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wetlands
Christopher Gardner

Water Therapy: The wetlands of the South Bay act as a natural filtering system between land and sea, but have long been polluted and neglected.

The time has come for Silicon Valley to choose whether the southern reaches of the San Francisco Bay remain a polluted swamp and salt factory or a pastoral, life-giving resource.

By Jim Rendon

WHERE SAN JOSE meets the southernmost reaches of the San Francisco Bay, two startlingly white egrets play on the breeze. A low stretch of marsh reaches out to meet the lapping water. The egrets land on the boggy ground, fold their wings and begin to poke through the pickleweed and cordgrass searching for a meal. Other smaller birds flit through the air in packs, leapfrogging their way across the marsh. The hiss and roar of Silicon Valley traffic can't even be heard as legions rush to work on route 237 more than a mile away.

This is one of the bay's environmental success stories. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of which sits at the northern end of San Jose, has been able to preserve a remnant of what used to be.

Two hundred years ago, marsh stretched as far inland as the distant traffic. The American Indians who dwelled here several hundred years ago traveled throughout the area by boat. Today only 3,000 acres of precious salt marsh remain in the South Bay.

For the last hundred years or so, the bay has been dumped in, filled in, built on and fished out. Eighty-five percent of the original marsh is gone, says Joy Albertson, a biologist with the refuge.

Development occurred at such a rate that in the 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers predicted that by 2020 the entire bay would be little more than a shipping channel surrounded by homes and industry. In the mid-1960s one company even planned to raze San Bruno Mountain and pour it into the bay as infill to develop an area the size of Manhattan near Candlestick Point. While that plan was thwarted, many other less dramatic plans went ahead.

"We live in an environment that used to have grizzly bears, elk and sea otters," says Florence La Riviere, director of Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge. Now the environment supports Sun Microsystems, Adobe and the housing tracts, shopping malls and miles of roads necessary for the hordes of workers that have followed.

The destruction of the salt marsh has damaged the entire Santa Clara Valley ecosystem, according to conservationists. "Salt marsh is Mother Nature's kidney," explains Tom Mumley ofthe Regional Water Quality Control Board. He goes on to explain that toxins in polluted water flowing from the land through the marsh are dispersed and absorbed into plants and microorganisms before reaching the rest of the bay. The torrential runoff from winter rains are slowed by the marsh, which helps protect against flooding.

The marsh is also one of nature's most productive ecosystems, providing a home to shellfish, birds, fish and a host of tiny organisms.

When the marsh and surrounding areas were developed, more than 20 species that depended on the habitat disappeared from the bay. Bald eagles and gray wolves, once prevalent in Santa Clara County, are now gone.

Two species that are unique to the bay are just barely hanging on. The California clapper rail, a shy pheasant-like bird, and the salt marsh harvest mouse, one of the only mammals which can survive by drinking only salt water, are officially recognized as endangered species.

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Metro reporters dip into the waters of the bay, the underground aquifer and the tapwater of Silicon Valley to reveal what's real and what's imagined in the local H2O.

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Salt in the Wound

RALPH NOBLES, chair of the San Mateo County Planning Commission, has worked to preserve wetlands for 25 years. In the South Bay that means developing a grudge against salt production.

Two hundred years ago, seasonal wetlands stretched so far that the Santa Clara Valley was impassable in the winter. Route 101 marks the western edge of much of the salt marsh. Between 1850 and the 1940s, most of that marsh was destroyed to make way for salt production.

To make salt, water is pumped into large walled-off areas along the shore, where it evaporates. After evaporation, the water is pumped through a series of ponds with increasing salinity levels until it is harvested and processed.

Commercial salt ponds were first built in the South Bay to feed prospectors in the gold rush, says Jill Singleton, a spokesperson for Cargill Salt. Over the next 80 years people up and down the South Bay began diking off marsh and harvesting salt. By 1936 the vast evaporation ponds of the South Bay were brought under the control of Leslie Salt. And in 1979 Cargill bought out Leslie.

"Everything uses salt," Singleton gushes. "It is one of the fundamental building blocks of civilization." There are 14,000 common uses of salt, everything from a preservative in food processing to a fixer for clothing dye.

But seeing how Cargill makes itssalt is a little less glamorous than all that. All along the South Bay shore, crystallized salt can be seen covering the floor of the vast ponds. The intricate patterns of crystal spread out in all directions and give off a sickly pinkish glow. Small mounds of crystal rise up in irregular piles capped by small gray knobs with large, almost clear crystals on the top. If I stand too long in one spot, the crystal mesh of salt holding my weight collapses like a half-frozen puddle.

