Posted on Tue, Jul. 20, 2004

Return to wetlands begins as salt ponds now drain into Bay

By Mike Taugher

SUNNYVALE - Workers opened tide gates Monday to begin restoration of salt ponds walled off since the 1940s from the southern rim of the San Francisco Bay.

Opening the 1,350-acre area is the first step in a project that is evoking comparisons to the largest wetlands recovery program in the country, the Florida Everglades.

"This is the biggest on the West Coast, and it's the only one that is occurring in the middle of 6 million people," said Marge Kolar, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's manager for the Bay's national wildlife refuges.

An additional 2,500 acres of salt ponds will begin draining later this year, she said.

The plan is to allow much of the area now covered by the ponds to revert to marsh and to provide a bonanza of wildlife habitat.

"Our next generation is going to be experiencing the work we do today, a more productive and healthy Bay," said Grant Davis, executive director of the Bay Institute. "It's terribly exciting."

The salt pond was acquired last year as part of a $100 million deal for 16,500 acres of such ponds owned by Cargill. Although most of the ponds are in the South Bay, 1,400 acres are along the Napa River in the North Bay.

That deal gave a major boost to restoration of San Francisco Bay's marshes and wetlands, only a sliver of which remain.

As much as 90 percent of the tidal marshes that once acted as fish nurseries, feeding grounds for birds and other wildlife and as a filter for runoff draining into the Bay have been lost to development, agriculture and salt ponds.

Government biologists and conservationists have developed a goal to restore 100,000 acres of wetlands -- about half the historical total.

Last year's Cargill purchase, along with about 9,000 acres of salt ponds that were already in public hands, make that goal appear within reach, according to conservationists.

"That's a quarter of the way toward our goal," Davis said.

Monday's events marked the first on-the-ground action to begin restoring the ponds to a more natural state.

Opening the gates mingles water from the former ponds and the Bay as the tide rises and falls, bringing pond salinity more into balance with the Bay's level.

As water began to spill Monday into a slough leading to the Bay, Forester's terns dove repeatedly for fish and white pelicans bobbed on the surface of the pond.

The pond is in an industrial area, next to Moffett Field and Sunnyvale's wastewater treatment plant. It was selected as the first to be reconnected to the Bay because it was less saline than others.

The flow of water into the slough kicked up a stench that Kolar attributed to algae.

She said now that the pond and Bay are connected, the algae is less likely to grow as thick.

Part of the reason for trying to reduce salinity in the ponds now is to avoid problems similar to those that have occurred in the North Bay, where the state purchased 9,000 acres of salt ponds in the 1990s. Restoration there has been delayed because of concern that discharging the highly saline water will be bad for fish and wildlife.

Wildlife officials and conservationists say that the same mistakes will not occur with the new Cargill purchase. But they added that in the relatively new field of wetlands restoration, they are likely to continue learning lessons that can be applied to restoration at other ponds.

It will take from five to 20 years before the pond here could be considered "restored," said Mike Thompson, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"This is the first step of the actual field work," Thompson said.

"It's on the scale of the Everglades, the Chesapeake Bay," he added. "It's large and it's complicated."

Mike Taugher covers the environment and energy. Reach him at 925-943-8257 or [email protected]