This story is the first in an ongoing series, in which Bay Nature will examine the impacts of and obstacles to funding for nature in the Bay Area from BIL and IRA, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
In an age suffused with climate hopelessness, experts say this money could be transformational—if it’s spent wisely.
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You could think of it as a superbloom, but of funding instead of flowers.
Neither the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law nor the Inflation Reduction Act sound like environment bills, but they’re our nation’s biggest environmental legislation in a generation. Signed into law in the last two years, BIL and IRA aim to prioritize green energy, rebuild failing infrastructure, and address climate change. The bills unleash almost $1 trillion dollars in federal spending.
Beyond the ramp-up of electric cars and wind energy, the bills direct billions to be spent directly on nature—restoring ecosystems, preserving biodiversity and battling invasives, reducing wildfire risks, tackling drought and sea-level rise, and contending with storms and floods. Environmental justice is a specific focus. In conversations with regional conservation experts, activists, and officials, they used words like “historic,” “unprecedented,” and “a freaking game-changer” to describe the moment. This is the kind of investment environmentalists have argued for decades the United States must make to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
“The funding that will be needed to transform our economy, our energy system—to adapt to the natural impacts that we are already experiencing and will continue to experience—is staggering,” says Sara Aminzadeh, California Natural Resources Agency deputy secretary for external affairs. “Aggressively and intentionally pursuing these federal funds … will make a huge difference in our future as a region.”
“We’re really hopeful that this money can be transformational,” says Rebecca Schwartz Lesberg, policy committee chair of the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture, a public-private partnership central to the effort to conserve regional wetlands. “The question is then where exactly it goes and how exactly it’s used.”
The money is starting to flow. But for agencies, spending so much so fast—many funds expire within four years—is no simple task. For those seeking funds, no single website lists who can apply for what money, or how, or when. Each agency is its own fiefdom, fleshing out its programs on its own time lines.
When Bay Nature combed through BIL and IRA in detail, we found at least $106 billion in environmental funding, spread across more than 140 different programs administered by at least 19 different agencies and bureaus. (And that excludes tax credits, green energy initiatives, and most transportation funds.)
Even policy professionals are struggling to grok it all. “It’s overwhelming,” says Sara Johnson, executive director of the California Ecological Restoration Business Association (CalERBA). “It’s a maze. And everybody’s off to the races before the funding expires.”
There are steep logistical hurdles in actually spending the money. Planners and contractors equipped to navigate the region’s natural (and bureaucratic) ecosystems are in short supply. So are foresters, soil scientists, and even native seeds. Applying for and receiving federal funds takes expertise and staff time that smaller community groups often don’t have. There are also agency staffing shortages. Permitting bottlenecks. And some of the Bay Area’s environmental problems can’t be fixed by focusing solely on the environment—for instance, when unhoused people are living on public lands. “In California, and particularly in the Bay Area, a lot of our conservation projects are intertwined with other social issues like housing affordability,” says Schwartz Lesberg.
Given all the challenges ahead, how will the public know if the money is used effectively? The federal government “is already asking for results, and the money’s not even out the door,” says Luisa Valiela, the EPA’s San Francisco Bay Program lead. The agency is hustling to define its metrics for success. “It’s a beast.”
“What did we buy with the money we spent? That fundamental question is often not asked or answered,” says Adam Davis, a managing partner at Ecosystem Investment Partners, a private equity firm whose work includes the large Delta restoration at Lookout Slough. Davis wants to see the government tie more of its conservation spending to measurable outcomes. Susan Jane Brown, a senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center and a watchdog of the U.S. Forest Service, is worried that the public simply won’t ever know how some funding is used. “There’s so much money in the system right now that tracking it is extremely difficult,” she says.
The potential for transformation, though, seems palpable. As we spoke to experts across so many different Bay Area landscapes, a vision began to emerge of a possible future: Large-scale habitat restoration, from tidal marshes to arid valley scrublands. Invasive species uprooted, endangered ones thriving. Legacy pollutants removed. Environmental justice realized. Spaces where animals can forage and nest and thrive. Adequate clean water. Thinned forests, burned carefully by people, instead of catastrophically in megafires. And all this restoration done, as Schwartz Lesberg puts it, so that people can “enjoy all of the benefits psychologically and socially—of being able to access clean, healthy, restored natural spaces.”
