“Water Lab Lets Visitors Peek Beneath the Bay” — The Bay Model — by Dick Jordan

“Water Lab Lets Visitors Peek Beneath the Bay” — The Bay Model — by Dick Jordan

This story by Dick Jordan about our October, 2010, meeting venue, the Bay Model in Sausalito was published by the Bay Area Newsgroup on Aug. 2, 2009, under the title “Water Lab Lets Visitors Peek Beneath the Bay.”

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Docent Dick Jordan points out simulated oil spill (Photo © Keley Stock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Docent Dick Jordan points out simulated oil spill (Photo © Keley Stock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

With money tight, staycations remain the hot travel trend this summer. There’s no need to leave the state or even shell out $50-$100 at top-name museums either.

The “Secret Water Laboratory” helped save San Francisco Bay and can rescue your summer with free admission, free tours, free exhibits, free parking and free picnic tables.  A hidden tourist gem, the Bay Model is a huge three-dimensional physical model of San Francisco Bay and the Delta river system to the east.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Bay Model in the mid-1950’s to test a plan that would have created two fresh water lakes by damming up the North and South Bays.  The tests scuttled the dams by proving that the lakes would evaporate faster than they would fill.  For the next 40 years, scientists and engineers used the Model to learn what would happen if man or nature made other changes to the physical environment of the San Francisco Bay estuary.

The Bay Model has not operated as a working laboratory for nearly a decade; studies it once performed are now done using computers.  But the Model continues to have a useful “afterlife” as a natural history museum.

“Trekking the Model,” a free tour led by one of the Model’s park rangers or docents, is offered some weekends.  You can also take an hour-long audio tour of the facility for $3.

View of the Golden Gate on the Bay Model (Photo © Keley Stock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

View of the Golden Gate on the Bay Model (Photo © Keley Stock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

But most visitors take a free self-guided tour of the Model which starts by walking “From the Mountains to the Sea.”  The murals and exhibits along this hallway demonstrate how the variety of plants, birds, and animals living in the estuary changes as the water goes from 100% fresh in the mountains to 100% salty in the ocean.  An interactive display lets visitors “melt” the Sierra snowpack and send water rushing down streams and rivers all the way to the Golden Gate and out to sea.

A theater at the end of the mural area presents a 12 minute orientation film highlighting the history of the Model and the natural features of the Bay and Delta.  From the theater you walk out onto an overlook providing a “pilot’s eye view” of the Bay and Delta from an altitude of 12,000 feet.  Exhibits on the overlook outline the original plan to dam the Bay.  Scientists and engineers who grew up prior to “Computer Age” will find an old friend at the end of the overlook:  A slide rule fit for use by giant hands.

Pathways around the Model give you a sea level perspective of the Bay while allowing you to “circumnavigate” most of the Bay and Delta.  Along the way you will see three features not visible in the real world: The bottom of the bay and rivers; new runways proposed for San Francisco International Airport; and “The Peripheral Canal,” a water-transport system killed by voters in 1982 but now rising from the grave as global warming and climate change threaten California’s fresh water supplies.  Every four minutes during your tour, the Bay will fill up and drain like a big bathtub mimicking the rise and fall of the tide.

Playing the Water Challenge Game (Photo © Dick Jordan)

Playing the Water Challenge Game (Photo © Dick Jordan)

Kids can play “water czar” using the interactive “Water Challenge” game to find the best way to allot water between California’s cities, farms, fish and wildlife.  Video displays located around the edge of the Model tell the story of each part of the estuary. Younger children will enjoy the “Bobber, the Water Safety Dog” coloring book and the chance to earn a Junior Ranger badge.

History buffs will be fascinated by the small museum devoted to the World War II “Marinship” shipyard which operated on this part of Sausalito waterfront from June of 1942 until just after the war ended over three years later.  A 1945 film chronicles the history of the yard and the ships it built.  Display cases contain photos taken during the shipyard era, mannequins dressed in the garb of welders and sentries, and scale models of Liberty ships and oil tankers.  Shipyard workers recount their experiences in videotaped oral histories.  The engine room of the S.S. Mission Santa Ynez, built at “Marinship” in 1944, was saved and installed in the museum after that oil tanker was scrapped in 1989.  On the second Saturday of the month, Bay Model docent Carol Schoenfeld takes visitors on an entertaining hour and half long walking tour of the area surrounding the Model where buildings and artifacts from “Marinship” remain to this day.

