Posted on Fri, May. 31, 2002
San Jose Mercury News

Bay could become what it used to be
Public purchase of the salt ponds along San Francisco Bay offers that rare environmental opportunity -- a chance not just to prevent the destruction of natural habitat, but to roll back the clock and restore what has been lost.

The ponds in the south bay, used for more than a century to evaporate seawater and produce salt, will be returned to their original marshy condition, to the benefit of several endangered species and a multitude of other creatures and plants.

Under a historic deal announced this week, the agribusiness company Cargill will sell 16,500 acres of salt ponds to the public for $100 million. It is a splendid development for the ecological health of the bay.

It is also a fine addition to the list of what can be accomplished for the environment by combining public money with contributions from private foundations. The purchase price will be split, with $72 million coming from the state, $8 million from the federal government and $20 million from the Packard, Hewlett, Moore and Goldman foundations.

Exciting as it is, the purchase agreement is only the essential first step. The state must nail down the source of $47 million ($25 million was set aside previously).

Once the property is transferred, restoration is the next challenge, a challenge that will be both financial and scientific. Returning the ponds to their natural salinity and tidal action is far more complicated than simply pulling down the levees that now separate them from the rest of the bay.

Cost estimates run upwards of $100 million. At least the payments can be spread out; the process is one of 20 years or more duration. Foundations have contributed $15 million toward getting the conversion under way.

The deal came about through the hard work of public officials, environmentalists, Cargill and representatives of the foundations. Notable among them was a familiar presence, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She has been pivotal, over the last decade, in preserving California's natural heritage through the Desert Protection Act in 1994, the public purchase of the Headwaters forest of ancient redwoods in 1999, and now the salt pond restoration.

Also due a thank-you are the foundations -- Packard, Hewlett, Moore and Goldman -- which have been increasingly active in habitat preservation.

Preservation of wetlands was a relative latecomer to the public environmental agenda. Wetlands are easy to overlook because a lot of what they do happens under the surface -- providing a nursery for fish, and filtering water before it flows on to the ocean.

In recent years, however, wetlands have come to the fore, particularly the preservation of the Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades. Even as Feinstein and Gov. Gray Davis were announcing the salt ponds deal, President Bush and his brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida, were pledging to spend $115 million in federal money to buy up privately held rights to drill for oil and gas in swamps in south Florida.

With the purchase of the salt ponds, the San Francisco Bay now joins the country's other great wetlands in having a vastly better chance of becoming what it used to be.