Landmark deal would revive ailing wetlands

Salt plant company offers to sell land

By John Krist
July 21, 2002

FREMONT -- Not many places in the San Francisco Bay area offer a view like this.

Three miles away lies the eastern shoreline of the bay, misty blue on this warm summer day. Despite the distance, it is clearly visible from this vantage point -- a low ridge near the visitor center at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge -- because there are no apartment towers, condominium complexes, office parks or freeway overpasses standing in the way. Nearly everywhere else in this metropolitan area of 7 million people, buildings and highways form a concrete carpet that hugs the water and in many cases has flopped right over over it.

The expanse of open shoreline swoops around the southern tip of the bay, forming a 20-mile arc that reaches from Hayward to Redwood City. It is an undeveloped anomaly the size of Manhattan in a region so desperate for housing that commuters with Silicon Valley jobs find it expedient to live in the Central Valley town of Stockton, 70 miles and nearly 120 rush-hour minutes away, where the median home price is less than a third of that in the Bay area.

"It's remarkable, isn't it?" said refuge Manager Marge Kolar, whose official domain encompasses most of the undeveloped bayshore real estate visible from the vantage point near her office. As she pointed out distant landmarks, a loud, clattering sound drifted up from an invisible source below the ridge top, as if a percussionist hidden in the tall grass were slapping two hard sticks together. "Hear that?" she asked. "That's a California clapper rail."

Fewer than 1,000 clapper rails remain in the wild. The rail is among 20 threatened and endangered species associated with San Francisco Bay wetlands, and is the rarest of more than 200 bird species that reside in the Don Edwards refuge or visit during their annual migration.

Kolar's refuge, already an important strand in California's tattered web of coastal wildlife habitat, is about to become the focus of one of the largest and costliest ecological restoration projects in U.S. history. Under a landmark deal announced May 29, a consortium of public agencies and private foundations has agreed to spend $100 million to acquire 16,500 acres, much of it within the refuge boundaries, from Cargill Inc. The land comprises former wetlands that were diked and flooded in the 19th century for commercial salt production, a profitable use that kept them from being filled and developed like most of the Bay area's wetlands

If the sale goes through, the Minnesota-based corporation's property will be preserved as open space and transformed into a mosaic of marshes, mudflats, sloughs and tidal basins. In both cost and physical scale, it will be the biggest wetlands restoration ever undertaken on the West Coast. Nationally, it will be second in scope only to the 18,000-square-mile Everglades restoration in Florida, which bears an estimated price tag of $7.8 billion.

Large though it is, the Cargill salt ponds acquisition is just one of many similar efforts under way in California. From Crescent City to the Mexican border, thousands of acres of degraded marsh and mudflats along the state's 1,100-mile coastline are being acquired by public or private nonprofit conservation agencies and restored to their natural condition. The growing number of such projects is helping reverse (or at least slow) the decline of wetlands in a state that has already paved, drained, filled and tilled about 90 percent of them.

Among the key components of this modest wetlands renaissance is Oxnard's Ormond Beach, where the California Coastal Conservancy agreed in May to buy 265 acres for $9.7 million. That parcel is the centerpiece of what conservancy planners hope will eventually comprise at least 750 acres of restored habitat linked by land and sea to the extensive marsh and lagoon complex already protected by military security on the Navy base at Point Mugu.

Besides Ormond Beach, other major coastal wetlands being restored in California include:

  • Bolsa Chica, a prime piece of oceanfront property adjacent to the upscale Orange County community of Huntington Beach, where over the next three to four years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will oversee restoration and preservation of 880 acres of wetlands, ponds and tidal basins. The California Coastal Commission approved the $100 million restoration plan in November.
  • Tijuana Estuary in southern San Diego County, where the Coastal Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project are financing a 500-acre wetland restoration program. Construction of a $3.1 million demonstration project -- a 20-acre tidal marsh -- was completed last year. When the rest of the project is finished, planners say, it will be among the largest of its kind in the nation.
  • The lower Napa River north of San Francisco Bay, where the state and federal governments have so far spent $1 million to acquire and restore 956 acres of tidal and river wetlands.
  • Petaluma Marsh in Marin County, where public and private groups are buying 181 acres and restoring them as tidal marsh at a cost of nearly $1 million, with the new acreage to be added to a 2,000-acre wetlands complex.

