San Francisco Bay

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San Francisco Bay
Bay Area by Sentinel-2, 2019-03-11 (small version).jpg
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Red pog.svg
San Francisco Bay
Coordinates 37°40′N122°16′W / 37.67°N 122.27°W / 37.67; -122.27 [1]
Type Bay
River sources Sacramento River
San Joaquin River
Petaluma River
Napa River
Guadalupe River
Ocean/sea sourcesPacific Ocean
Basin  countriesUnited States
Max. length97 km (60 mi)
Max. width19 km (12 mi)
Surface area400–1,600 sq mi (1,000–4,100 km2)
Average depth12–15 ft (3.7–4.6 m) [2]
Max. depth372 ft (113 m)
Settlements San Francisco
San Jose
Official nameSan Francisco Bay/Estuary (SFBE)
DesignatedFebruary 2, 2013
Reference no.2097 [3]
Aerial panorama of the northern Bay, the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate, and Marin Headlands on a clear morning. November 2014 photo by Doc Searls. SF-Marin-Pt Reyes aerial panorama.jpg
Aerial panorama of the northern Bay, the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate, and Marin Headlands on a clear morning. November 2014 photo by Doc Searls.

San Francisco Bay is a large tidal estuary in the U.S. state of California, and gives its name to the San Francisco Bay Area. It is dominated by the cities of San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland.


San Francisco Bay drains water from approximately 40 percent of California. Water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and from the Sierra Nevada mountains, flow into Suisun Bay, which then travels through the Carquinez Strait to meet with the Napa River at the entrance to San Pablo Bay, which connects at its south end to San Francisco Bay. It then connects to the Pacific Ocean via the Golden Gate strait. However, this entire group of interconnected bays is often called the San Francisco Bay. The bay was designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance on February 2, 2013, and the Port of Oakland on the bay is one of the busiest cargo ports on the west coast.


The bay covers somewhere between 400 and 1,600 square miles (1,000–4,000 km2), depending on which sub-bays (such as San Pablo Bay), estuaries, wetlands, and so on are included in the measurement. [4] [5] [6] The main part of the bay measures three to twelve miles (5–19 km) wide east-to-west and somewhere between 48 miles (77 km) 1 and 60 miles (97 km) 2 north-to-south. It is the largest Pacific estuary in the Americas.

The bay was navigable as far south as San Jose until the 1850s, when hydraulic mining released massive amounts of sediment from the rivers that settled in those parts of the bay that had little or no current. Later, wetlands and inlets were deliberately filled in, reducing the Bay's size since the mid-19th century by as much as one third. Recently, large areas of wetlands have been restored, further confusing the issue of the Bay's size. Despite its value as a waterway and harbor, many thousands of acres of marshy wetlands at the edges of the bay were, for many years, considered wasted space. As a result, soil excavated for building projects or dredged from channels was often dumped onto the wetlands and other parts of the bay as landfill.

From the mid-19th century through the late 20th century, more than a third of the original bay was filled and often built on. The deep, damp soil in these areas is subject to soil liquefaction during earthquakes, and most of the major damage close to the Bay in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 occurred to structures on these areas.

The Marina District of San Francisco, hard hit by the 1989 earthquake, was built on fill that had been placed there for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, although liquefaction did not occur on a large scale. In the 1990s, San Francisco International Airport proposed filling in hundreds more acres to extend its overcrowded international runways in exchange for purchasing other parts of the bay and converting them back to wetlands. The idea was, and remains, controversial. (For further details, see the "Bay fill and depth profile" section.)

There are five large islands in San Francisco Bay. Alameda, the largest island, was created when a shipping lane was cut to form the Port of Oakland in 1901. It is now a suburban community. Angel Island was known as "Ellis Island West" because it served as the entry point for immigrants from East Asia. It is now a state park accessible by ferry. Mountainous Yerba Buena Island is pierced by a tunnel linking the east and west spans of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Attached to the north is the artificial and flat Treasure Island, site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. From the Second World War until the 1990s, both islands served as military bases and are now being redeveloped. Isolated in the center of the Bay is Alcatraz, the site of the famous federal penitentiary. The federal prison on Alcatraz Island no longer functions, but the complex is a popular tourist site. Despite its name, Mare Island in the northern part of the bay is a peninsula rather than an island.

Panorama of San Francisco Bay, and the city skyline seen from Marin County in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area


Population density and low elevation coastal zones in San Francisco Bay (2010). The San Francisco Bay is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Urban-Rural Population and Land Area Estimates, v2, 2010 San Francisco Bay, U.S. (13874137664).jpg
Population density and low elevation coastal zones in San Francisco Bay (2010). The San Francisco Bay is especially vulnerable to sea level rise.

