Posted on Sun, Jul. 11, 2004

Wetlands comeback gets under way


By Paul Rogers
Mercury News

Out in San Francisco Bay off Moffett Field, men in hard hats with clanking cranes, cables, steel pipes and barges have been digging up tons of oozing black mud for the past month.

The mud is from the aging earthen levees, surrounded by water and thick expanses of tule reeds and eel grass. It has a pungent, rotten-egg smell.

“I haven't enjoyed a dinner in a while,” joked Matthew Dill of San Francisco, a foreman with Cooper Crane & Rigging of Novato, whose boots were black with muck one recent afternoon.

Despite the damage to their appetites, Dill and his co-workers are beginning a new era in environmental protection around San Francisco Bay. They are taking the first steps in a 30-year effort to restore large portions of former Cargill salt ponds back to wetlands and marshes. The initial work: installing tidal gates so bay waters can mix with former industrial salt evaporation ponds.

On July 19, state and federal officials are scheduled to crank open the first gates, bringing bay waters into five salt ponds that total about 1,350 acres—an area larger than San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Six more ponds will follow later this summer.

It will be the first time pure bay waters have returned to the area off Sunnyvale and Mountain View since the 1940s, when this set of salt evaporation ponds—once built to harvest salt for roads, food and medicine—were constructed.

Plans are afoot to bring bay waters back to other Cargill salt ponds off Alviso, Fremont and Union City in the next couple of years. Many of those ponds have made salt since the 1800s. Although brine shrimp and some birds live in the industrial salt ponds, little else does.

“When the gates are opened, it won't be long before the ponds will be filled with fish and birds, diving ducks, those types of things,” said Marge Kolar, manager of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Complex for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Also expected to expand into the old ponds are mussels, shrimp, clams and plankton, along with smelt, ducks, herons, egrets and pelicans.

“This shows that things do come back,” Kolar added, “and you can see the change in your lifetime.”

The effort has substantial symbolic value as well as biological promise.

In the 156 years since the California Gold Rush, San Francisco Bay has shrunk by one-third, the victim of diking, dredging and filling for homes, farms and development. Dozens of prominent features, from Foster City to the runways at Oakland International Airport and San Francisco's Treasure Island, were built by filling the bay.

Although modern environmental laws ended most filling in the 1970s, 80 percent of the bay's tidal marshes were lost, crippling populations of shorebirds, ducks, salmon, sturgeon and hundreds of other wildlife species.

With the salt ponds restoration, the bay and its wildlife will begin to expand again.

“This is such a switch from 40 years ago where we had garbage dumps in the marshes around the bay and we were filling them in, building places like Foster City,” said Marc Holmes, bay restoration program director of the Bay Institute, an environmental group based in Novato.

“Now the entire attitude has changed.”

The project is a major step in the Cargill salt ponds' renaissance.

In March 2003, the state and federal governments closed a $100 million deal to purchase 16,500 acres of 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. The ponds are visible to airline travelers flying over the bay because of the algae that sometimes gives them a reddish hue.

Roughly 15,100 acres of the ponds the public acquired are in the South Bay, making up nearly the entire shoreline from Hayward to Alviso to Redwood City. The other 1,400 acres are in the North Bay, near the Napa River.

As part of the restoration, the least-saline ponds will be mixed with the bay first. Waters have been diluted by Cargill workers since the sale so the salt won't harm wildlife.

One benefit of mixing the bay with the ponds, Kolar said, is that the ponds will stop evaporating water to make salt. Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service, state Coastal Conservancy, and state Department of Fish and Game are working on a five-year plan for restoration of all the ponds, spelling out which levees to strengthen, what types of habitat to create and where to allow public recreation.

Flood risk to nearby communities won't increase, Kolar said, because the water levels in the ponds will be kept the same as when they were used for making salt.

The whole project will need funding from Congress over the coming decades. Planning until 2008 and current construction is funded by a $15 million gift from the Hewlett, Packard, Moore and Goldman foundations.

Overall, it is the largest wetlands restoration ever attempted on the West Coast, rivaled nationally only by restoration of the Florida Everglades and Louisiana's coastal marshes.

“For the first time in decades, this part of the bay will be used for the benefit of wildlife, not for industrial salt production,” said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, in Oakland. “It is going to be wildlife land, not industrial land.”

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

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