The water flowing through the ponds mimics the sloughs that once cut through green marsh. But unlike its choppy blue counterpart just over the dike, this water is stagnant and varies from shades of pink to orange. All that moves here are swarms of brine flies hovering over the water and heat waves that ripple up from the dry surface.

Cargill's salt ponds are everywhere. Even in the refuge, which stretches from Alameda to Alviso, the majority of the land is used for salt production. There are 29,000 acres of salt ponds in the South Bay.

Singleton says that Cargill's ponds provide needed habitat and are managed to promote wildlife habitation. Because of the dramatic loss of higher and dryer habitats that have been completely developed, some species have made a home in the less salty ponds. And because of the vast development of the entire bay, the ponds do provide rare open space along the water. Even Albertson says that some salt ponds should be kept to provide dry open space.

The problem, Albertson says, is not the mere existence of the ponds but their ubiquity. There are nearly 10 acres of salt pond for every one acre of marsh in the South Bay.

In the visitor's center of the refuge just off the eastern end of the Dumbarton Bridge, Albertson points to the refuge's holdings on a detailed map. The most obvious features on the map are thick blue arrows. They represent the flow of water through Cargill's salt ponds. Marsh areas are represented by dark little strips scattered from Newark around the southern tip of the bay up to Bair Island in Redwood City. There are only bits and pieces of marsh that hug the edge of the salt ponds or float alone on the bay.

"We have problems with fragmentation," Albertson says, shrugging at the map.

This fragmentation poses serious problems for the endangered mouse and bird. In the 1800s the clapper rails were so abundant that newspapers reported thousands of them killed in a week to be sold to restaurants in San Francisco. Today there are only 600 left in the South Bay, all residing in the refuge's awkward strips of habitat. And this makes them vulnerable.

Under better circumstances the clapper rails and the mice would have vegetation to hide under when forced out of the marsh at high tide. Now they sit atop the dirt levees that separate marsh from salt pond.

These embankments act as a highway for predators, Albertson says. "Animals that wouldn't naturally go into the marsh have easy access." The tiny critters are easily picked off by red foxes and stray cats looking for an easy meal.

While there is still pressure on the clapper rail, it is in better shape than it was. The South Bay population is up from a low of 300 in 1991.

This marginal success is typical of the bay. Like most experts, Jim Kuwabara, who studies the migration of toxic substances for the United States Geological Survey, says that pollution and habitat destruction has slowed, but local governments are just beginning to address much of the damage already done.

The San Francisco Bay is generally looked at as a whole, but in fact the South Bay is quite different from the rest of the system. The North Bay is regularly flushed by water coming in from the delta and leaving through the Golden Gate. The South Bay does not have the same influx and outflow of water. As a result, what comes here stays here.

"Toxins in the South Bay generally spend more time here," Kuwabara says.

Over the decades plenty of toxins have made their way into the bay. During the gold rush, mercury was mined in the South Bay for use in prospecting. The mines leaked this heavy-metal poison into the water. Pesticides used in fumigating homes have contaminated the bay near Redwood City. And Guadalupe Slough consistently shows high levels of toxins, though researchers at the water board are unclear on the source.

The biggest culprit in the last 50 years has been sewage. "Raw human sewage used to be dumped into the bay," La Riviere says. "When I was a student in Berkeley, we called it the East Bay stink. We eliminated that."

bair island

Fixing The Solution

TODAY THE WATER coming out of San Jose's sewage treatment plant is some of the cleanest around. Because the South Bay is such a sedentary system, the levels of toxic substances that are legal for the plant to discharge here are low.

In the 1980s it was determined that copper was toxic to basic marine life, even in low concentrations. Because the city discharges directly into the shallow, sedentary part of the bay, the legal limit was set to strict levels measured in parts per billion.

"Parts per billion. That's like finding one spy in China," jokes Alex Ekster, the man behind the most significant improvements in the water leaving San Jose's treatment plant. Since immigrating from the Ukraine in 1989, Ekster has made San Jose as famous for sewage treatment, in certain circles, as it is for semiconductors. And he has done it on the cheap.

While other consultants wanted to charge the city hundreds of millions of dollars to build new systems to get copper--a serious hazard--to the legal level of 4.9 parts per billion, Ekster has done it at a net savings to the city. At the same time he has increased the capacity of the treatment plant by more than 50 percent.

