State approves $100 million purchase of
Bay salt ponds
Acquisition hailed as meaningful to ecology, but rewards decades off
Wednesday, February 12, 2003 - SACRAMENTO -- The state approved a $100 million purchase of 16,500 acres of South Bay industrial salt ponds Tuesday, calling it an historic move that begins the largest wetlands restoration attempt on the West Coast.
Hailing it as the "culmination of years of work," David Lewis of the Oakland-based Save the Bay group, joined other environmentalists and government officials in praising the acquisition as a "great deal for the Bay and the people of California."
But officials acknowledged it will likely take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to transform the evaporation ponds.
While citing it as "an important step toward restoring the health and environment of San Francisco Bay," Gov. Gray Davis said he was "looking 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."
The Wildlife Conservation Board, before its 3-0 vote, downplayed criticism from open-government advocates who wanted to see more details before the state bought the Cargill salt company land that rings the Bay from Hayward to Redwood City.
The board said the law allows the appraisal, for instance, to be withheld until escrow closes next month because it contains proprietary information about Cargill.
In a move that somewhat eased accusations that the state was operating amid too much secrecy, officials last month released a toxics study indicating taxpayers will not be saddled with a big cleanup bill.
State Sen. Byron Sher, a Palo Alto Democrat who supports the purchase, said he is studying the law to determine the earliest that details can be released.
In May, Davis and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced the tentative agreement for Minnesota-based Cargill to sell the ponds to the state and federal government.
According to the deal, the state is paying $72 million and the federal government is providing $8 million. Four private foundations are supplying the other $20 million.
The deal comes as the state, with an annual operating budget of less than $100 billion, faces a potential $35 billion deficit during the next 16 months. But the state's share of the salt-pond acquisition money will come from conservation bond funds.
Though the restoration process is expected to be long and costly, the agreement calls for Cargill to pay for operation and management costs until the ponds are diluted enough to be opened to the Bay.
For the lowest-salinity ponds -- mostly around Hayward and San Jose -- that will come two years after closing.
Contact Steve Geissinger at [email protected] .
The transformation of the marsh into salt ponds began during the Gold Rush, which started in 1849.