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Wetland Dreams

[whitespace] salt
Chris Gardner

Salted Wounds: More than 25,000 acres of wetland from San Jose to San Mateo--which are mined for a million tons of salt a year--could soon teem with wildlife.

Saving South Bay wetlands could mean cutting a deal with an unlikely ally--S.F. International Airport.

By Jim Rendon

Bouncing along a roughly paved road that weaves in and out of the shoreline, 73-year-old Ralph Nobles gestures toward the view in front of him. "Look at all that," he says, waving his hand at a murky stretch of water. "All that space just to make salt." The pools of brown water flanked by low, corrugated metal shacks stretch to the horizon. Behind us, a bulldozer rides over a mound of salt five stories high.

This is Cargill's West Bay salt processing facility. The brown ponds are crystallizing beds, the end of the line in Cargill's salt-making process. On both sides of the bay, salt evaporation ponds stretch from the San Mateo bridge to San Jose. The water is pumped from one pond to the next, becoming thicker with salt until it flows into crystalizers here and in Fremont. This murky brown soup is left to evaporate until raw salt is scraped from the bottom of the pond and moved on a miniature railroad to the pile behind us.

Soon, this process could come to an end, and Cargill could be sent packing. Nobles hopes this bed, and the rest of the salt ponds in the South Bay, will be turned over to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge. The new owners could break holes in the levee walls, allowing the tide to transform brine pools into vibrant wetlands. Nobles envisions hikers enjoying a rich mix of birds, fish and harbor seals that could thrive in the marsh over thousands of acres of bay-front wetlands.

Plane Truth

THIS ELDERLY ECO-WARRIOR, in his broad-brimmed straw hat, has been trying for decades to chase Cargill out of town. Since 1982, Nobles has opposed development on the bay's shores and has worked with local groups like the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge in its ongoing work to transform Cargill's holdings into a wild preserve. He was instrumental in halting development plans for Bair Island, a 300-acre, dried-up salt marsh off Redwood City. But now Nobles is turning toward a different type of ally. He is extending his hand for what some environmentalists feel is a deal with the devil. By courting the deep pockets of San Francisco Airport, Nobles hopes to finally wave goodbye to Cargill.

The airport is in a pinch. Business is booming, and it needs more space to land planes. The agency that runs SFO recently dusted off a five-year-old plan to increase its runway capacity by building a tarmac the size of Treasure Island out into the bay. But environmentalists have halted nearly every bay-fill project in the last 30 years.

Airport officials hope that by working to buy and restore Cargill's salt ponds, they can woo the favor of environmentalists, and get the project off the ground without lengthy hearings and drawn-out lawsuits. That kind of swap is known as "mitigation," an environmental shell game where habitat in one area is protected in return for damage done elsewhere. Through mitigation, the South Bay stands to score an environmental windfall from San Francisco's air traffic woes.

Ron Wilson, SFO's director of community affairs, leans back and swivels in his chair, turning away from his view of the airport's runways ending in the blue glimmer of the bay. Those runways are the problem, he says. New runways at major airports are set more than 4,000 feet apart to allow room for large planes to come in simultaneously, even in bad weather. In San Francisco, the landing strips are a mere 750 feet apart. When visibility is low, planes must land one at a time. The airport wants to build runways large enough so that planes could land side by side regardless of the weather.

Gesturing at a framed aerial view of the airport that depicts crossed runways that each end in the water, Wilson says any addition to the tarmac would have to be built in the bay. There is nowhere else to go.

Though the airport has not officially committed to Nobles' proposal, Wilson says that it is considering the swap. High-priced mitigation is nothing new for the airport. It has already spent $86 million to address noise problems, and it is spending $120 million on traffic mitigation for its new international terminal. The airport was so interested in Nobles' proposal that Wilson says the agency has already approached Cargill about buying the land. Cargill, however, disputes this--spokesperson Jill Singleton says the company has no plans to leave. Wilson counters that the ag giant is simply being coy.

Swamp Swap

UP ON A HILL overlooking the bay, Marge Kolar, manager of the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge, points out a narrow green swath that meanders west into the water. "That is the largest strip of wetland in the South Bay," she says. The smallish, verdant ribbon is surrounded by the massive reddish-brown salt-production ponds, which stretch to the horizon. A smattering of other green strips hug the edges of the ponds--tiny slices of tidal marsh.