Art aficionados will appreciate the frequently changing fine art show in the Model’s lobby. . . .

Bay Model building (photo © John Montgomery & Diane LeBow)

Bay Model building (photo © John Montgomery & Diane LeBow)

At the end of your tour, browse the Model’s bookstore for postcards, guidebooks, topographic maps, finger puppets and soft animal toys for younger kids, or buy the Marinship videos or the “From the Sierras to the Pacific” movie shown in the Model’s theater.

Before or after your visit to the Model, have a picnic lunch at a table right next to the Bay or walk a short distance to one of the local restaurants. Take a shore side promenade; odds are good that you’ll spot herons, egrets, waterfowl and occasionally a harbor seal.


Freelance travel writer Dick Jordan lives in San Anselmo, California, when he’s not traveling and blogging his way around the planet.  He has sailed on San Francisco Bay and in The Delta since 1984 and been a Bay Model docent for the past six years.

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If You Go


2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito; off Bridgeway between Marinship Way and the waterfront.

Phone/Website (Tours, Events, Directions): (415) 332-3871; www.spn.usace.army.mil/bmvc/

Getting There:

Go to the Bay Model Visitor Center Website or call the Model for detailed directions for coming by car, Golden Gate ferry, or Golden Gate Transit bus.  BART connects to ferries and buses.

Eat Nearby:

Mollie Stone Market, 305 Harbor Drive, (415) 331-6900 (Full service grocery; deli, food to go)

La Garage, 85 Liberty Ship Way (at Schoonmaker Point Marina), (415) 332-5625 (French Bistro; casual; on the waterfront)

Fish, 350 Harbor Drive (415) 331-3474  (Seafood; on the waterfront)

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Bay Model Facts & Figures:

Annual visitation: Around 150,000; 60% teachers and students; 20% from other countries.

Size:  Two football fields.

Construction:  Bay and Delta made of 286 12 x 12 foot five-ton “jigsaw puzzle pieces” of steel-reinforced concrete, sculpted to match each specific area of the estuary, then fitted into place with a crane and leveled out using adjusting screws.  The Pacific Ocean is a thin layer of concrete poured over sand.

Area covered:  Pacific Ocean 17 miles out to sea from the Golden Gate; San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun Bays; all of the Delta to Verona, 17 miles north of Sacramento, and Vernalis, 32 miles south of Stockton.

Scales (Bay Model to real world): Horizontal scale (1 foot = 1,000 feet).  Vertical scale (1 foot = 100 feet) exaggerates the depth of the Bay ten times in order to make depth measurements accurate.  Velocity of the water (1 foot/second = 10 feet/second).

Actual depth at the Golden Gate: 375-400 feet

Examples of studies conducted: Barriers and fill proposals studied (1960’s); water velocity on the centerline of the BART Trans-Bay Tube (1966); effect of building the Peripheral Canal (1970); simulated oil tanker spill west of the Golden Gate (1971); simulated chemical spills at proposed Pittsburg Dow Chemical plant dock (1976); Delta drought emergency (1977); Delta flooding studies for FEMA (1983).

Golden Gate saltwater flow: 390 billion gallons of saltwater flow in and out on an average day’s tide cycle.

Delta freshwater flow: 40% of all freshwater in California before diversions; 50-60% of that amount is now diverted for use in the Central Valley, Bay Area, or Southern California.

Bay facts: 80% is less than 30 feet deep; two-thirds is less than 18 feet deep.

Delta facts: 1,100 miles of levees built from 1870-1920 created 700,000 acres of farmland on 60 below-water level “islands” in what was originally a swampy wetland.  Engineers tested 18 different levee failure scenarios using the Model.

Geological history: 20,000 years ago the Bay was just a river valley.  5,000 years ago the last Ice Age ends, sea level rises, and saltwater flows in through the Golden Gate “drowning” that river valley.

Author Contact Information:

Dick Jordan
E-mail:  rhjordan@earthlink.net

2016-11-13T14:27:41-07:00Dec, 2010|Articles|0 Comments

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