Posted on Tue, Mar. 30, 2004

Salt ponds will be discharged into bay

By Paul Rogers
Mercury News

In a significant step forward for the restoration of 15,000 acres of former industrial salt ponds ringing the South Bay, state water officials have given approval for the ponds to be breached and their salty water discharged into San Francisco Bay.

The decision by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, after a year of study and computer modeling, means plans can move forward to convert the ponds to habitat for fish and wildlife.

The news also means that for the first time in 100 years many of the ponds will stop making salt.

“This is a big milestone,” said Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the regional water board in Oakland. “It is the first major physical step in the restoration. This allows the construction work to take place.”

Last March, the state and federal governments closed a $100 million deal to purchase the ponds from Cargill Salt, based in Newark. Cargill, which continues to make salt in other East Bay ponds, sold to the public roughly 20 miles of San Francisco Bay shoreline where it and other companies had evaporated salt in giant ponds for roads, food and medicinal use. The ponds are visible to airline travelers flying over the bay because of the algae that sometimes gives them a reddish hue.

The project will be the largest restoration of wetlands in the United States outside the Florida Everglades, and could take 30 years to complete.

Biologists hope the project will help restore dozens of species of birds, fish and mammals to the South Bay to make up for the vast areas of wetlands that were destroyed by diking, filling and dredging beginning in about 1850 and continuing until the 1970s.

Under a permit issued by the regional water board this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game can begin installing tidal gates and pipes in 54 salt evaporation ponds between Hayward, Alviso and Redwood City.

Work will begin in May, said Marge Kolar, manager of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The ponds with the lowest salinity will be opened to the bay first. Their waters will mix with bay water and gradually take on the same salinity as the bay.

“The modeling shows that the water salinity will go back to the bay levels within two months,” Kolar said.

That will accomplish two things. First, it will create thousands of acres of new habitat in the ponds, which once were so salty that only brine shrimp and a handful of birds used them. Kolar said she expects fish such as smelt, along with ducks, herons and egrets, to move back in.

Second, blending the ponds with the bay means the evaporation system that has made the water saltier by exposing it to the sun and concentrating it will stop. That will give teams of federal and state biologists time, under a five-year planning process under way, to conduct detailed studies of how to restore the ponds, where to build up or remove levees and where to allow public access.

The regional water board will allow water from ponds up to four times as salty as the bay to be released during spring months this year and next. A few more saline ponds must be further diluted over the next five years before release.

A decade ago, the Gov. Pete Wilson administration purchased 10,000 acres of old Cargill ponds in the Napa-Sonoma shoreline area. But it did not commit funding for maintenance. Over the years, the ponds naturally kept getting saltier, and today the state is left with a cleanup headache.

“We're learning the lesson from the North Bay,” said David Lewis, executive director of Save The Bay, an environmental group in Oakland. “This is being done in a way that will not harm the bay.”


For more information about restoration of the ponds, including a schedule of public meetings, go to

Contact Paul Rogers at [email protected] or (408) 920-5045.

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