Here’s how that might look.
Creating a resilient, world-class coastline: $3B
With America’s third-longest coastline, California should, logically, garner a big chunk of the $3 billion the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will allot for coastal resilience. But in the first round of competitive grants—which had just a 30-day application window last year—applicants asked for at least three times as much money as NOAA had to provide.
The deadline came up so quickly that the California State Coastal Conservancy, an agency that itself grants out millions each year, didn’t even apply: “We were just not ready,” says executive officer Amy Hutzel. “That was a little challenging.” They’re working to get in on the next round, though. Hutzel hopes the funding will increase the pace and scale of coastal projects overall—“which is what we need to do to keep up with sea-level rise.”
Some local projects are starting to get funding—for coho salmon habitat, kelp forests, marine debris removal. But Hutzel worries about who will be left out. The Coastal Conservancy aims to work with tribes and historically excluded communities, which may lack the capacity for such projects or have other priorities. The timescale on which bandwidth and relationships are built, Hutzel says, is usually much slower than the pace at which the money needs to be spent.
The political pressure to spend quickly is intense. “We want to make sure that [money is] going to the most impactful projects in the Bay Area, in order to justify that this money is a good investment for the federal government,” says Joshua Quigley, policy manager for Save The Bay, a nonprofit advocacy group.
A more physical urgency also laps at the shoreline. A much-cited 2015 San Francisco Estuary Institute report projected 2030 as an inflection point for our coasts, when “we’re going to start seeing the more difficult impacts of sea-level rise,” Quigley says. Large restoration projects will become more expensive as the water rises. “Everyone focused on shoreline restoration is racing to try to get these things built, or at least in the works,” he says.
2030: That’s seven years away.
Sediment for Bay and Delta tidal marsh: $19M
A pesky federal rule has for years hindered local adaptation to sea-level rise. Tidal marsh is an important ecological buffer; moving dredged sediment to San Francisco Bay and Delta wetlands has been a priority in the region for years. But the Army Corps of Engineers is required to dump the sediment in the cheapest way possible.
So it is a big deal that $19 million from BIL will enable the Corps to dump sediment at Cullinan Ranch, in San Pablo Bay, and the Montezuma Wetlands, in the Delta. These two authorized and long-ago shovel-ready projects will hopefully be followed by two more in the North Bay: Hamilton Wetlands, in Novato, and Tiscornia Marsh, near San Rafael. “Cost is one of the biggest challenges in actually doing this kind of infrastructure work,” says Stu Townsley, Corps deputy district engineer for project management in San Francisco. “It has the potential to result in some pretty meaningful work over the next decade or so.”
Keeping the lights on (and water clean) at the Presidio: $200M
When Congress got serious about updating the aging infrastructure in national parks, passing the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020, it left out the Presidio, San Francisco’s unique federally managed city jewel. It’s the national park that isn’t a national park. But thanks to former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco and lives within walking distance of the park, IRA throws the Presidio a bone: $200 million for deferred maintenance on the aging military-base-turned-park. Its entire electrical grid will be replaced and updated, for an eventual conversion to solar. Drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems will be overhauled. All this in four short years. “These are big projects, but we’re jumping on it,” says Jean Fraser, the CEO of the Presidio Trust. “I’m grateful to Congress and the president for understanding the existential challenges we face as a nation and planet.”
At last, some money for the Bay
San Francisco Bay is among the largest estuaries in the West. But unlike the Chesapeake Bay or Puget Sound, it’s never seen significant federal investment. That’s been a long-standing point of frustration for many shoreline conservation advocates. At last, the Bay is getting an infusion, via the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA’s Region 9 office has doled out a modest $5 million for San Francisco Bay water quality improvement projects from annual appropriations since 2008. BIL has provided a bump of $24 million to be spent over the next five years—and last year’s federal appropriations bill added another $55 million. Congress also authorized a long-hoped-for permanent San Francisco Bay program office within the Region 9 office, which covers the West, 148 tribal nations, and Pacific islands. “That’s more stormwater filtration projects, that’s more investment in shoreline restoration. That’s more investment in green infrastructure, within cities, to prevent pollution from filtering down to the Bay,” says Quigley with Save The Bay.