As Ekster and I zip around the plant in a small orange electric buggy, he points out nuances in the bubbling pools of sewage, mostly composed of human feces. Different amounts of piped-in oxygen feed varying kinds of microorganisms that consume ammonia, nitrogen, organic compounds and greater levels of copper than the old system.

Ekster increased the plant's capacity by more efficiently routing the murky water through the facility. The city now saves $600,000 a year because his new system requires less compressed oxygen--an expensive compound--to be pumped into the pools.

Unfortunately, Ekster's water, clean or not, is having a devastating effect on the environment.

Water from the treatment plant flows directly into the refuge. As the water makes its way through the salt marsh, it dilutes the salt content of the marsh. This allows different plants to survive and turns the salt marsh brackish.

Head-high green bulrushes and a thick mud flat mark the area affected by fresh water. Sewage discharge has completely changed the marsh ecology. Few of the creatures in the nearby bog can survive here, including the endangered ones.

The treatment plant dumps 135 million gallons of fresh water a day into the bay, enough to fill 3Com Park above the nosebleed section every three days. The fresh water has claimed some of the best salt marsh in the South Bay, says Craig Breon of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society.

In 1990 a group of environmental organizations who banded together under the name Clean South Bay took San Jose to court to stop the destruction of the marsh.

The resulting compromise agreement tied the city to emitting no more than 120 million gallons a day. The city has exceeded this figure for years and is now 15 million gallons a day over the limit, says Wil Bruhns of the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The obvious solution, adding salt to the water before discharging it into the bay, is far too expensive. So, to get themselves back under the limit, San Jose has been constructing an extensive irrigation system designed to use treated water from the plant to irrigate parks, schools and businesses. The system is expected to be working at full capacity by next May.

But when it is completed it will divert only 15 million gallons a day, says Lou Garcia, director of the city's Environmental Services Department. With a price tag of $238 million, it will just barely bring the city under the limit.

"That's not good enough," says Ted Smith, director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Though the environmental coalition got the agreement it was looking for, members are unconvinced about the city's ability to adhere to it. The city's discharge of water has risen every year since 1991, and San Jose exceeded the cap in each of the last three years with no repercussions. Marsh is still being destroyed.

In addition to paying for the pipeline and other conservation measures, the city is incurring additional costs. The treatment plant has destroyed so much clapper rail habitat that the city has had to purchase land elsewhere for the bird. This has cost San Jose $6 million so far. And though these land purchases are required under the agreement with the water board, it is questionable how much they help the species.

Breon explains that the best clapper rail habitat is being destroyed, and there is not much marsh up for sale. "The only game in town is Cargill," he says. The company's 29,000 acres of salt ponds represent a lock on all the available land in the South Bay that can easily be converted to salt marsh.

Development Bogs Down

DESPITE THIS, the South Bay may actually be lucky to have Cargill's ponds. While the rest of the bay was developed along its shores, the South Bay has vast stretches of shore without permanent development. Once a salt pond is acquired, it is easy to turn it into salt marsh.

All that is required, Albertson says, are a few well-placed holes. "Then you just watch the tide come in." Over time, the marsh comes back.

But time is a key factor. Breon says the city is replacing prime habitat with salt ponds that take about 10 years to become productive marsh. In the meantime, the clapper rail loses out.

As long as the sewage plant is releasing more than the limit of water, habitat will continue to be destroyed. And while the city's conservation measures have helped, they will not keep pace with Silicon Valley's growth. The plant is releasing 30 million gallons a day more than it did in 1991. The water-recycling plan will divert half that amount. In just a few years, San Jose will be in trouble again.

Recognizing this, the water board has requested a new plan. It focuses on conserving more water and increasing the volume of recycled water. Garcia, who is in charge of the program, says that recycling water will be the wave of the future. "In five years we will be fighting over [who gets] this water," he says.

But the plan relies on elements that environmentalists feel are untried and needlessly expensive, like returning water to natural streams and an over-reliance on low-flow toilets. They beleive more pressure should be put on industry to reuse its own water.

If the city continues to exceed the limit, Silicon Valley's most recent boom could come to a screeching halt. "We could stop new connections to the sewer system. We could fine $10,000 a day or $10 a gallon," Bruhns says. And no more sewer connections means no new building, which could mean an end to new jobs, income and growth.

But there is little threat that this will happen any time soon. Bruhns says the board, an elected body, thinks the city is doing its best to address the problem and therefore will not crack down.

