San Francisco – Consider how much of San Francisco and its surroundings have been touched over the past 150 years by the presence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which began operations in the Bay Area a century and a half ago this year. From paving the way for the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge to the massive recovery from an earthquake that nearly destroyed the city, San Francisco might have evolved very differently had the Corps not played a key engineering role in the city’s development and preservation.
One hundred fifty years on, it’s difficult to rank the Corps’ greatest contribution to the City by the Bay, but certain landmarks do stand out. Glance in any direction from your favorite vantage point and on display are examples of how the Corps has changed not only the landscape but the lives of its residents: from helping to guide the construction of the two iconic bridges linking the city with its northern and eastern flanks, to the creation of Treasure Island in the middle of the bay, to numerous fortifications made over the years to Angel Island and the rock known as Alcatraz. “It is simply breathtaking when you look at the countless number of projects that have literally shaped this entire region,” said Lt. Col. John Morrow, the San Francisco District commander.
Even before California was admitted to the Union, the Corps was surveying sights of significance and since the district’s establishment in 1866, the Corps has played a role in the development of nearly every strategic fort and harbor throughout the region. According to Corps history, even the world famous Golden Gate Bridge took its name from a term first coined by Army engineer Capt. John Freemont, who in the 1800’s, used it to refer to the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, predicting that the “wealth of the world” would flow through it.
In the time since, the San Francisco District has not only responded to national emergencies but has taken on hundreds of public works projects -- from disaster risk reduction, dredging that has kept sea lanes in the Bay along with federal ports and shipping channels open, to protecting the environment and endangered species -- all helping to improve the quality of life for millions of people from the district’s northern boundary in southern Oregon to just south of Salinas.
Today, the district is adapting to the challenges of the future including the perennial problem of water and how to manage it. “Water affects everything we do in California,” said district regulator Sahrye Cohen, and over the past century, through drought and deluge, the Corps has been active in flood mitigation during the rainy season and water conservation during the parched, dry summers. Lake Mendocino, created from the construction of Coyote Valley Dam in 1959, was the first major Corps project in the Russian River basin, borne out of the need to reduce the risk of a repeat of flooding that struck during the 1930’s. Then came completion of Warm Springs Dam that yielded Lake Sonoma in 1983. Both dams provide water to more than 600,000 people while also offering outdoor recreation to hundreds of thousands of visitors to region every year.
But 150 years ago, no one could have imagined the new water threat posed to the region triggered by climate change and rising sea levels. To address that, engineers and hydrologists in the San Francisco District are working with partners on what amounts to the largest estuary restoration project in the Western United States, one that would create several thousand acres of tidal wetlands to help protect the heart of Silicon Valley, “one of the nation’s most vital economic areas,” as Commander Morrow put it, from predictions of sea levels rising by as much as three feet over the next half century.
It’s just one of many projects designed to solve what Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, the Corps’ commanding general and chief engineer, recently described as some of “the nation’s most complex engineering challenges.” Over the next 150 years, the scope of the Corps’ work will continue to evolve based on the engineering needs and the still unknown threats facing the nation.