About Us

Back in 1981, The Bay Institute’s founders did not envision that today’s organization would coordinate an award-winning environmental education program that serves almost 2,000 students each school year, that it would be a key player in marshalling resources in efforts to restore 100,000 acres of wetlands around the Bay, or be involved in winning landmark legal victories to secure protection for endangered species and to restore the San Joaquin River. Nor could The Bay Institute have imagined it would one day operate a marine nature center like Aquarium of the Bay.

But The Bay Institute founders had  great foresight in understanding that the future of the Bay is dependent on the future of its watershed -- an area encompassing 40% of California which extends from the Sierra to the sea. Though much has changed since those early years, our “big picture” approach to protecting and restoring San Francisco Bay and its watershed from the Sierra to the sea has remained constant.

Here are a few highlights of our nearly 30 years of history:

1981: Bill Davoren and other activists found The Bay Institute to increase freshwater flows to San Francisco Bay and promote management of the Bay-Delta Estuary as an interconnected system.

1984-1985: The Bay Institute helps publicize the tragedy of dead and deformed wildlife at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge caused by selenium-laden runoff from the uncompleted San Luis Drain.

1986: The Bay Institute convenes a pioneering national conference in Monterey, “Managing Inflows to California’s Bays & Estuaries,” which is focused on the importance of freshwater flow restoration.

1985-1989: For five consecutive years, The Bay Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, cosponsor state-of-the-art conferences on the problem of selenium and agricultural drainage in the Central Valley.

1987: The Bay Institute issues the Citizens’ Report on the Diked Historic Baylands of San Francisco Bay to encourage protection of the Bay’s remaining wetlands.

1986-1988: The Bay Institute submits the environmental community’s most extensive case for restoring freshwater flows to the Bay with thousands of pages of evidence and numerous witnesses during the State Water Resources Control Board’s Bay-Delta Hearings.

1988: The Bay Institute, The Natural Resources Defense Council, and other groups sue the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to force releases from Friant Dam to the dewatered San Joaquin River.

1989: The first issue of Bay on Trial, The Bay Institute's first newsletter, is published.

1990: The Bay Institute staff discover selenium in water samples from the California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota Canal, exposing the pumping of contaminated groundwater into the drinking water supply system.

1991: David Behar becomes The Bay Institute’s second Executive Director, replacing Bill Davoren.

1991-1992: The Bay Institute co-founds and leads “Share the Water,” a coalition of environmental, fishing and business interests concerned with reforming federal water policy. The Bay Institute and the coalition successfully lobby for passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act sponsored by Representative George Miller and Senator Bill Bradley. It is the first environmental reform of federal water projects in the West.

1993: The Bay Institute wins stronger operational protections for the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

1993: The Shrimp Project—the precursor to The Bay Institute’s Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed (STRAW) Project—completes its first restoration at the Martin Ranch in Petaluma. The Project wins the Grand Prize in Anheuser Busch’s “A Pledge and A Promise,” a national environmental awards program.

1993: The Bay Institute wins stronger protections for the delta smelt, a key indicator species, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

1993-1996: The Bay Institute appeals the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s (RWQCB’s) permits for the selenium- tainted Tulare Basin evaporation ponds as inadequate to protect water birds and other wildlife. The Bay Institute issues Death in the Ponds, the first major report on the Tulare pond contamination. As a result of The Bay Institute's appeal, the State Water Board finds Tulare Basin evaporation pond permits inadequate to protect wildlife; over the next few years, most ponds are closed down or modified to protect wildlife. 

1994: The Bay Institute helps negotiate and signs the Bay-Delta Accord, a state-federal agreement on the first new water quality standards in seventeen years, increasing springtime freshwater flows to the Bay and restricting exports from the Delta.

1995: The Bay Institute wins the San Francisco Foundation’s prestigious Helen Crocker Russell Award.