San Francisco Bay is thought to represent a down-warping of the Earth's crust between the San Andreas Fault to the west and the Hayward Fault to the east, though the precise nature of this remains under study. About 560,000 years ago, a tectonic shift caused the large inland Lake Corcoran to spill out the central valley and through the Carquinez Strait, carving out sediment and forming canyons in what is now the northern part of the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate strait. [7]

Until the last ice age, the basin which is now filled by the San Francisco Bay was a large linear valley with small hills, similar to most of the valleys of the Coast Ranges. As the great ice sheets began to melt, around 11,000 years ago, the sea level started to rise. By 5000 BC the sea level rose 300 feet (90 m), filling the valley with water from the Pacific. [8] The valley became a bay, and the small hills became islands.


Canizares Map of San Francisco Bay 1781 Canizares Map of San Francisco Bay.pdf
Cañizares Map of San Francisco Bay

The indigenous inhabitants of the San Francisco Bay are Ohlone. [9] The first European to see San Francisco Bay is likely N. de Morena who was left at New Albion at Drakes Bay in Marin County, California, by Sir Francis Drake in 1579 and then walked to Mexico. [10] [11]

The first recorded European discovery of San Francisco Bay was on November 4, 1769, when Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolá, unable to find the Port of Monterey, continued north close to what is now Pacifica and reached the summit of the 1,200-foot-high (370 m) Sweeney Ridge, now marked as the place where he first sighted San Francisco Bay. Portolá and his party did not realize what they had discovered, thinking they had arrived at a large arm of what is now called Drakes Bay. [12] At the time, Drakes Bay went by the name Bahia de San Francisco and thus both bodies of water became associated with the name. Eventually, the larger, more important body of water fully appropriated the name San Francisco Bay.

The first European to enter the bay is believed to have been the Spanish explorer Juan de Ayala, who passed through the Golden Gate on August 5, 1775, in his ship the San Carlos and moored in a bay of Angel Island now known as Ayala Cove. Ayala continued to explore the Bay area and the expedition's cartographer, José de Cañizares, gathered the information necessary to produce the first map of the San Francisco Bay Area. A number of place names survive (anglicized) from that first map, including Point Reyes, Angel Island, Farallon Islands and Alcatraz Island.

The United States seized the region from Mexico during the Mexican–American War (1846–1848). On February 2, 1848, the Mexican province of Alta California was annexed to the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. A year and a half later, California requested to join the United States on December 3, 1849, and was accepted as the 31st State of the Union on September 9, 1850.

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San Francisco Bay Shoreline Tablet

In 1921, a tablet was dedicated by a group of men including Lewis Francis Byington, in downtown San Francisco, marking the site of the original shoreline. The tablet reads: "This tablet marks the shore line of San Francisco Bay at the time of the discovery of gold in California, January 24, 1848. Map reproduced above delineates old shore line. Placed by the Historic Landmarks committee, Native Sons of the Golden West, 1921." [13]

The Bay became the center of American settlement and commerce in the Far West through most of the remainder of the 19th century. During the California Gold Rush (1848–1855), San Francisco Bay suddenly became one of the world's great seaports, dominating shipping in the American West until the last years of the 19th century. The bay's regional importance increased further when the first transcontinental railroad was connected to its western terminus at Alameda on September 6, 1869. [14] The terminus was switched to the Oakland Long Wharf two months later on November 8, 1869. [15]

The Dumbarton Rail Bridge Dumbarton Rail Bridge 2021 redux.JPG
The Dumbarton Rail Bridge

In 1910, the Southern Pacific railroad company built the Dumbarton Rail Bridge, [16] the first bridge crossing San Francisco Bay. [17] The first automobile crossing was the Dumbarton Bridge, completed in January 1927. [18] More crossings were later constructed – the Carquinez Bridge in May 1927, [19] the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936, [20] the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, [21] the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge in 1956, [22] and the San Mateo–Hayward Bridge in 1967. [23]

Duck hunting on the Bay, 1915 Duck Hunt Marshy Shoreline San Francisco Bay Alameda County california.jpg
Duck hunting on the Bay, 1915
Mallard II, a clamshell dredge built in 1936 and used into the 21st century to dredge levees for Cargill's salt ponds in the bay Dredger near the Dumbarton Bridge in California.JPG
Mallard II, a clamshell dredge built in 1936 and used into the 21st century to dredge levees for Cargill's salt ponds in the bay

