Deal to restore salt ponds to wetlands wins approval

By Herbert A. Sample -- Bee San Francisco Bureau
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Wednesday, February 12, 2003

OAKLAND -- After months of negotiations, a state commission Tuesday granted approval for the sale of 16,500 acres of Bay Area salt ponds to state and federal governments for conversion into wetlands.

The $100 million purchase from Cargill Inc., which has produced salt in the northern and southern ends of the San Francisco Bay for more than a century, was called the most significant wetlands accord in state history when a tentative agreement was announced in May. But talks dragged out months longer than originally expected. And loud complaints from state lawmakers and environmentalists prodded the state Wildlife Conservation Board into releasing documents assessing the ecological condition of the ponds and outlining terms of the sale.

On Tuesday, however, after the board voted unanimously to accept the purchase, virtually all sides were beaming about what they called a historic accomplishment.

"We're ecstatic," said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, an environmental organization that has long supported restoration of bay salt ponds. "This is a huge leap ahead for the larger goal of restoring what can be restored in the bay."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who helped secure federal funds for the deal, said the sale "takes what has been a blight on the San Francisco Bay and begins to restore it to its pristine state of marshes and wetlands."

Lori Johnson, a Cargill spokeswoman, said the sale will allow the company to more efficiently operate its salt-making business on its remaining 11,000 acres in the bay. "As we took a look at our business," Jones said, "it was pretty clear to us that we had too much capacity in the system."

Under the agreement, Cargill will sell 1,400 acres of salt ponds and salt-making rights in Napa County, as well as 15,100 acres of ponds, marshes and salt-making rights in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties. The firm will be responsible for cleaning up some relatively minor contamination problems, which were identified by a pre-sale environmental assessment.

Philanthropic groups, including the David Packard, William Hewlett and Gordon Moore foundations, will contribute $20 million toward the sale, with the remainder coming from state and federal coffers. The foundations also have committed $15 million toward restoration efforts.

Once escrow closes, expected next month, the state Coastal Conservancy will lead a five-year effort to determine how and which of the ponds will be restored, and what kind of public access and recreation opportunities will be provided, said Stanley Young, spokesman for the state Resources Agency.

Dikes bordering some of the ponds may be simply breached to allow bay waters to enter, Young said. Other highly saline ponds may go through more complex procedures before being returned to the bay.

"We're hoping most of it will be a natural process," he said.

The wildlife board last month released documents relating to the sale before its vote, including the environmental survey and the plan for Cargill to phase out its operations.

"Because there was as much disclosure as there was, it enhanced our confidence in the deal," Lewis said.

State Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, lauded the agreement. He added that he would look into requiring such disclosures in the future.

One longtime proponent of salt-pond restoration said she was concerned that state and federal financial troubles would limit the amount of money that will be available to convert the sites back to wetlands.

"I hope now the people will realize they need to keep an eye on things that happen, and make sure all of the obligations of the contractors are fulfilled," said Florence LaRiviere, with the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge.