Dredger sculpting Hayward wetlands
Equipment helping to
By Wendy Phillips, STAFF WRITER


HAYWARD -- A floating wood-and-metal dinosaur rumbles up and down a
narrow channel, scooping up colossal amounts of mud.
The dredger is strengthening levees and deepening canals, preparing to
open the floodgates. In a year or two, engineers at Eden Landing
Ecological Reserve will bust through the dikes that have held back the
tide for more than a century.

Bay waters will embrace parched earth and fill stagnant ponds. Dirt
will become mud. From naked brown earth, strands of green pickleweed
will sprout.

This 835-acre chunk of the Hayward shoreline southeast of Industrial
Boulevard once was targeted for industrial development and a racetrack.
Now, it is being restored to its pre-1850s condition, at a cost of $3
million to $4 million.

Far beyond the notice of most residents, construction is well under way
to transform the reserve -- once known as the

Baumberg Tract -- from seasonal wetlands and industrial wasteland into
a full-fledged tidal marsh.

And while debate rages over the fate of the nearby Oliver West housing
project, environmentalists here say Eden Landing is a positive standout
in a sea of overdevelopment.

"This is what should be happening all over the Hayward shoreline," said
Evelyn Cormier of the Hayward Area Shoreline Citizens Advisory
Committee.

In 1996, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, using a
combination of state conservation funds and environmental mitigation
money from the cities of Milpitas, San Jose and Fremont, bought the
Eden Landing property for $12.4 million from Cargill Salt Co.

The land had been used for salt production since the mid-1800s, and
harvesting ponds dot the landscape. Though still and fetid and stinking
of sulfur, these ponds have a certain beauty, reflecting a ghostly
purple light into the morning air.

In a rare show of cooperation, the salt company donated its massive
dredger for the project, along with 400 man-hours, as part of the sale.

Like an overgrown kid in a muddy sandbox, the dredger has one function
in life: to move earth from place to place. Built in 1936, the Mallard,
as the machine is dubbed, is one of the last of its kind. They simply
don't make wooden-hulled clamshell gravity-swing dredgers anymore, said
Butch Parades of Cargill.

Parades eyes the floating machine like a proud parent. The dredger's
bucket, attached to a massive boom, swings back and forth without
modern hydraulics, using the force of its own gravity.

In a room overlooking the action, leverman David Talley acts as a sort
of puppeteer, the boom and bucket and cables comprising his metallic
marionette. Playing out cables and pulling them back again, he performs
painstaking and solitary task.

"We call it the dance," Parades said, gesturing to Talley, who indeed
is leaning, bending and swaying as if to music.

Talley and deckhand Ray Everett live on board the dredger for a week at
a time when they are in the middle of the project. The dredger moves
about 125 cubic feet of mud each day, Parades said.

When it is time to move on to a new work site, Talley lifts up the
anchoring "spikes" and the machine pulls itself along by grabbing hold
of the sea floor. A trip from the Hayward shoreline to the Dumbarton
Bridge takes two to three days, depending on the weather, Parades said.

This current restoration project is funded by a mixture of federal and
state funds, and through mitigation money from cities that have
destroyed wetlands in past development projects.

As the state inches toward a massive deal to acquire 16,500 acres from
Hayward to San Jose from Cargill, this restoration project, which is
about 2 years old, offers a working example of the results of an
ongoing movement that caught fire in the 1990s.

Through restoration and enhancement of the marshlands flanking San
Francisco Bay, environmentalists hope to undo some of the damage caused
by the unchecked development of decades past.

Wildlife experts estimate that in the mid-1800s, there were 200,000
acres of such marsh. Today, there are about 35,000. By 2010, officials
hope to see an increase of 30 percent to 50 percent in the amount of
seasonal and tidal wetlands statewide.

Tidal marshes act as the lungs of the Bay, filtering sediment and
pollutants through weeds and grasses. They also are the location of an
early step in the food chain, providing dead plant material for tiny
fish to eat.

In a June 2001 study, a National Academy of Sciences panel found that
man-made wetlands often fail to perform the functions of natural ones.
But experts are not worried about Eden Landing because it is mostly a
recreation of what once was.

Beneath cracked earth, rotting wooden structures and abandoned tires
lie all the ingredients for success.

"The underlying ground surface hasn't changed all that much," said Carl
Wilcox, who is managing the project for the state Department of Fish
and Game. "As soon as you open it up to the tide, you'll see the birds
and the fish."

Two main beneficiaries of the project include an endangered shorebird
and the only mouse that is known to swim in salt water.

In seven to 15 years, Wilcox hopes to see the California clapper rail
thriving here. The bird, with its spindly legs and long beak, likes a
healthy tidal marsh with an abundance of channels -- which is exactly
how Wilcox envisions this place when the work is done.

The salt marsh harvest mouse, also endangered by the decimation of
wetlands, is expected to return to the area even sooner, attracted by
the fast-growing, salty pickleweed.

In addition, about 100 acres of the reserve will be set aside to remain
as seasonal wetlands -- dry in the warm months and wet during the rainy
season -- just as certain shorebirds like it.

Avocets, stilts, ducks and egrets may be displaced by the current
construction, but they won't have far to go to find a new home, Wilcox
said.

The endangered snowy plover will have 120 acres set aside for a nesting
ground. Water, controlled by a gate, will be let in or drained out of
the area, creating optimal conditions for the choosy bird.

Eventually the Bay Trail will snake into the area, providing hikers
with close-up encounters with wetlands wildlife, said Mark Taylor of
the East Bay Regional Park District.

But not until the newly built levees harden in the sun, becoming strong
enough to support traffic.

"It could take a few years, but when the water comes in, there will
really be something to see here," Taylor said.

Wendy Phillips covers health, the environment and seniors. Call her at
(510) 293-2465 or e-mail [email protected] .

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