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What Grossinger is proposing is a shift toward a preservation strategy known as “conserving the stage.” Instead of asking which locations or ecosystems certain species need to survive, it focuses on the physical factors that foster biodiversity in the first place: soil types, hydrology, landform variation, and, above all else, topography. Classifying landscape resiliency as a function of topographical variety goes a long way toward explaining just how vulnerable tidal marshes—and the thousands of species dependent upon them—are. After all, most sit within three feet of the highest high tide. Instead of setting aside selected areas (a particular national park) or ecosystem types (wetlands refuges), Grossinger argues that we need to create arenas where evolution can continue to unfold, that we need to foster topographical diversity in landscapes that have little.

Forty years ago, when the fight for the area’s wetlands took shape, environmentalists often used the Endangered Species Act to earmark pockets of extant marshland for preservation. If they could find a single salt-marsh harvest mouse rooting around in the pickleweed, then they could make a case for saving that little postage stamp of land from development. Grossinger’s proposal takes giant steps back from this conservation strategy. “We can’t preserve the salt-marsh harvest mouse if the salt marshes themselves cease to exist,” he says. “What science shows us is that we need to be infusing our work with an understanding of Big Nature, of landscape-scale change. And that includes different kinds of actions, involving multiple agencies, agencies that really don’t have a responsibility to solve the whole problem. But if we can create partnerships across them—as we are doing here with Oro Loma, where wetlands restoration, flood resiliency, and sewage treatment are all being tackled together—then the results can be really profound.”

“Oro Loma?” I say, repeating the enchanted words that I’ve already heard from Bourgeois.

“Yeah, you have to make it out there,” Grossinger says. “Think of it like this: If we can get Oro Loma to work, we will be, for the first time in history, reconnecting a kind of freshwater creek to the bay. And when we do that, we begin to feel reconnected to the deep nature of a place. Thinking—no, living—in this way is going to be better for us overall. We are going to have healthier, happier communities.” He pauses and looks right at me. Do I buy it? Do I buy that sea-level rise might not just be a catalyst for cataclysm, but might also pave the way for a massive, ultimately beneficial cultural transformation?

Yes, I want to say, yes. But who among us will get to live in the resilient, climate-ready cities we are designing along the water’s edge? Alviso, East Palo Alto, Redwood City, and Richmond have long been relatively affordable because of their flooding problem; “conserving the stage” would remove some stressors, but introduce others. The people of the South Bay are sandwiched between rising tides on one side and Silicon Valley on the other—a position not so different from the one that most tidelands species currently occupy. A position that often leaves those species with precious few options: retreat or perish in place.

I visit Oro Loma. It is breathtakingly beautiful in its understated way. Behind the horizontal levee is a small freshwater-treatment wetland, where partly cleaned wastewater filters through cattails and bulrushes to break down contaminants and remove nutrients that cause excessive algal growth in the bay. Then it seeps into the wide levee, through willows and creeping wild rye, Baltic rush and basket sedge, western ragweed and California blackberry, all laid down in rows. These plants continue the work the treatment wetland began, sucking up the nitrates and phosphorus that remain. And yet as I look out over this wide, man-made levee, my mind is pulled in two directions at once.

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