pilot," will include the use of special seawall tiles along the Embarcadero that will be installed over the span of at least two years, per the organizations; the tiles are intended to promote biodiversity and support native aquatic species.
“While the Bay Area has had a strong focus on ecological approaches, most of these efforts have focused on land-based solutions, such as marshes and coarse grain beaches,” SERC researcher and ecologist Andrew Chang said to KRON4. “There has been less attention to opportunities to introduce living seawalls.”
According to the news outlet, participating researchers plan to install the textured tiles starting this summer at Pier 45 Breakwater, the Agricultural Building seawall, and South Beach Harbor East Breakwater. Once installed, each will help differing tide depths, wave heights and intensities, and even salinity levels along the harbor; living seawalls have also been studied to show they can protect the base of cliffs, land, and buildings against erosion. Moreover, living seawalls are advantageous in earthquake-prone areas, as they are less likely to collapse or sustain severe damage than traditional concrete ones.
It's estimated that the SF's three-mile rock and concrete seawall protects more than $100B in assets, annual economic activity, and regional transportation infrastructure. Coming in at roughly $1M to erect the new living seawall sections — funding secured from 2018’s $425M bond measure Proposition A — it's a no-brainer investment for the city's local economy, public transportation, and the Bay Area’s marine flora and fauna.
Photo: Getty Images/DianeBentleyRaymond