During the 20th century, the bay was subject to the 1940s Reber Plan, which would have filled in parts of the bay in order to increase industrial activity along the waterfront. In 1959, the United States Army Corps of Engineers released a report stating that if current infill trends continued, the bay would be as big as a shipping channel by 2020. This news created the Save the Bay movement in 1960, [24] which mobilized to stop the infill of wetlands and the bay in general, which had shrunk to two-thirds of its size in the century before 1961. [25]

San Francisco Bay continues to support some of the densest industrial production and urban settlement in the United States. The San Francisco Bay Area is the American West's second-largest urban area, with approximately seven million residents. [26]


San Francisco Bay c. 1770-1820 Sf Estuary Historical.gif
San Francisco Bay c. 1770–1820
South Bay salt ponds and wildlife refuges, aerial view from the southeast South San Francisco Bay salt ponds and wildlife refuges.jpg
South Bay salt ponds and wildlife refuges, aerial view from the southeast

Despite its urban and industrial character, San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta remain perhaps California's most important ecological habitats. California's Dungeness crab, California halibut, and Pacific salmon fisheries rely on the bay as a nursery. The few remaining salt marshes now represent most of California's remaining salt marsh, supporting a number of endangered species and providing key ecosystem services such as filtering pollutants and sediments from the rivers. San Francisco Bay is recognized for protection by the California Bays and Estuaries Policy, with oversight provided by the San Francisco Estuary Partnership. [27]

Most famously, the bay is a key link in the Pacific Flyway. Millions of waterfowl annually use the bay shallows as a refuge. Two endangered species of birds are found here: the California least tern and the Ridgway's Rail. Exposed bay muds provide important feeding areas for shorebirds, but underlying layers of bay mud pose geological hazards for structures near many parts of the bay perimeter. San Francisco Bay provided the nation's first wildlife refuge, Oakland's artificial Lake Merritt, constructed in the 1860s, and America's first urban National Wildlife Refuge, the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge (SFBNWR) in 1972. The Bay is also plagued by non-native species.

Salt produced from San Francisco Bay is produced in salt evaporation ponds and is shipped throughout the Western United States to bakeries, canneries, fisheries, cheese makers and other food industries and used to de-ice winter highways, clean kidney dialysis machines, for animal nutrition, and in many industries. Many companies have produced salt in the Bay, with the Leslie Salt Company the largest private land owner in the Bay Area in the 1940s. [28] [29]

Low-salinity salt ponds mirror the ecosystem of the bay, with fish and fish-eating birds in abundance. Mid-salinity ponds support dense populations of brine shrimp, which provide a rich food source for millions of shorebirds. Only salt-tolerant micro-algae survive in the high salinity ponds, and impart a deep red color to these ponds from the pigment within the algae protoplasm. The salt marsh harvest mouse is an endangered species endemic to the wetlands of the San Francisco Bay with a high salt tolerance. It needs native pickleweed, which is often displaced by invasive cordgrass, for its habitat. [30]

The seasonal range of water temperature in the Bay is from January's 53 °F (12 °C) to September's 60 °F (16 °C) when measured at Fort Point, which is near the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge and at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. [31]

For the first time in 65 years, Pacific Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) returned to the Bay in 2009. [32] Golden Gate Cetacean Research, a non-profit organization focused on research on cetaceans, has developed a photo-identification database enabling the scientists to identify specific porpoise individuals and is trying to ascertain whether a healthier bay has brought their return. [33] Pacific harbor porpoise range from Point Conception, California, to Alaska and across to the Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan. Recent genetic studies show that there is a local stock from San Francisco to the Russian River and that eastern Pacific coastal populations rarely migrate far, unlike western Atlantic Harbor porpoise. [34]

The common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) has been extending its current range northwards from the Southern California Bight. The first coastal bottlenose dolphin in the San Francisco Bay Area in recent times was spotted in 1983 off the San Mateo County coast in 1983. In 2001 bottlenose dolphins were first spotted east of the Golden Gate Bridge and confirmed by photographic evidence in 2007. Zooarcheological remains of bottlenose dolphins indicated that bottlenose dolphins inhabited San Francisco Bay in prehistoric times until at least 700 years before present, and dolphin skulls dredged from the Bay suggest occasional visitors in historic times. [35]


Industrial, mining, and other uses of mercury have resulted in a widespread distribution in the bay, with uptake in the bay's phytoplankton and contamination of its sportfish. [36] In January 1971, two Standard Oil tankers collided in the bay, creating an 800,000-U.S.-gallon (3,000,000-liter) oil spill disaster, which spurred environmental protection of the bay. In November 2007, a ship named COSCO Busan collided with the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and spilled over 58,000 U.S. gallons (220,000 liters) of bunker fuel, creating the largest oil spill in the region since 1996. [37]

