State OKs $100 million plan to restore Bay Area wetlands

Mercury News

Launching the largest wetlands restoration effort in the United States outside the Florida Everglades, California officials on Tuesday voted to spend $100 million to buy thousands of acres of bayfront salt ponds and fundamentally reshape the landscape of the South Bay.

The deal was approved on a 3-0 vote by the state Wildlife Conservation Board after three years of negotiation. It covers about 16,500 acres of salt ponds along 20 miles of the Bay Area's waterfront, stretching from Hayward to San Jose to Redwood City.

California's most expensive parkland purchase since the 1999 Headwaters Forest redwoods deal, the sale offers the opportunity, supporters said Tuesday, to re-create a vast system of tidal marshes for ducks, wading birds, salmon, harbor seals and other wildlife in numbers not seen since the gold rush of the 1850s.

``This is a magnificent outcome,'' said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who negotiated the deal with Minneapolis agribusiness giant Cargill. ``Not only is it the largest wetlands restoration project in California history, but it takes what has been a blight on San Francisco Bay and begins to restore it to a pristine state of marshes and wetlands.''

The ponds, visible to airline travelers by the algae that gives them an orangish hue, are used to make salt for roads, food and medicine. Salt harvesting on the South Bay dates back to 1854.

Under Tuesday's deal, the state will pay Cargill $72 million. The federal government will chip in $8 million, and the remaining $20 million will come from private donations from the Packard, Moore, Hewlett and Goldman foundations. Restoration over the next 30 years could cost $200 million or more.

Distribution of land

The majority of the lands and their salt-making rights, on about 9,600 acres, will be added to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, based in Fremont. The other 6,900 acres, including 1,400 acres along the Napa River in the North Bay, will go to the state Department of Fish and Game.

``Today's decision by the Wildlife Conservation Board marks an important step toward restoring the health and environment of San Francisco Bay,'' said Gov. Gray Davis. ``I look forward now to the next chapter of this important project -- planning and carrying out the largest wetlands restoration on the West Coast to benefit generations of Californians to come.''

Biologists have coveted the ponds for decades. Because of diking, filling and paving wetlands, San Francisco Bay has shrunk by one-third since the gold rush, driving numerous fish and bird species to the endangered list and reducing the bay's ability to filter pollutants. Roughly 80 percent of the bay's tidal wetlands have been lost since 1800, scientists estimate, from about 190,000 acres to 40,000 acres today.

``With this acquisition, we are going to be able to give the bay back its lungs,'' said Carl Wilcox, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. ``We are going to be able to expand wildlife habitat and filter more pollutants that come into the bay. It is an amazing thing.''

Unlike clear-cut redwood forests or other degraded habitats, wetlands can be re-created relatively easily. Biologists also said Tuesday that the sale offers a chance to provide trails, boardwalks and other access to introduce millions of people to the bay's natural environment in the coming decades.

``There have been so few places where the public could actually see the South Bay and its wildlife,'' said Janet Tashjian Hanson, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, in Alviso. ``We drive over it, we drive around it, but there haven't been many places where you could walk up to it without encountering a locked gate. That's going to change now.''

Cargill, which acquired the lands from Leslie Salt in 1978, will continue to harvest salt on 11,000 acres near Newark in the East Bay. There will be no layoffs among Cargill's 200 employees, said Lori Johnson, Cargill's public affairs manager.

``We don't know what the economy will do, but we have every intention of being here in 50 years,'' she said.

Huge challenges remain.

30-year project

Converting the ponds to tidal marsh could take 30 years and cost between $200 million and $500 million, said Marge Kolar, manager of the Don Edwards refuge. That money probably will come from government funds, bond acts and private sources.

Public meetings will begin as soon as April, Kolar said, on a five-year plan to decide which ponds to convert -- about one-third of the acreage may be left in salt ponds because some birds prefer it -- as well as other questions.

Those include how to shore up levees to reduce the risk of flooding Highway 101 and Alviso; how to deal with years of mercury in sediments; how to use dredge fill to raise the elevations of the deepest ponds so pickleweed, cattails and cordgrass can begin to grow; and how to block the spread of invasive species.

``There is a lot to think about,'' Kolar said. ``But I don't think it is overwhelming. This is 16,500 acres surrounded by millions of people. It is going to be a big project, no doubt about it. But I think it is all doable.''