Where We Live
From dump to destination
Salt pond purchase marks shift in how we see San Francisco Bay
David Lewis
Thursday, March 6, 2003
2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/03/06/ED238036.DTL

This week, public wildlife agencies will finally acquire more than 16, 000 acres of salt evaporator ponds in the San Francisco Bay and begin working to restore healthy wetlands there. Taking back and transforming the salt ponds will benefit endangered fish and wildlife, improve water quality and natural flood control, and enhance local recreation and open space. It's a great deal for the bay's health and for more livable communities around the bay.

The broad support for this historic purchase also shows how much attitudes about the bay and conditions in the bay have changed in just one lifetime. When I was born here 42 years ago, one-third of the bay had already been filled in or diked off from the tides. There were plans to fill 60 percent of what remained -- all the shallow areas -- leaving just a narrow river for shipping. Less than six miles of bay shoreline was accessible to the public.

Before Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the bay was full of raw sewage and industrial waste. Garbage dumps burned along its shoreline. Marshes and mudflats were considered wastelands to be paved. In the 1960s, thousands of Bay Area residents rose up in a grassroots "save the bay" movement. They had stunning success in changing laws and personal behavior. Most landfill was halted, dumps were closed, sewage treatment plants were built and pollution regulations were tightened. Hundreds of miles of bay shoreline were opened to the public with trails and parks. People power forced government to manage the bay as a public good, a natural treasure in our midst that must be protected.

That strong, popular consensus throughout the region has not waned. Proposals to fill more of the bay -- most recently for runways at SFO -- are met with scorn. Vallejo citizens recently revolted and killed a plan to give away shoreline recreation for a massive liquid natural gas terminal and power plant on Mare Island. In just the last decade, the public has rallied for actually restoring bay wetlands, not just protecting against pollution and landfill.

The city of Hayward vigorously opposed a smaller salt pond purchase by the state in 1994, arguing it should be allowed to build on the site. Now, South Bay cities are anxious for the benefits that wetlands can provide along their shores. A decade ago, Cargill Salt Co. insisted it would never cease salt production here, and argued it could build on some of the ponds. Now, Cargill is a partner in the largest California wetland restoration ever attempted. In 1999, the company even helped generate the Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals, a strong scientific blueprint for restoring the health of the bay and delta through wetland habitat restoration.

Nine Bay Area counties now boast sizable bay wetland restoration projects, from Bair Island in Redwood City to Hamilton Field in Marin, and from San Leandro Bay to the mouth of the Napa River. Tens of thousands of acres from Novato to Vallejo, originally diked and drained for farmland, have been spared from development and will be restored to marshes and mudflats, as will more than half of the salt ponds around the bay.

The changed attitudes about bay wetlands are not lost on smart politicians. Sen. Dianne Feinstein played the lead broker on the Cargill salt pond acquisition, and Gov. Gray Davis lent visible support. When San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and some state legislators plotted to link salt pond restoration to SFO runway development, the effort was crushed.

Restoring the bay and its shoreline will take decades and dollars, but it has strong, deep support. Public funding for acquiring shoreline open space and wetland restoration wins strong local and statewide support at the polls. Crissy Field's community-based restoration is a model being replicated from Palo Alto to Oakland, as people pitch in to replant bay wetlands and creeks.

San Francisco Bay still needs our help to reduce pollution from road runoff,

farms, abandoned mines and air pollution sources; to increase freshwater flows so salmon and other fisheries can recover; and to prevent unwise shoreline development. To keep the bay healthy and alive, each generation must educate the next to be its stewards, to celebrate and enjoy its beauty, and to work for its protection and restoration.

Four decades ago, restoring the bay's salt ponds was a distant dream. Now it is a striking reminder of how far we have come and what people can do together to save our bay.

David Lewis is executive director of Save the Bay. More information on salt ponds and wetland restoration is available at www.saveSFbay.org.

2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback

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