May. 30, 2002

Tough balancing act looms in Cargill deal

Mercury News

It may be the ultimate fixer-upper project, even in the Bay Area.

The chore: Turning 16,500 acres of industrial salt ponds along the south San Francisco Bay waterfront back into tidal marshes to restore birds, fish and other wildlife after more than 100 years of human changes.

The risk: How to do it without contaminating the bay, running up a huge bill for taxpayers or accidentally flooding Highway 101 or other low-lying areas.

Those questions swirled around Wednesday like the gulls, pelicans and harriers overhead as federal and state leaders held a bayfront ceremony in Fremont to commemorate the largest wetlands purchase in California history -- the government's $100 million acquisition of 16,500 acres of salt ponds from Minnesota agribusiness giant Cargill.

``In the last century we did not do a very good job at protecting this resource,'' said Gov. Gray Davis, who noted 100 years of bay dredging, diking and filling. ``Today we are taking the first steps to reverse the course of history.''

As politicians, environmentalists and private foundations celebrated, new details came to light about how the salt ponds -- which stretch 20 miles from Hayward to San Jose to Redwood City -- will be restored, with work that could begin in about 18 months.

First, not all 16,500 acres will be turned into tidal marsh. Some will be left as salt ponds, probably the deepest ponds near San Jose. That's because some bird species, such as ducks, dive in the salt ponds, while other birds eat the brine shrimp and brine flies that live in the ponds. Other animals, however, including the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse and many fish and shorebirds, prefer marshes.

``It's important to have a mosaic out there,'' said Marge Kolar, refuge manager at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where much of the land will be added.

A study by 100 scientists in 1999 recommended that if the salt ponds were restored, two-thirds become marsh and one-third remain salt ponds. Environmentalists on Wednesday concurred.

``You don't want to make everything the same,'' said Robert Stephens, chairman of the California Audubon Society, and a board member of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. ``Anything you do will hurt some animals and help others, so there should be a balance.''

A purchase agreement is scheduled to be finished by Sept. 15, and the deal is scheduled to close on Dec. 16.

After the deal closes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Fish and Game will take title. But Cargill will receive only $53 million. It won't be paid the remaining $47 million until it obtains a permit from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, setting rules for when salt ponds can be drained into the bay and in what volumes.

Water in the saltiest ponds is five times as saline as the bay. State officials are expected to allow it to be released only during the rainiest winter months when the bay is full of fresh water, and not all at once.

``Obviously the main issue is protecting the bay,'' said Loretta Barsamian, executive officer of the water quality board. Barsamian said the permit will involve scientific studies and public hearings. But it won't hold up the restoration work, she predicted.

``I don't think we have seen anything that we felt was not permittable,'' she said. ``The question for releasing is where and when?''

After the permits are issued, work can begin -- probably by early 2004. Rather than taking down earthen levees and risking flooding San Jose, Mountain View or other nearby low-lying areas in winter storms, crews instead will install tidal gates to begin mixing bay water with the salt water.

They also will separate ponds to stop salt from continuing to crystallize.

``The first goal is to stop producing salt,'' Kolar said. "After that, there is going to be a big scientific debate. We don't want to take real big steps without lots of study because we don't want to mess things up.''

Kolar predicted that within about three years, roughly two-thirds of the ponds could be converted to waters the same salinity as the bay -- essentially enlarging the bay by 10,000 acres.

Meanwhile, the California Coastal Conservancy will oversee a five-year plan to draw up a long-range blueprint for which ponds will stay salty, which will become tidal marsh or seasonal marsh. Other questions include where public boardwalks would be built, and whether sediment from shipping channels should be pumped in to recreate marshes more quickly.

Three Bay Area foundations donated $15 million toward that restoration planning: The Packard, Hewlett and Moore foundations.

Beyond that plan, however, no money is in hand for the long-term overhaul of the ponds.

Earlier this year, Save the Bay, a strong supporter of the deal, issued a study predicting that restoring two-thirds of the ponds to tidal marsh would cost between $148 million to $228 million over 20 years.

Another study, by San Rafael wetlands consultant Stuart Siegel, places the restoration cost at $130 million to $420 million, with work taking 50 years because dredged materials are already in demand for wetlands restoration projects in Napa, Marin and Solano counties.

The money will have to come from Congress, the state, private donors and payments from other projects that are required under the law to offset environmental damage, said California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols.

``We'll be finding pieces of the funding year by year,'' said California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols. ``This is the beginning of a long journey.''

If San Francisco International Airport ever wins approval from voters to build new runways, it has said it could contribute $200 million to bay restoration projects.

One large pond was left out of the deal. That pond, known as A-18, is an 850-acre expanse of water located in San Jose's Alviso area. San Jose city officials have been negotiating for several months with Cargill to purchase it.

Lindsey Wolf, spokeswoman for the city's environmental services department, said officials hope to have a proposal negotiated for city council review in August. If the price tag matches that of the bigger Cargill deal -- about $14,000 an acre -- pond A-18 could go for around $12 million.

Wolf said the city has no specific plans for the pond yet, but restoring it could help the city win federal and state permits in future years for flood control, wastewater treatment and other projects that could harm South Bay wildlife habitat.