As biologists, activists and restoration planners ponder their next move at Ormond, as well as at the scores of other wetlands restoration sites scattered along the California coast, San Francisco Bay will serve as a model and laboratory. Even before the Cargill deal was announced, the bay had become the epicenter of coastal wetlands restoration in California, with projects under way or recently completed at sites on San Pablo Bay, Suisun Bay and along key tributary rivers and creeks.

Reversal of misfortune

Once regarded as useless unless drained or filled, wetlands now are widely recognized as having tremendous value as natural water filters, as shoreline storm buffers, and as sponges that soak up floodwaters and minimize their destructive capacities -- services they once provided for free, which many coastal communities now must spend money to replicate artificially.

"I think that we've realized over the last decade the crucial role that wetlands play," said Stanley Young, communications director for the California Resources Agency.

But it is the marsh's role as a harbor for life that most distinguishes it from other types of habitat. Perhaps nowhere else on earth do plants and animals, from the microscopic level upward, spring forth in such abundance and diversity: A healthy wetland may rival the tropical rain forest in number and types of life forms per acre, exceeding in sheer volume of biological productivity on even the most fertile farmland. Scores of fish species, many of them commercially important, use wetlands as nurseries and foraging grounds. The disappearance of these habitats has taken its toll: Half of California's federally listed endangered plant and animal species are wetland inhabitants.

The state's recent wetlands renaissance is being driven not only by growing public awareness of the value of intact marshes but also by the willingness of voters to open the public purse to preserve them. In the past two years, Californians have approved three statewide bond measures that included funding for watershed and wetlands acquisition or restoration along the coast and in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region: $220.4 million for the Coastal Conservancy through Proposition 12 in March 2000; $250 million for Bay-Delta projects under Proposition 13 in the same election; and $300 million for coastal habitat improvements in March through Proposition 40.

An initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot this year would authorize another $950 million for coastal watershed and wetlands projects, as well as $850 million for Bay-Delta programs.

Military downsizing in the 1990s also led indirectly to several major coastal restoration projects, as the federal government cleaned up contaminated sites before turning surplus property over to private or public ownership. Wetlands restorations at Hamilton Field on San Pablo Bay near Marin and Crissy Field at the Presidio in San Francisco both were made possible by post-Cold War base closures.

Support for wetlands restoration has also been driven by state and federal efforts to reduce what water-quality regulators refer to as "nonpoint-source pollution" -- contaminated runoff from diffuse sources such as farm fields, city streets and suburban back yards. Unlike large, easily regulated pollution sources such as factories and sewage treatment plants, nonpoint sources cannot easily be required to install pollution-control mechanisms. Wetlands, Young said, offer a more cost-effective way to biologically filter such runoff than gathering it in storm drains and running it through an expensive new filtration plant.

More than 1,000 wetlands nationwide have been created or harnessed to remove contaminants from water, a process known as "bioremediation." In California, they are removing nitrates in Upper Newport Bay, the Los Angeles River and Richmond; fecal coliform in Laguna Niguel; and dairy cow waste in Chino.

Another impetus for the state's wetlands resurgence has been California's growing importance as a global trade hub, which has prompted West Coast seaport managers to enlarge and deepen their harbors to accommodate increases in both the volume of goods being shipped and the size of oceangoing freighters. Those expansions often require filling open water for new or enlarged docks and storage yards; state and federal regulatory agencies have required port officials to offset those losses by funding habitat restoration elsewhere. Most of the money for the Bolsa Chica project came from the Port of Los Angeles expansion, and dredging to deepen the Port of Oakland is providing fill material for the 700-acre Hamilton Field restoration.

