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A Living Seawall Is Coming to San Francisco’s Embarcadero

Due to urgent seismic risks and increasing flood risks, SF is working to create a more sustainable and resilient waterfront.
By - posted 4/18/2022 No Comment

San Francisco is erecting a living seawall along the Embarcadero.

Before the Gold Rush, San Francisco was a sleepy harbor with a northeastern shoreline near today’s Salesforce Tower. As the waterfront expanded with industry, the Port of San Francisco oversaw the construction of the Embarcadero Seawall, a rock and concrete wall stretching three miles. The Seawall transformed the city, laying the foundation for the thriving waterfront we know and love today.

The Seawall is the backbone of the waterfront. It supports over $100 billion in assets and annual economic activity and supports many of the city’s iconic destinations, parks, and local businesses, which attract more than 24 million people each year. The Seawall also supports key utility and transportation infrastructure including BART, Muni, and ferry networks, and serves as a critical emergency response and recovery area. Over 50 key emergency assets depend on the Seawall.

The Port is leading the Embarcadero Seawall Program, a citywide effort to create a more sustainable and resilient waterfront. The Program is dedicated to robust community and stakeholder engagement, along with fiscal responsibility, accountability, and transparency. Part of the Port’s Waterfront Resilience Program, the Embarcadero Seawall Program will provide the tools to address current and future risks over time. There are three elements to the Program-Strengthen, Adapt and Envision-which allow the Port to respond to risks and conditions. Planning for all three elements is occurring now, implementation for each element will depend upon findings, public input, regulatory input, cost/benefit analysis, and availability of funding and financing.

The Seawall is now in desperate need of repair, vulnerable to urgent seismic risks and increasing flood risks. The Seawall was built without today’s seismic standards and atop “young bay mud,” a soft, weak mud that can amplify earthquake shaking. The Bay Area has enjoyed a historically quiet period of seismic activity since 1906, but the U.S. Geological Survey estimates a 72% chance of a major earthquake happening between now and 2043.

Today, the Embarcadero Promenade floods intermittently. As sea levels continue to rise, there will be additional flooding risks to the BART Transbay Tube, Muni light rail, key utility infrastructure, and waterfront businesses and neighborhoods.

The Living Seawall Pilot is an innovative two-year study led by the Port of San Francisco and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) that is testing and evaluating engineering with nature concepts from around the world – from Seattle to Sydney – to learn how we can make San Francisco’s seawalls more ecologically friendly in the future.

While the Bay Area has had a strong focus on approaches, most of these efforts have focused on land-based solutions, such as marshes and coarse grain beaches. There has been less attention to opportunities to introduce living seawalls, also known as ecological seawalls.

Traditional seawalls are barren, exposed concrete surfaces unlike natural marine habitats and may benefit invasive species over native species. Living seawalls are designed to encourage underwater habitat.

The Living Seawall Pilot will test the use of textured tiles made with special materials designed to promote biodiversity. These tiles may also benefit native species and help improve habitats along San Francisco’s Bay waterfront. The 90 one-foot-square tiles and six large tiles will be installed at three different locations:

  • Pier 45 Breakwater
  • Agricultural Building Seawall
  • South Beach Harbor East Breakwater

The Living Seawall Pilot is closely aligned with the principles of Engineering With Nature. Engineering With Nature is an initiative of the US Army Corps of Engineers defined as, “the intentional alignment of natural and engineering processes to efficiently and sustainably deliver economic, environmental, and social benefits through collaboration.”

The Living Seawall Pilot is well aligned with the Port’s ongoing commitment to preserve and enhance the natural world through engineering with nature resilience solutions. It builds on similar projects in San Francisco’s Central and Southern Waterfront, including Heron’s Head Park, Pier 94 Wetlands, and Crane Cove Park, to bring ecological solutions to San Francisco’s shoreline.

Read more at the Port of San Francisco


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