High nutrient concentrations can cause increased phytoplankton biomass, low dissolved oxygen, and increased harmful algal blooms and toxins, with detrimental effects on species and ecosystems. San Francisco Bay receives high nutrient loads mainly from discharged wastewater, but high turbidity, strong tidal mixing, and abundant filter-feeding clams have kept algal blooms in check. Following the historic algal bloom of 2022, regulators and managers recognize the Bay’s resilience to high nutrient loading is waning and nitrogen concentrations must be managed more proactively. 

One potential solution to reducing nutrients discharged in wastewater involves nature-based solutions (NbS) such as open water treatment wetlands or horizontal levees. Under the 2019 Nutrient Watershed NPDES Permit, SFEI evaluated the use of NbS to assimilate nutrients on behalf of the wastewater plants that discharge to San Francisco Bay. Natural systems represent an alternative or complement to mechanical technologies. 

SFEI collaborated with the Bay Area Clean Water Agencies (BACWA) to identify opportunities for wastewater agencies to reduce nutrient loads discharged to the Bay by implementing multi-benefit NbS. Land in the region is scarce and expensive, increasing the need for collaboration among public agencies capable of sharing land and resources to achieve multiple objectives. NbS can be designed to provide additional benefits beyond nutrient reduction, including wildlife habitat, flood risk management, and recreational opportunities.

In the first phase of work, we used a GIS suitability model to identify potential locations for nature-based solutions at the 37 treatment plants discharging to San Francisco Bay. In the second phase, we collaborated with staff at eight facilities to develop preliminary NbS concepts. In the final stage, cost estimates will be developed for three sites to facilitate implementation.

Download the Phase I and Phase II reports

2019 to 2024
Programs and Focus Areas: 
Clean Water Program
Resilient Landscapes Program
Shoreline Resilience
Location Information