Although the Cargill acquisition represents a substantial addition to the inventory of restorable habitat around the bay, local conservation organizations dream of much more.

"We're working to restore the whole thing," said Dev Novack, public affairs director for the Audubon Society's San Francisco Bay Restoration Program, outlining her organization's goal of reclaiming 100,000 acres of bayside habitat. "This is just the first step."

It may be just the first step, but political leaders and Northern California environmental groups hailed the Cargill deal as a turning point in the long effort to reverse the destruction of San Francisco Bay wetlands, about 90 percent of which have been lost to urban development and agricultural conversion. Gov. Gray Davis, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Interior Secretary Gale Norton all issued press releases touting their roles in brokering the deal.

Feinstein called it "a model for future environmental projects." Davis, who joined her at a press conference at the Don Edwards refuge to announce the agreement, dubbed it "the Hope diamond of wetlands acquisition." Norton said the deal "exemplifies the tradition of conservation in America, in which federal and state governments work hand in hand with citizens."

Despite such expressions of official exuberance, a host of contractual and liability issues must be resolved before the purchase can be concluded. Additional state funding must be found. Even if negotiations succeed, there will remain the much more complicated matter of planning, funding and carrying out the restoration itself, which could take decades and cost as much as seven times the actual purchase price.

Despite the many challenges remaining, many of those involved in the long effort to preserve wildlife habitat around the bay are optimistic, and hopeful the Cargill project will yield a research bonanza that planners can draw on as they begin restoration efforts at Oxnard's Ormond Beach and other sites along the California coast. Already, projects under way in the Bay area have taught engineers hard lessons about the complex interplay of land, ocean tides and freshwater streams -- and how difficult it can be to negotiate the roiling political waters that often surround such restoration projects.

Plotting a course

At the Walnut Creek offices of Moffatt & Nichol Engineers, navigation charts are pinned to a conference room wall to form a giant collage of San Francisco Bay, depicting in intricate detail the shoreline and underwater contours of the huge estuary. Engineers Brad Porter and Dilip Trivedi referred to the charts frequently while describing the challenges involved in maintaining artificial structures and attempting to rebuild natural ones in the bay environment.

Even though engineers can call upon computer models and mathematical formulas in an effort to predict how the interplay of natural forces on water and land will affect a project -- and be affected, in turn, by the project -- there's only one way to know for certain.

"There's inherent uncertainty," Porter said. "You really never will know until the thing gets built. And that's just the reality of it."

A nationwide firm founded in Long Beach just after World War II, Moffatt & Nichol specializes in designing waterfront structures -- port and harbor facilities, marinas, bridges, docks -- as well as environmental work such as restoring tidal basins and wetlands. It has undertaken several such projects in the Bay area, including the Crissy and Hamilton field restorations.

Trivedi has conducted extensive studies of sediment movement and hydrology throughout the bay, much of it as part of the preliminary work in conjunction with a proposal to expand San Francisco International Airport. Porter worked on the Crissy Field project, where more than 100 acres on the Presidio near the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge was transformed in 1999 from military airfield and industrial storage yard into a waterfront park. The project involved removal of an old trash dump, 50 buildings and 40 acres of asphalt, and their replacement by dunes, beach and tidal marsh.

Porter said the 20-acre marsh proved difficult to design and build, largely because of conflicts between public opinion and hydrology. The engineers, he said, were fairly confident about the best place to bulldoze open an inlet to let tides flow in and out of the marsh, but wind surfers and other beach users worried that it would damage a popular stretch of sand and alter wave patterns. They successfully pressured administrators of the Presidio, which the military handed over to the National Park Service in 1994, to have the tidal inlet moved farther up the beach than the engineers preferred.

