America’s Cup Legacy: The Greening of the Port of San Francisco

The America’s Cup races give us thrilling views of the world’s fastest sailboats—and a great opportunity to put into practice our commitment to a healthy, thriving San Francisco Bay. One legacy of the America’s Cup will be less polluted storm water in the Bay.

By Deb Self

Published: August, 2012

The America’s Cup races give us thrilling views of the world’s fastest sailboats—and a great opportunity to put into practice our commitment to a healthy, thriving San Francisco Bay. One legacy of the America’s Cup will be less polluted storm water in the Bay. As San Francisco piers are retrofitted to accommodate visitors and racing teams, new pollution controls are being added.

These pollution controls are thanks largely to San Francisco Baykeeper’s advocacy. They’re especially needed because contaminated storm water is the Bay’s biggest pollution source. When it rains, water rushes off rooftops, roads and parking lots, collecting pollutants that include trash, oil and pesticides. Polluted storm water from many San Francisco waterfront structures flows directly into the Bay.

Retrofits for the America’s Cup will reduce pollution from several locations. At Pier 27, rain from the roof will be channeled to planters that filter out pollutants before the water runs into the Bay. At Pier 32, a "living wall" planted with vegetation will perform a similar function. At Marina Green, a rain garden is being tripled in size. The garden absorbs storm water and allows it to percolate into the soil below, where pollutants are filtered naturally. These techniques are examples of "low-impact development," which incorporates pollution-reduction measures into buildings, roads and parking lots.

However, these pollution controls almost didn’t happen. Although San Francisco law requires large redevelopment projects to include low-impact development features, the Port of San Francisco initially claimed pier retrofits were only repairs, and thus exempt. Baykeeper urged the Port and America’s Cup Event Authority to include pollution-reducing features. They ultimately agreed.

What’s more, we prodded regulators to rule that all future large redevelopment on San Francisco piers must reduce storm water pollution in the Bay. This sets a precedent for projects like the possible future Golden State Warriors basketball arena at Pier 32.

Baykeeper also helped win a victory for protecting habitat and open water swimming space. Originally, America’s Cup plans called for a JumboTron TV screen in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park during the races. Members of the Dolphin Club and South End Rowing Club, who swim at Aquatic Park, warned that the screen could tip over in the cove’s high winds. Refueling the screen’s generators could also create a risk for diesel to be spilled. Baykeeper and the swimmers convinced the race organizers to cancel the giant floating TV.

Our efforts were among those by 30 environmental, transit, waterfront preservation and neighborhood groups. Baykeeper helped bring all these groups together in the America’s Cup Environmental Council, a coalition working with San Francisco city government staff to green the sailing races.

One coalition partner, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, secured $150,000 in San Francisco city funding for a study on the America’s Cup’s impact on rafting birds—birds feeding on the water in dense groups. In early July, I counted dozens of common murres rafting with cormorants off Alcatraz. Just beginning to recover from several oil spills, murres spend most of their time on coastal islands like the Farallones. But there they were—only a month before the first races, when the Bay will be filled with spectator boats, most of them motorized.

Millions of migrating birds depend on the Bay to rest and feed. Diving repeatedly to avoid boats uses energy birds need to successfully migrate. This study can help identify ways to avert harm to birds from future major events on the Bay.

As the first America’s Cup events begin, we can all help make these races Bay-friendly. If you’re going, check out Baykeeper’s tips for protecting the Bay as you enjoy the sailboats zooming by.


Tips to Protect the Bay as You Enjoy the America’s Cup

• If you’re headed to viewing areas on the San Francisco waterfront, take public transit or ride your bike.

• Stay out of areas marked as sensitive habitat, such as the Crissy Field dunes. If you’re watching from the Marin Headlands, avoid trampling fragile plants.

• Bring your own reusable water bottle to cut down on trash. Better yet, bring a bag to take your litter home with you, and help reduce buildup in trash receptacles near the shoreline.

• Be Bay-friendly while you’re sun-wise: choose a mineral sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide labeled "no nano-particles." Many sunscreen ingredients are not removed by sewage treatment; they end up in treated wastewater that gets discharged into San Francisco Bay.

Chemical sunscreens and nano-particles both can pose serious health dangers for people and wildlife.


Deb Self is Executive Director of San Francisco Baykeeper, Baykeeper uses on-the-water patrols of San Francisco Bay, science, advocacy and the courts to stop Bay pollution. To report pollution, call Baykeeper’s hotline at 1-800-KEEP-BAY, e-mail, or click "Report Pollution" at