|Salt ponds on way to
Cargill agrees to sell 16,500 acres in bay
Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Wednesday, May 29, 2002
In what could become the nation's biggest wetlands restoration outside the Florida Everglades, an agricultural company has agreed to sell 16,500 acres of salt ponds around San Francisco Bay, an area twice the size of San Francisco.
Returning the ponds to tidal wetlands would vastly increase the amount of public shoreline in the South Bay and provide enlarged quarters for millions of waterfowl and shorebirds that live here or visit on migratory routes, officials said Tuesday.
Environmentalists have called the acquisition the crown jewel in a 10-year campaign to restore tidal marsh in a bay that has lost 80 percent to development.
The state and federal governments and private foundations signed a preliminary agreement Tuesday. The deal, brokered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, offers $100 million to Cargill Inc., an international agricultural and food company.
A purchase agreement is to be signed Sept. 16, and $53 million will be paid at a Nov. 16 closing, with the remainder due over five years.
The ponds -- shimmering chartreuse to orange-red checkerboards on display for millions of travelers whose planes land here -- lie along the shorelines of Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Cargill also is selling 1,400 acres of ponds in Napa County on the Napa River.
"We're taking the first step toward restoring the San Francisco Bay for the people of California," Gov. Gray Davis said Tuesday.
"This is more than just a purchase. Today we're making a commitment -- to enhance our communities, our state and our most precious natural resources," Davis said.
Two years ago, the governor signed a bill by then Assemblywoman Carole Migden committing $25 million to get the project rolling.
The federal government has authorized $8 million. Another $35 million will come from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.
The remainder of the money -- $32 million -- will come from state water and park bonds passed by voters through state Coastal Conservancy, the San Francisco Bay Conservancy and the state Wildlife Conservation Fund.
"The Everglades in Florida is the largest wetland restoration in the country, and this is the largest shoreline restoration that increases tidal wetlands," said California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols.
"For the people who live around San Francisco Bay, this is an opportunity to improve open space forever and ever and create opportunities for recreation and education adjacent to one of the most concentrated urban areas in the country," Nichols said.
80 PERCENT OF WETLANDS LOST
The bay has lost 80 percent of its original 190,000 acres of tidal marshes to diking and filling over the past 150 years.
For 40 years, local environmentalists have envisioned returning the commercial ponds in the southern bay to working wetlands, once again serving as habitat for wildlife, filters for pollutants, flood control and open space for hiking and watching birds. Over the years, they lobbied in Congress to increase the size of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Now, the Cargill ponds can be folded in with no further congressional approval. The state will manage 7,000 acres of the ponds as a wildlife reserve.
Many environmentalists were happy about the deal.
"Sen. Feinstein and the agencies have hit a home run for the bay. And California voters have been willing to vote billions of dollars for environmental projects. It proves that we don't need to destroy other parts of the bay in order to reclaim tidal wetlands. That's what the airport has been trying to convince people," said David Lewis, executive director of Save San Francisco Bay.
BAD EXPERIENCE WITH CARGILL
Florence LaRiviere, a founder of the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, said her group is cautious. The environmentalists had a bad experience with Cargill in 1994 when the company sold land to the state but left behind bittern, a highly saline waste, and no money to clean it up, she said.
"Our vision is that things will be done right this time," said LaRiviere.
Early Native Americans who lived around the bay extracted salt from diked ponds. Leslie Salt Co. came to the bay in the 1930s, expanding over time and selling to Cargill in 1978.
Cargill will retain 11,000 acres around the bay -- 3,000 acres that it owns outright and 8,000 acres where it owns salt-extraction rights on refuge land.
SUSTAINABLE SALT BUSINESS
"Our goal was to have a strong, sustainable salt business for the foreseeable future -- 40 or 50 years, who knows," said Lori Johnson, spokeswoman for Cargill. "The acquisition is based on land we no longer need for salt production that could be restored to tidal marsh or other uses."
Cargill plans to keep producing 650 tons of salt a year and continue to employ 200 employees and 70 part-time workers at its Newark plant.
Cargill isn't selling 1,400 acres around its Redwood City plant or the nearby 800-acre pond.
Under the agreement, Cargill will lower the salinity of the ponds to standards set forth in a permit that will be issued by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. The company can't sell the land until it meets the permit requirements.
Currently, there's no appropriation in the 2002 federal budget for extra money to maintain and operate dikes and pumping of the pond. Congress would have to approve funds for the refuge above the president's budget.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton has already expressed support for the agreement. Her spokesman, Eric Ruff, director of communications, said Tuesday that "the secretary believes that this kind of agreement, which brings together federal and state governments, working in cooperation with local cities and organizations, represents the strength of conservation."
BIG JOB AHEAD
Once the refuge takes over the land, years of restoration lie ahead. Scientists have estimated a range of $200 million up to $1 billion, depending on how much is restored to tidal marsh. Scientists envision a diverse mix of tidal marshes and fresh water seasonal wetlands to upland habitat.
Feinstein, who put the deal together just as she did the purchase of the Headwaters Preserve, said: "I've tried to take individual projects, including the California Desert Protection Act and the Lake Tahoe agreement, and follow through to the end. In that way, it becomes something living, real and exciting as opposed to legislation."
E-mail Jane Kay at [email protected].