That proved to be a mistake. Currents dumped sand in the channel mouth, instead of depositing it on the beach. Starved of sand, the beach then began to erode -- the very outcome beach-lovers had feared. Several temporary measures, including trucking in thousands of cubic yards of sand and burying concrete barriers, kept the beach from disappearing entirely until the currents and new shoreline could reach equilibrium again between deposition and erosion.

The tidal channel now curves along the shoreline instead of running perpendicular to it, creating a long sand spit that eventually allowed currents to begin replenishing the beach naturally, Porter said. Crissy Field today is a popular recreation spot with a spectacular view of bay, city and bridge, and the marsh is slowly coming to life as native plants regenerate and birds move in.

Patience is a virtue

Differences of opinion among project engineers, advocacy groups, recreational users and others with a financial, managerial or emotional stake in the outcome will likewise face restoration planners as they map out the future of Cargill's salt ponds -- just as they will face those attempting to restore the wetlands at Ormond Beach in Oxnard and elsewhere around the state.

Restoration of the Cargill ponds will occur in two stages, said Kolar, who will be guaranteed a seat at the planning table as manager of the refuge where most of the ponds are located. The first step, she said, is to interrupt the salt-production process, which would continue even without human interference because it is based simply on solar evaporation of seawater as it slowly flows from one pond to the next.

After that, a planning team involving representatives of many interest groups -- likely overseen by the California Coastal Conservancy -- will decide how much of the acreage will be turned into wetlands and how much will be allowed to remain as shallow ponds, which are valuable to waterfowl because of the brine shrimp, brine flies and other food sources they support. Kolar said she expects the planning phase of the restoration to take at least five years.

Three years ago, the San Francisco Bay Area Wetlands Ecosystem Goals Project issued a report presenting recommendations for the kinds, amounts and distribution of wetlands and related habitats needed to sustain fish and wildlife in the San Francisco Bay area. It represented the culmination of more than three years of work by more than 100 scientists, resource managers, and other participants from local, state and federal agencies, as well as private organizations, and likely will serve as a blueprint for planners working on the Cargill project.

The restoration recommendations are quite detailed (the report is 328 pages long), but in general propose a variety of habitats:

  • Many large patches of tidal marsh connected by corridors to enable the movement of small mammals and marsh-dependent birds.
  • Several large complexes of salt ponds managed for shorebirds and waterfowl.
  • Extensive areas of managed seasonal ponds.
  • Large expanses of managed marsh.
  • Continuous corridors of riparian vegetation along the bay's tributary streams.
  • Restored beaches, natural salt ponds, and other unique habitats.
  • Intact patches of adjacent habitats, including grasslands, seasonal wetlands and forests.

Although it likely will be decades before the restoration is complete, biologists point out that change can occur with surprising rapidity in an ecological system as dynamic and complex as a tidal estuary. The same ridgetop that provides a view of the Cargill salt ponds at the Don Edwards wildlife refuge offers a glimpse of what the future may hold for them, and suggests just how quickly things can change when people back away and let nature reassert itself.

To the west of the ridge lies the bay, and the great arc of undeveloped shoreline. To the east, however, the viewpoint looks out over an expanse of greenery cut by sinuous channels, their muddy bottoms exposed at low tide. Birds are everywhere, clinging to reeds, dabbling in the murky water in search of food. At the far side of the marsh stands a wall of new office buildings, looming over the reeds, pickleweed and grasses like a concrete cliff -- evidence of the urban forces that have consumed nearly every other scrap of unprotected real estate around the bay.

Only a few years ago, Kolar said, the marsh was a vast expanse of dry, sterile, salt-crusted soil, part of Cargill's operation. Under a previous restoration effort, crews knocked down dikes, cut channels to let the tide back in, and relied on nature to do the rest.

Nature responded, a silent partner with plenty of patience and a demonstrated knack for turning lifeless lands -- volcanic islands newly emerged from the sea, naked earth uncovered by a glacier's retreat -- into gardens.