The Bay was once considered a hotspot for polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants used to make upholstered furniture and infant care items less flammable. PBDEs have been largely phased out and replaced with alternative phosphate flame retardants. A 2019 San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) study assayed a wide range of these newer flame retardant chemicals in Bay waters, bivalve California mussels (Mytilus californianus), and harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) which haul out in Corkscrew Slough [38] on Bair Island in San Mateo County, with phosphate flame retardant contaminants such as tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl)phosphate (TDCPP) and triphenyl phosphate (TPhP) found at levels comparable to thresholds for aquatic toxicity. [39]

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City skyline through the fog, from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Bay fill and depth profile

San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, looking southeast towards the City and East Bay. Alcatraz is the small islet in the upper-middle left. San Francisco Bay aerial view.jpg
San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, looking southeast towards the City and East Bay. Alcatraz is the small islet in the upper-middle left.

San Francisco Bay's profile changed dramatically in the late 19th century and again with the initiation of dredging by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 20th century. Before about 1860, most bay shores (with the exception of rocky shores, such as those in Carquinez Strait; along Marin shoreline; Point Richmond; Golden Gate area) contained extensive wetlands that graded nearly invisibly from freshwater wetlands to salt marsh and then tidal mudflat. A deep channel ran through the center of the bay, following the ancient drowned river valley.

In the 1860s and continuing into the early 20th century, miners dumped staggering quantities of mud and gravel from hydraulic mining operations into the upper Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. GK Gilbert's estimates of debris total more than eight times the amount of rock and dirt moved during construction of the Panama Canal. This material flowed down the rivers, progressively eroding into finer and finer sediment, until it reached the bay system. Here some of it settled, eventually filling in Suisun Bay, San Pablo Bay, and San Francisco Bay, in decreasing order of severity.

By the end of the 19th century, these "slickens" had filled in much of the shallow bay flats, raising the entire bay profile. New marshes were created in some areas.

Cargo ships in San Francisco bay in 2012 Boats in San Francisco bay.jpg
Cargo ships in San Francisco bay in 2012

In the decades surrounding 1900, at the behest of local political officials and following Congressional orders, the U.S. Army Corps began dredging the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and the deep channels of San Francisco Bay. This work has continued without interruption ever since. Some of the dredge spoils were initially dumped in the bay shallows (including helping to create Treasure Island on the former shoals to the north of Yerba Buena Island) and used to raise islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The net effect of dredging has been to maintain a narrow deep channel—deeper perhaps than the original bay channel—through a much shallower bay. At the same time, most of the marsh areas have been filled or blocked off from the bay by dikes.

Large ships transiting the bay must follow deep underwater channels that are maintained by frequent dredging as the average depth of the bay is only as deep as a swimming pool—approximately 12 to 15 ft (4–5 m). Between Hayward and San Mateo to San Jose it is 12 to 36 in (30–90 cm). The deepest part of the bay is under and out of the Golden Gate Bridge, at 372 ft (113 m). [40]

In the late 1990s, a 12-year harbor-deepening project for the Port of Oakland began; it was largely completed by September 2009. Previously, the bay waters and harbor facilities only allowed for ships with a draft of 46 ft (14 m), but dredging activities undertaken by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with the Port of Oakland succeeded in providing access for vessels with a 50-foot (15 m) draft. Four dredging companies were employed in the US$432 million project, with $244 million paid for with federal funds and $188 million supplied by the Port of Oakland. Some six million cubic yards (160 million cubic feet; 4.6 million cubic metres) of mud from the dredging was deposited at the western edge of Middle Harbor Shoreline Park to become a 188-acre (0.294 sq mi; 0.76 km2) shallow-water wetlands habitat for marine and shore life. [41] [42] Further dredging followed in 2011, to maintain the navigation channel. [43] [44] This dredging enabled the arrival of the largest container ship ever to enter the San Francisco Bay, the MSC Fabiola . Bay pilots trained for the visit on a simulator at the California Maritime Academy for over a year. The ship arrived drawing less than its full draft of 50 feet 10 inches (15.5 m) because it held only three-quarters of a load after its stop in Long Beach. [45]


Richmond-San Rafael Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
San Mateo-Hayward Bridge
Dumbarton Bridge
Carquinez Bridge
Benicia-Martinez Bridge
Antioch Bridge San Francisco Bay bridges.svg
1. Richmond-San Rafael Bridge
2. Golden Gate Bridge
3. San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
4. San Mateo-Hayward Bridge
5. Dumbarton Bridge
6. Carquinez Bridge
7. Benicia-Martinez Bridge
8. Antioch Bridge