Miles of these marshes once ringed the southern end of the bay, providing a home for otters, salmon and flocks of birds so thick they darkened the sky. Since the late 18th century, 85 percent of these tidal wetlands have been lost.

Kolar says salt marshes, once considered little more than an inconvenience, support an abundance of marine life--including rare microorganisms and several endangered species. They also perform the crucial feat of hydro-engineering: dramatically slowing the outflow of water during winter rains.

Though the refuge owns 22,500 acres of wetlands around the bay, only 3,000 acres function as salt marsh. Most of the rest is used by Cargill to produce salt.

For more than 20 years, Cargill has "mined" a million tons of salt each year from the bay. Singleton is quick to point out that salt production is not all bad. Those of the salt evaporation ponds with lower salinity levels provide habitat for shore birds, some of which are themselves endangered.

A recent report put out by the San Francisco Estuary Institute, which looks at how the entire bay ecosystem should be managed, recommends leaving thousands of acres as evaporation pond to be managed for wildlife rather than salt production.

The problem right now is balance. There is so little marsh, and it is so fragmented, that any marsh destruction is not tolerated. San Jose's sewage treatment plant has contributed to the loss of salt marsh by dumping relatively clean treated sewage water into the bay. No matter how clean the water is, the 135 million gallons a day of fresh water disrupts the salt marsh, destroying habitat for the endangered clapper rail and harvest mouse. As a result, the city is forced to comply with strict flow limits--which it routinely exceeds.

Following the mitigation model, San Jose has spent millions to restore salt ponds in the North Bay to compensate for destroying marshes in Alviso. If enough of Cargill's property were restored to marsh, this expensive headache would disappear. It would also open the door for future expansion.

"If we take a very small fraction of the open water and get back 80 percent of lost historic wetlands in the South Bay, how could anybody fail to see this is a good deal?" Nobles asks. But some environmentalists have come out against his proposal.

"If the South Bay project is something we want, we can talk about making that happen without trading one potential environmental disaster for another," says Will Burns of Save the San Francisco Bay Association.

Burns is concerned about the environmental impacts of the airport's bay-fill project, which will in no way be alleviated by the creation of wetland.

"It may alter migration routes for fish, there will certainly be runoff of oil and other chemicals used to clean planes," he says. But according to Wilson, the airport treats all the runoff that flows from its existing runways and foresees no problem with toxins.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which has overseen filling in the bay since 1965, is not a fan of such projects. Before the agency's creation, the bay was filled at a rate of 2,300 acres a year. Following its creation, the rate shrunk to 20 acres a year. Now, because mitigation is required for every fill project, the bay has actually grown since 1974.

"This proposal is more than tenfold the largest approved project in the last 20 years," says Steve McAdam, deputy director of the agency. But, McAdam concedes, the potential gain is tremendous. The agency, like the other players, seems truly transfixed by the possibility of recouping so much wetland.

Runway Train

BUT JULIA BOTT of the Sierra Club isn't satisfied. "We can't let them off the hook because there is a big Christmas present at the end," she says. "We have to rely on the laws that are in place."

While Wilson maintains that other options will be considered, he is skeptical about finding any solutions other than the proposed runway. "For the airport to solve problems with air traffic and noise, there is probably no other alternative," he says. San Jose's runway can't handle large jets, and even after its expansion could not cater to the new jumbo planes. Most passengers, he says, don't even know where the Oakland airport is.

This attitude, Burns says, is part of the airport's strategy. "They have created a fait accompli. They are going to build a runway; it is just a question of how big and how damaging."

Activists fear the airport will not get all of Cargill's 29,000 acres. "If there is no alternative to the runway, we must get something so substantive that [another fill project] will not happen again," Bott says.

Breon agrees. "We will probably fight over the size of the mitigation rather than whether the project goes forward," he says. "We have the knowledge and tools to disrupt the process if the mitigation is not something we think is acceptable."

After a decade in the trenches, Ralph Nobles insists that total victory is attainable, as a willet squawks and takes flight, pushing against the wind and rising above a dark blue slough. "I'm going to stick to my guns and fight for recovering the whole thing," he says.

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From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of Metro.

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