1995-1996: The Bay Institute helps negotiate an agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and westside growers to dramatically reduce discharges of selenium-tainted drainwater.

1995-2000: The Bay Institute devotes considerable resources to arguing the environmental community’s most extensive case for an innovative and aggressive approach to environmental protection and planning in CALFED, the state–federal process to identify long-term Bay-Delta water management solutions.

1996: The Bay Institute helps draft and win passage of Proposition 204, which includes $543 million for Bay-Delta ecosystem restoration.

1996-1998: The Bay Institute helps negotiate the San Joaquin River Agreement, under which the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation purchases water from eastside water users to help meet its requirements for increased flow to the Delta.

1997: Grant Davis replaces David Behar to become The Bay Institute's third Executive Director.

1997-1998: The Bay Institute and other groups successfully sue the California Fish and Game Commission to list the spring run Chinook salmon as an endangered species.

1998: The Bay Institute publishes the ground-breaking 282-page report, From the Sierra to the Sea: The Ecological History of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Watershed. The report’s analysis of historic conditions and recent changes is crucial for setting restoration targets for the estuary.

1998: The Bay Institute and 18 other conservation groups issue the Blueprint for an Environmentally and Economically Sound CALFED Water Supply Reliability Program, showing how conservation, recycling, ground water storage and other management measures can save millions of acre-feet of water without building harmful and costly new dams.

1998: The Bay Institute launches the highly successful STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed) Project, which uses in-the field watershed studies and habitat restoration to promote environmental education. STRAW holds its first Annual Teacher’s Leadership Institute (now Watershed Week).

1998: The Bay Institute and other groups win the biggest citizen-suit pollution cleanup settlement in the Bay’s history when Exxon and Unocal agree to pay $4.8 million to restore fisheries, habitat and water quality.

1999: In collaboration with PRBO Conservation Science, STRAW initiates the STRAW Bird Program. STRAW begins restorations in urban areas in collaboration with Marin County Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program.

1999-2003: The Bay Institute and other groups secure the first releases of water from Friant Dam near Fresno in more than half a century, re-watering seasonally dry stretches of the San Joaquin River to maintain riparian vegetation.

2000: The Bay Institute's technical and policy work over the past five years proves instrumental in winning strong ecosystem restoration and water use efficiency programs in the CALFED final decision.

2000: The Bay Institute, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the California State Coastal Conservancy debut the San Pablo Bay Watershed Restoration Program in San Pablo Bay’s 900 square mile watershed.

2001: STRAW receives the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award for outstanding contribution in the area of Children’s Environmental Education.

2003: The Bay Institute and other groups issue Drainage without a Drain, a report that details how land retirement, source control, and innovative technologies can solve the problem of selenium tainted drainwater in the Westside San Joaquin Valley without building a drain to the Delta or the Pacific Ocean.

2003: John Hart and David Sanger’s San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary, co-sponsored by The Bay Institute and National Audubon Society, is published by UC Press.

2003: The Bay Institute releases the San Francisco Bay Index, the first comprehensive effort using ecological indicators to measure the health of the Bay ecosystem and the status of efforts to manage the Bay’s resources.

2003: The Bay Institute releases the first Year in Water report, which rates California’s progress in meeting targets for improving Central Valley stream flows and Bay inflows.

2003-2004: Cumulative creek bank restored by STRAW surpasses ten miles.

2003-2004: The Bay Institute conducts a public education campaign regarding a proposal to build a casino resort in the midst of ecologically sensitive North Bay wetlands. The Bay Institute works with the resort project sponsor to relocate the project, and helps to acquire the 1,800 acre site for addition to the North Bay wetland sanctuary complex.

2004: The Bay Institute and other groups secure a landmark court decision, finding that Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River is in violation of State Fish and Game Code 5937, which requires dam operators to make releases to maintain downstream fisheries in good condition.

