STC Members Visit the Bay Model

A photo of the Bay Model, a working replica of the San Francisco Bay and delta, built by the US Army Corps. of Engineers.

The Bay Model Visitors Center houses a two-acre working model of the San Francisco Bay and Delta. It uses timer-controlled pumps to cycle water in a carefully calibrated network of basins and channels to simulate tides and water flows in the vast, complex estuar

By Patrick Lufkin
STC Fellow and VP Membership

On June 3, a group of technical communicators and friends from around the Bay Area visited one of the area’s hidden treasures, the Bay Model in Sausalito. The excursion was organized by me and Nicki Davis, STC-Berkeley chapter president, as part of an outreach effort to increase camaraderie and cooperation among the five Bay Area STC chapters. About 30 members from various chapters participated.

Located on the waterfront just north of Sausalito, the Bay Model is a three-dimensional working model of the San Francisco Bay and Delta. The facility opened in 1957 to help the US Army Corps of Engineers fulfill its responsibilities to study and maintain the nation’s waterways.

About the size of two football fields, the facility is a marvel. Pumps move water up and down on a regular cycle to simulate the complex tides, currents, and flows of the vast estuary. The model is fully labeled and detailed. You can circumnavigate the bay and delta, walk over parts of it on bridges, and become aware of out-of-the-way places most of us have never visited.

The facility served as a scientific modeling tool until it was retired in 2000, when its modeling functions were taken over by computers. During its heyday, the facility provided evidence-based input for an array of bay and water conservations issues, from maintaining safe navigation, to wetland restoration, to recreation and agriculture, to such perennial California water use issues as proposals for a peripheral canal.

In fact, the facility’s construction grew directly out of one such proposal. In the late 1940’s, John Reber, a California actor, theatrical producer, and school teacher, thought he knew the solution to California’s water problems: trap and hold the fresh water that would otherwise flow out of the Golden Gate. According to the Reber Plan, the Bay would be dammed with barriers to create two huge freshwater lakes and some shipping canals; the rest would be filled in for commercial land use. When, despite its grandiosity, the idea gained some traction, the Corps of Engineers stepped in, called for a detailed study of the plan, and constructed the Bay Model to test it. The barriers, which were the plan’s essential element, failed to survive this critical study. The fight over the Reber Plan played a large part in saving the bay and giving birth to the area’s storied environmental movement.

The facility now plays an important role in educating the public on the natural and cultural history of the bay and its watershed, making it also interesting from a technical communication viewpoint. To educate and inform, the facility marshals a full range of technical communication techniques. In addition to the detailed and fully labeled model itself, it uses photographs, dioramas, murals, signage, hands-on displays, historic artifacts, and more. There is even a small theatre which shows a well-done introductory video.

The various communication tools cover California’s water history from when the vast expanse of Tulare Lake still dominated much of the San Joaquin valley, to the despoliation brought about by hydraulic mining during the California gold rush, to the demands of modern agriculture and population growth. Housed in a huge warehouse that was once a World War II shipbuilding site, the facility also has an area dedicated to telling the story the “Rosie-the-Riveter” era of shipbuilding on the Bay.

For many, the highlight of the excursion was a docent-led tour provided by the corps. The volunteer tour guide did a fine job giving background, fielding questions, and explaining features that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Tours are available for groups from 10 to 30 people. For those who want to visit on their own, audio stations keyed to parts of the model are available for a small fee.

Both fun and educational, the day couldn’t have gone better. Many of the participants brought lunches to enjoy while schmoozing at the waterfront picnic tables.

I would like to thank all those who participated, as well as the leaders of the Bay Area STC chapters who promoted the event and helped to make it a success.

For those who want to visit on their own, the Bay Model Visitors Center is located at 2100 Bridgeway, at the north end of Sausalito. The Bay Model is easily accessed from either the Richmond or the Golden Gate Bridge. Admission and parking are free.

For more information see the Bay Model website.  Click “Bay Model Journey” and other links for additional information.

Patrick Lufkin is an STC Fellow and participates in the leadership of the Berkeley and East Bay STC chapters.


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