San Francisco Bay was traversed by watercraft before the arrival of Europeans. Indigenous peoples used canoes to fish and clam along the shoreline. Sailing ships enabled transportation between the Bay and other parts of the world—and served as ferries and freighters within the Bay and between the Bay and inland ports, such as Sacramento and Stockton. These were gradually replaced by steam-powered vessels starting in the late 19th century. Several shipyards were established around the Bay, augmented during wartime. (e.g., the Kaiser Shipyards, Richmond Shipyards) near Richmond in 1940 for World War II for construction of mass-produced, assembly line Liberty and Victory cargo ships.

San Francisco Bay is spanned by nine bridges, eight of which carry cars.

The Transbay Tube, an underwater rail tunnel, carries BART services between Oakland and San Francisco.

Prior to the bridges and, later, the Transbay Tube, transbay transportation was dominated by fleets of ferryboats operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Key System transit company. However, in recent decades, ferries have returned, primarily serving commuters from Marin County, relieving the traffic bottleneck of the Golden Gate Bridge. (See article Ferries of San Francisco Bay).

Port of Oakland California Port Of Oakland California.png
Port of Oakland California

The bay also continues to serve as a major seaport. The Port of Oakland is one of the largest cargo ports in the United States, while the Port of Richmond and the Port of San Francisco provide smaller services.

An additional crossing south of the Bay Bridge has long been proposed.


San Francisco Bay is a mecca for sailors (boats, as well as windsurfing and kitesurfing), due to consistent strong westerly/northwesterly thermally-generated winds – Beaufort force 6 (15–25 knots; 17–29 mph; 8–13 m/s) is common on summer afternoons – and protection from large open ocean swells. Yachting and yacht racing are popular pastimes and the San Francisco Bay Area is home to many of the world's top sailors. A shoreline bicycle and pedestrian trail known as the San Francisco Bay Trail encircles the edge of the bay. The San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail, a growing network of launching and landing sites around the Bay for non-motorized small boat users (such as kayakers) is being developed. Parks and protected areas around the bay include Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, Hayward Regional Shoreline, Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center, Crown Memorial State Beach, Eastshore State Park, Point Isabel Regional Shoreline, Brooks Island Regional Preserve, and César Chávez Park.

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has developed a safe eating advisory for fish caught in the San Francisco Bay based on levels of mercury or PCBs found in local species. [46]

The San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail is a planned system of designated trailheads designed to improve non-motorized small boat access to the bay. The California Coastal Conservancy approved funding in March 2011 to begin implementation of the water trail.

San Francisco Bay panorama with a view of sailboats, kite boarders, and the Crissy Field Beach

See also

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The Dumbarton Rail Bridge lies just to the south of the Dumbarton road bridge. Built in 1910, the rail bridge was the first structure to span San Francisco Bay, shortening the rail route between Oakland and San Francisco by 26 miles (42 km). The last freight train traveled over the bridge in 1982, and it has been proposed since 1991 to reactivate passenger train service to relieve traffic on the road bridges, though this would entail a complete replacement of the existing bridge. Part of the western timber trestle approach collapsed in a suspected arson fire in 1998.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Greco Island</span>

Greco Island is a wetland island in Redwood City, California. Greco Island is part of the larger Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Westpoint Slough follows the South side of the island while Redwood Creek is along the West. The San Francisco Bay bounds the North and East sides of the island.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stockton Deepwater Shipping Channel</span> Deepwater water channel in the United States

Stockton Deepwater Shipping Channel also called the Baldwin-Stockton Deepwater Shipping Channel or Stockton Deep Water Channel is a manmade deepwater water channel that runs from Suisun Bay and the Sacramento River - Sacramento Deep Water Ship Channel to the Port of Stockton and the Stockton Channel in California. The Stockton Ship Channel is 41 mi (66 km) long and about 37 ft (11 m) deep, allowing up to Panama Canal size ocean ships access to the Port of Stockton at the City of Stockton. The Stockton Deepwater Shipping Channel is part of the vast Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta that has a connection to the Pacific Ocean. Stockton Deepwater Shipping Channel is also called the lower San Joaquin River.

<i>Mallard II</i> Salt pond levee dredger built in 1936

Mallard II is a wooden-hulled clamshell dredger used to maintain levees on the San Francisco Bay Salt Ponds. Mallard II was constructed in 1936, and is "probably the oldest operating dredge in California"; she is owned and operated by Cargill Salt.


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