2004: The first floodgates to the former South Bay Cargill salt ponds are opened, the inaugural step in one of the largest wetland restoration initiatives in the country. The Bay Institute serves on the Citizens Advisory Committee, helping to oversee the restoration and engage the public in the process.

2004-2005: The Bay Institute helps to spearhead a fundraising and outreach campaign, culminating in the preservation of the 1,769- acre Tolay Lake Ranch—a key parcel in the San Pablo Bay uplands—as Sonoma County’s largest regional park.

2005: The Bay Institute releases the second San Francisco Bay Index, which finds that the Bay’s northern reaches—those most directly affected by conditions in the Delta and higher up in the watershed—are in serious trouble.

2005: The Bay Institute and other groups negotiate an innovative package of flow and habitat protections to preserve the Yuba River’s fall-run Chinook salmon and other anadromous fish populations.

2006: The Bay Institute and other groups file an emergency petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to change the listing of delta smelt from threatened to endangered.

2006: The Bay Institute and other groups reach a historic settlement with the federal government and the Friant Water Users Authority, who agree to release flows and take other actions to restore Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin River.

2006: The Bay Institue prepares to formally launch a major fundraising campaign to acquire Aquarium of the Bay with the goal of transforming it into a nonprofit “living endowment” for the Bay dedicated to education, conservation and research.

2007: The Bay Institute and other groups file petitions to list the longfin smelt under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts.

2007: In response to a legal challenge by The Bay Institute and other groups, and with expert testimony by The Bay Institute, the federal district court invalidates the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's "biological opinion" for delta smelt, calling the plan to protect the species from impacts of water project operations scientifically inadequate and insufficiently protective.

2008: In response to a similar challenge by The Bay Institute and others, the federal district court invalidates the National Marine Fisheries Service's biological opinion to protect endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead from water project operations. Later this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service's new biological opinion for delta smelt, which incorporates most of the protections recomended by The Bay Institute in court testimony, is released.

2008: Christina Swanson is appointed Executive Director, replacing Grant Davis.

2009: After a decade-long battle led by The Bay Institute, President Obama signs legislation authorizing and funding the San Joaquin River Restoration settlement. First flows are released from Friant Dam on October 1st.

2009: In March, the Fish and Game Commission grants The Bay Institute's petition and lists longfin - once the most common, now among the rarest of fish species - as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. Later in the year, the National Marine Fisheries Service releases a revised biological opinion for Chinook salmon and steelhead, incorporating many of the protections recommended by The Bay Institute in court testimony.

2009: On June 11th, Aquarium of the Bay becomes an affiliate of The Bay Institute, transforming the privately-owned aquarium into a nonprofit marine nature center for the Bay, on the Bay. John Frawley is appointed to the newly formed position of The Bay Institute's President/CEO.

2009: A Simple Question: The Story of STRAW, a documentary chronicling The Bay Institute's award-winning education and habitat restoration program premiers in San Francisco. The Marin Board of Supervisors recognizes STRAW for completing 100,000 linear feet of restoration on local creeks and streams.

2009: The Bay Institute works with other environmental organizations and state legislators to develop and pass the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act, moving California water policy at least partway into the twenty-first century. But more remains to be done to strengthen California's ability to restore the endangered species and habitats of the Bay-Delta system and shift water project costs from the public to protect beneficiaries.

2010: On behalf of a large coalition, The Bay Institute develops the environmental community's most extensive case for improving freshwater flows in the estuary in expert testimony and supporting analyses for the State Water Resources Control Board's Delta public trust flow criteria proceedings (mandated by the 2009 Delta Reform Act). In August, based in large part on our work, the Board adopts final criteria calling for large-scale increases in river inflow to the Delta and Delta outflow to the Bay, among other recommendations.

2011: The first State of the Bay report is released at the Aquarium of the Bay in September. The report, issued by a consortium of state, federal and local agencies and groups, adopts the methodology developed by The Bay Institute for its Ecological Scorecard project, and we prepare major portions of the new report that measure ecosystem health and water management.