On top of all this, BIL and IRA provide the EPA nationally with more than $18.4 billion in nature-related funding, with a portion focused on environmental justice. Some $3.7 billion from IRA funds the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights within the EPA launched nationwide last fall. Region 9 will offer at least $50 million through its Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmaking Program, regional administrator Martha Guzman said in an interview with the Public Policy Institute for California.
The EPA’s Valiela says achieving equity requires helping smaller organizations navigate the bureaucracy. “I won’t sugarcoat it. Receiving federal funds is a pain,” she says. “We acknowledge that and are trying to supply support for applicants.”
Adapting to drought: $24B
“In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money,” Marc Reisner famously wrote in his sweeping 1986 work Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Experts can only hope that quip holds true for the mountain of BIL and IRA cash devoted to drought mitigation projects. Headlines last fall about the $4 billion in funds for saving the Colorado River’s lower basin leave out the fine print in the White House’s guidebook for the Inflation Reduction Act. It adds that the money is also for “other basins experiencing a comparable level of long-term drought, such as the Sacramento–San Joaquin.”
But the bill doesn’t say exactly how that money will be spent, according to Ann Hayden, a California water expert with the Environmental Defense Fund. If EDF and its partners’ lobbying succeeds, Central Valley farmers converting their fields for groundwater conservation (see our feature story “Dry Land Rewilded” in this issue) will receive some of that money, becoming a model for the West. In California, the pressures of increasing aridity and a groundwater law restricting overpumping are “motivating folks to come to the table and try out new strategies,” Hayden says.
The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation is doling out those funds, as well as smaller grants for water conservation and reuse. Local water districts serving Marin, Sonoma, Alameda, and Contra Costa Counties have received $15 million, while many smaller water conservation projects in the South Bay have garnered grants too.
Bay Nature spoke with Hayden midway through California’s 31-atmospheric-river winter. Water scarcity seemed distant. But not for Hayden. “We’re in the midst of this hydrologic whiplash,” she said; all signs pointed to more extended droughts. “We need to be doing everything we can to prepare for this.”
Hayden’s also tracking a cool $20 billion in IRA money, headed for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The money beefs up existing Farm Bill programs that help farmers, for example, use less water, improve soil health, create habitat, or establish conservation easements. “IRA is investing in the [water] demand reduction piece of things, which has largely been overlooked,” says Hayden. “I see that as a huge opportunity.”
The NRCS has offices across California tasked with providing grants and technical expertise to farmers to conserve resources. “In the San Joaquin Valley, we are definitely utilizing the Inflation Reduction Act funds to increase that capacity to build and implement more groundwater recharge at the farm level,” says Carlos Suarez, California’s state conservationist.
NRCS is projected to grant out an additional $340 million by 2026 in California, according to Suarez. Making those funds available to farmers is one hurdle, “but also the technical assistance that goes with it. That’s definitely a challenge, but we’re working on it.”
Reducing the risk of wildfire: $415M
Six projects for Northern California national forests are receiving at least $415 million over the coming few years, aimed at reducing wildfire risks. National forests cover around 19 percent of the state. Thanks to BIL and IRA, the Forest Service will also have money for the owners of private forest lands. More than half the forests classified as high wildfire risk are privately owned; Bay Nature reported in its Fall 2022 issue on how the timber industry’s collapse has left these landowners struggling to manage their forests for fire.
California is in an acute wildfire crisis; smoke, evacuations, and destruction of beloved places have become familiar this decade. “I am really worried that those lands are not going to come back [as] forest, given climate change and the way these fires are burning,” says Brown, the forest attorney. The forests provide ecological services that will be lost, she says. Paying for them “is going to be very, very, very expensive. I don’t think people have internalized that there is this much at stake.”
Transportation and infrastructure: It depends
Let us not forget that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is, in fact, an infrastructure bill, with hundreds of billions for roads, bridges, dams, ports, and airports. But will it be green infrastructure, built with climate priorities in mind? Or will it be the old gray kind? Quigley says the answer will hinge on the agencies that manage the funds. “If the Department of Transportation wants to just build freeways the way they’ve always built freeways, BIL will do that,” he says. A prime example: He’s hoping federal funds will help lift up Highway 37 where it stretches across San Pablo Bay, to restore the 20,000 acres of tidal marsh now trapped behind it. Johnson, at CalERBA, has been making the case to agencies that greening infrastructure “should be the first priority,” she says. “Because nature-based solutions often also have a much lower operation and maintenance cost over the long run.”