But Greg Karris of Communities for a Better Environment, a member of the Clean South Bay coalition, says that if the members of the board do not impose a moratorium now, they never will. "There is proof of environmental damage. The city agrees. If this is not the situation to put a cap in place, what is?" Karris says.

The environmental groups want a cap imposed immediately, and they want the threat of a cap to be very real should the city continue to exceed the limit. The city will never be serious about meeting the limit, they argue, unless there is a consequence for exceeding it. The water board, however, has been quite forgiving when it comes to Silicon Valley's excesses. It is unlikely that the board will do anything more than give San Jose a stern talking-to regardless of the water flow.

Thousand Points of Blight

WHILE THE CITY spends hundreds of millions to avert fresh water, another more traditional threat looms in the future. Petroleum products, pesticides and heavy metals are once again threatening the bay. But this time the culprits may not be so easily identified.

"Urban runoff is one of the most significant sources on pollution to the bay," says Tom Mumley, who coordinates the non-point-source pollution control program for the regional water board.

Mumley explains that rainwater flowing over roofs, cars, yards and roads into storm drains brings a plethora of contaminants into the bay. This includes pesticides that people spray on their lawns, gas and oil from roads, and particles of heavy metals like copper which come from brake pads.

Christie Adams, a spokesperson for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, says that 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of copper a year goes into the bay with runoff. And anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of all the pollution in the South Bay is due to runoff.

The city of San Jose is spending about $6 million a year to try to address this problem--pursuing an education campaign for residents and business. Mumley also points to positive efforts like increased street sweeping and more sensible development.

But such a widespread problem, with millions of minor and often unknowing sources, is hard to address. It is even harder to determine results. "I take the Sherlock Holmes approach," Mumley says. "I figure out who did it and how by determining who didn't."

By approaching potential polluters one at a time, Mumley hopes the communities ringing the bay can begin to clean up their act.

But the best and cheapest answer may lie back with the salt marsh. The marsh's natural role in filtering water may help to mitigate the impact of runoff, according to everyone except Singleton, Cargill's spokesperson.

Mumley says that in order to use marshes to filter storm runoff, you have to be selective about where to put it because runoff enters the bay through a few controlled channels. But, he says, "the idea of managing runoff with marsh is sound."

Singleton's reluctance may have something to do with the fact that Cargill owns nearly all of the South Bay's potential salt marsh. She explains that the South Bay is one of only a handful of salt-production areas on the West Coast. Since salt is cheap--the raw product sells for about $25 a ton--Cargill stays competitive by keeping shipping costs down.

"We are in business to stay in the South Bay," Singleton says. "We consider the South Bay salt-production facility integral to our global strategy."

Though Cargill seems bent on hanging onto its salt ponds, Nobles, who has devoted decades to environmental activism in the Bay Area, maintains hope that with enough public pressure, Cargill could decide to give up.

"If the salt ponds are turned back to wetlands, we would recover so much," he says.

Even without running Cargill out of town, things are looking up for folks who want to see the South Bay return to its former biological glory. A growing awareness of the importance of the bay has helped fuel their efforts. Since the refuge was founded in 1972, a number of salt ponds have been converted to marsh. A rare seasonal wetland in Fremont was recently acquired by the refuge, helping to diversify its holdings. The acquisition of Bair Island, near Redwood City, could provide much-needed clapper rail habitat.

"When I think about it, we've done a lot of good things," La Riviere says, almost surprising herself with the statement.

And as people have come to see the interrelationship between the health of the bay and the condition of the surrounding communities, government has begun to respond in new and better ways. Mumley talks at length about the board's efforts to manage the South Bay like what it is, a giant watershed area. Rather than just look at the condition of the water, or the urban or industrial pollution, the board is trying to look at how all these things affect each other. Mumley and his colleagues are bringing together environmental groups, businesses, developers and regulators to find solutions that work.

Mumley's group may represent more of the faddish coalition-building that has failed so miserably elsewhere. But he is genuinely optimistic. He and others feel that the popular push for a better environment demands sensible and meaningful solutions. Those solutions, he believes, will lead to a bay that more people can enjoy.

Right now there are only a handful of spots where locals can truly enjoy the beauty of the salt marsh. The little spit of refuge land just off the end of First Street is one of the last peaceful places along the South Bay. It is one of the few places where people can come to watch birds play on the wind free of the hiss and roar of traffic, unobstructed by the clutter of buildings vying for waterfront. It is one of the few places where the bay has been allowed to be itself. Perhaps some day there will be more such places.

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From the Sept. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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