July 20, 2004

Restoration of San Francisco Bay Salt Ponds Is Begun


SUNNYVALE, Calif., July 19 - A rush of salty pond water spilled into a slough at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay on Monday, setting in motion one of the largest wetlands restorations in the United States.

The goal is to return stagnant industrial ponds to teeming tidal wetlands.

With a firm twist of three sluice-gate turn wheels, the pond water flowed at 75,000 gallons a minute into the first section of the Cargill Salt Ponds for the first time in more than 60 years. The release is the first phase of a 30-year project managed by state and federal wildlife officials who hope to return natural tidal flows to 16,500 acres of salt ponds that ring the bay and a region 40 miles north near the Napa River.

Known as the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, the effort is planned as the largest restoration in the West and the third largest in the country, exceeded only by projects for the Florida Everglades and the Mississippi River.

It was made possible in March 2003 when Cargill, the agricultural giant in Minneapolis that harvests salt in the Bay Area mostly to manufacture chemicals, sold the 53-pond system for $100 million.

"This is one of the most dynamic, complicated restoration projects in the country,'' said Steve Thompson, who manages California and Nevada for the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

Complications, Mr. Thompson said, center on the nature of the bay, a vast estuary characterized by dynamic flows, varied depths and unusual currents. Close to 200,000 acres of tidal marsh and wetland habitat once blanketed the waterways, part of the Pacific Flyway.

Wildlife biologists say 90 percent of the original wetland habitat has disappeared because of paving, diking and diverting water to build houses and industries.

Some regulators and scientists had said such an extensive restoration was literally impossible.

"There was a lot of criticism when we first started negotiating," Mr. Thompson said. "There were a lot of doubters, including myself."

Even the financing, a deal brokered last year by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, seemed unduly complicated, bringing together a purchasing group that includes the State Department of Fish and Game, the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service and a handful of foundations.

The group pooled its money, with the state paying $25 million, the federal government $8 million and four foundations - family funds administered by the Hewlett, Packard, Goldman and Moore families - adding $35 million. Voters approved bonds to pay the remaining $32 million.

That cost covered just buying the land. Some experts estimate the restoration and upkeep over the next 30 years could cost more than $1 billion.

Five ponds opened Monday, releasing water from the first 1,350 acres of a 4,000-acre complex of ponds bordered by Sunnyvale and Mountain View. The site is one of the least salty, supporting hearty waterfowl like white pelicans, green herons and pie-billed grebes.

Some of the saltiest ponds, however, are virtually lifeless.

Marge Kolar, manager of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes large tracts of salt ponds, said it would take five years to create natural tidal flows that could cleanse the ponds and at least 20 years for full restoration.

As native grasses take hold and tidal marshes blossom, scientists expect to see healthier runs of Chinook salmon and steelhead and eventually hope to revive two endangered populations, the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse.

The work may face some problems. Ms. Kolar said opening the ponds to purer bay water and beginning the tidal flow process could stir sediments that contain toxins, including unsafe levels of mercury that a nearby mine released ages ago.

"Our concern with opening up the ponds is are we going to bring in mercury to these areas" in which it wasn't present before, Ms. Kolar, a wildlife biologist, asked. "We also need to be careful with the levees, so we don't flood people out."

Project managers are starting work on long-term plans, especially how to make the restored area accessible to the public, a phase that is scheduled for 2008 at the earliest.

"The other issue we are looking at in the restoration process is public access," Ms. Kolar said. "Where do we put trails? Which areas do we leave as true refuge where animals roam free? What level of hunting or fishing do we allow?"

She said such decisions were under review with the help of a 28-member citizen advisory panel.

"Nothing would have happened from the beginning without the private citizens," Ms. Kolar said. "They pushed the federal government to acquire the original ponds in the first place."

Cargill will continue to harvest salt from an 11,000-acre stretch of ponds that yield bulk salt. A vice president, William Britt, said Cargill sold the ponds as it moved into harvesting higher-grade salt.

"The system never really made sense," Mr. Britt said, adding that the company retains an emotional investment in the restoration. "We're going to continue working here. We have employees here, and the restoration is part of the quality of life."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company