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Publication Date: Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Salt pond purchase: 16,500 acres for $100 million Salt pond purchase: 16,500 acres for $100 million (February 19, 2003)

** Now for the biggest restoration project after Everglades.

By Marion Softky
Almanac Staff Writer

On March 6, the fringes of San Francisco Bay should start recovering from 150 years of abuse.

That is the date set to transfer ownership of 16,500 acres of salt ponds, ringing the north and south Bay, from Cargill Salt Co. to the federal and state government, so the ponds can slowly be restored to tidal marsh supporting birds, fish and wildlife.

Following months of negotiation, the California Wildlife Board on February 11 voted 3-0 to accept a package of elaborate agreements covering the transfer.

The 42-page phase-out agreement, for example, spells out how Cargill will continue to operate the ponds and reduce their salinity to acceptable levels before physically turning them over to the government to manage and restore.

"I believe this is a magnificent outcome," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the chief architects of the deal, along with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and California Gov. Gray Davis. "Not only is this the largest wetland restoration project in California history, but it takes what has been a blight on San Francisco Bay and begins to restore it to its pristine state of marshes and wetlands."

The purchase is being funded with $72 million in state funds, $8 million from the federal government, and $20 million from private foundations. These include the Hewlett, Moore and Packard foundations, and the Goldman and Resources Legacy funds.

Under the conveyance agreement, Cargill Salt Co. will be seeking federal and state tax benefits for the difference between the appraised and sale values, said Cargill spokewoman Lori Johnson. The property is appraised at $243 million, $143 million more than the purchase price.

Under the purchase agreement, the federal government will take ownership of approximately 9,600 acres in San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties; the area will become part of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife refuge. The state will take over some 6,900 acres in Alameda County just south of the San Mateo Bridge, and in Napa County.

Cargill will continue making salt on some 8,000 acres in Alameda County surrounding its Newark salt plant near the east end of the Dumbarton Bridge.

In the West Bay, the purchase will include the salt ponds in Menlo Park north of the Dumbarton Bridge. The pond south of the Dumbarton Bridge will not be transferred until San Francisco completes its project to remove lead shot and clay pigeons left by the former skeet shooting range next door.

The sale also does not include the salt ponds between Bayfront Park in Menlo Park and Seaport Boulevard in Redwood City. These could be sold to accommodate the extension of Bayfront Expressway and possible development.

Full restoration of the Bay's shoreline to a natural state will be long, difficult, and expensive. Planning alone is expected to take five years and $10 million, said Craig Breon of Portola Valley, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. Even partial restoration could take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even then, Mr. Breon cautioned: "Nobody knows if it will work. It's a very difficult and complicated eco-system to re-create."

What next?

Before government agencies can take over and breach the dikes, Cargill has a lot to do. It must continue to manage the ponds and levees, while it reduces the concentrations of salt and toxics to the point that they won't damage the Bay. This point will be determined by the State Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Since the Gold Rush, salt has been made by evaporating water from San Francisco Bay. Now Cargill manages some 25,000 acres of ponds in the North and South Bay in a complex system. Normal Bay water is taken in near the east end of the San Mateo Bridge and pumped through a series of ponds over a period of some five years, at ever increasing concentrations. Finally, the salt is harvested near Newark, in the fall when it is almost completely dry.

No one should expect to see much change in the salt ponds between Bayfront Park and the Dumbarton Bridge for a few years, Ms. Johnson said. Since these ponds have high salinity -- just look at the salt cakes floating on the water -- Cargill will have to dilute them by bringing in fresh Bay water. Then it can pump the salty water through a pipe under the Bay near the Dumbarton Bridge to the Newark plant, where it can be processed and refined. "It could take six years to do that," she said.

Cargill hasn't decided what to do with the salt in the ponds north of Bayfront Park, Ms. Johnson said. It could either harvest the salt in place and truck it to Newark, or dilute it and pipe it across the Bay. "That plant site was not part of the deal," she said. "It still has a full crop of salt."

The ponds farther south, between Mountain View and San Jose, have much lower salinity and should be ready to transfer to the wildlife refuge years sooner. "Eighty percent of the ponds could be turned over almost immediately. Some may be ready as early as this fall," Ms. Johnson said hopefully. "It depends on a permit from the regional water board."

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