Oakland Tribune   Monday, October 07, 2002

North Bay salt ponds a lesson in neglect
State negotiating purchase of another big tract from Cargill, with liabilities that may soak taxpayers
By Douglas Fischer

OFF NAPA SLOUGH -- Half a mile down the levee path, the birds disappear, the marsh grass withers. And the salt begins. In the heart of the Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Refuge, pond 7A is a death zone -- 306 acres of hyper-concentrated brine and salt crystals so thick a stout kick cannot penetrate the crust. The state bought the pond and 9,000 surrounding acres in 1994 from salt-making giant Cargill Inc. with the promise of transforming the tidal ponds into a wildlife paradise. Instead the brackish bittern in pond 7A has grown only more concentrated. Pond 7 isn't too far behind. Ponds 3, 5, 6 and 6A all evaporated dry earlier this summer. In the eight years since, thousands of acres of scarce San Francisco Bay wetlands have grown more hostile -- not less -- to wildlife.

As state and federal negotiators hammer away behind closed doors to seal another deal with Cargill -- this time a pact buying 16,500 acres of South Bay salt ponds for $100 million in taxpayer cash and nonprofit foundation grants -- the condition of this 1994 acquisition haunts government watchdogs, environmentalists and scientists.

The chief concern: that no one save the negotiators knows what liabilities taxpayers will be saddled with once those giant South Bay ponds become part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  And as the North Bay has shown, questions not asked cost lots of money later.

"The public is paying for this," said Janice Delfino, a board member of the Citi- zens Committee to Complete the Refugewho has spent 40 years trying to get public ownership of the land but is now worried about the looming acquisition.  "It leaves us with a huge liability."

The saga in the North Bay shows liabilities can easily top the purchase price. Indeed, two studies of the South Bay properties show restoration could cost taxpayers $10 million a year for the next 20 years -- depending on the condition of the ponds once the state assumes ownership.

But there is some good news. The South Bay deal commits $15 million from four big foundations -- the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund -- plus another $20 million from federal and state coffers for initial restoration and planning work.

And preliminary results from the North Bay show that once plans are in place and money is lined up and work starts, Mother Nature wastes no time in reclaiming the landscape.  In the long run, that may prove to be the best lesson to come from those ponds.

"We do have ponds drying up certain times of the year. We're having problems getting water to them," said Larry Wycoff, the California Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist overseeing the ponds. "But once restoration gets under way, a lot of these problems are going to go away." 

 A quick tour of the properties brings both their potential and their complexities into vivid focus.  Pond 2A is the poster child for potential. As flood waters threatened to overtop the refuge's levees during the El Nino rains of 1997, authorities dynamited a five-foot hole in the dike off South Slough to relieve pressure.

Today that breach is a 60-foot gap, and the pond -- once a barren mudflat -- is choked with bull rush, pickleweed and cord grass. Long-lost channels reopened, birds came back, and the 525-acre pond has become a popular place for canoers and kayakers.

 "This revegetated quickly. Really quickly," Wycoff said. "Anytime I hear a naysayer, I say let me take you out to pond 2A and show you what happens."

Pond 2A is what managers hope both the North and South Bay refuges eventually become: a tidal savanna where nature runs free and management consists mostly of checking fishing licenses. To the south is the 1,255-acre pond 3, the source of no small mystery: Sometime last month someone breached the levee. The trench, no wider than a spade, was dug by hand and is at least 7 feet deep, Wycoff estimates.  He has no idea who did it. Unlike the South Bay, the North Bay has no organized constituency clamoring for its restoration.

Yet, as he hopped off his boat to inspect the damage, the biologist was more bemused than anything else. "It took somebody a lot of work to do this."

 The breach is exactly what the agency has spent eight years getting permits to do. Since the ultimate goal is to open these giant ponds to the tides, whoever dug that ditch has just hustled the process along. "Overall, what they did was not a bad thing in terms of habitat restoration and whatnot," Wycoff said. "It'll be interesting to see how quickly this 1- or 2-foot ditch will open up with the high winter tides."

 The flaw is the location -- the guerrilla ditch borders a key pipe used to siphon water from one pond to another. Crews will place metal armor to prevent erosion and have made a similar breach across the pond to relieve pressure.

But Wycoff is so confident change will happen fast that he was out on a brilliant fall day last week snapping pictures. "I want to get some photos," he said, "because in a few years it's not going to look like this anymore." Complexities, meanwhile, are represented best by ponds 7 and 7A -- the wastelands.

Salt-making is a one-way process. Bay water enters at one end and five years later, after working through a series of evaporator ponds, salt gets harvested out the other.  To breach something like pond 7 and allow its hypersaline contents to drain into the Napa River would create a plume as toxic as any chemical or oil spill.

Prior to any discharge, a landowner needs a permit from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board detailing the quality of the water flowing into the Bay.  Cargill never needed such a permit because no water ever flowed that direction. So the state, when it bought the system, could only let water in.  Thus in 1994 it unwittingly entered the salt-making business.

"If you keep bringing water into the system, you just keep bringing in more salt and it just concentrates in there," said Carl Wilcox, the refuge's habitat conservation manager, who is also working on South Bay issues.  "You have to be able to discharge. That's what we're working on really hard as part of the South Bay purchase."

Plus the state in 1994 bought the ponds and essentially forgot about them.  Little money was set aside for maintenance, let alone restoration. The first draft environmental cleanup documents are not expected until this fall.  Meanwhile the ponds grow saltier. At one point refuge managers ultimately decided to stop letting seawater in and let some of them dry up.

"If they learn anything, it's have funding in place and have a plan in place and don't let it sit," said Wycoff as he bounced down the levee road toward Pond 7 in his pickup truck.  "We waited much too long. It would've been easier to restore the area if we had started right when they handed the ponds over to us."