Bay restoration underway; more money, work needed

By Colleen Valles Associated Press Writer
Monday May 07, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – A blustery wind whips across the newly restored marsh and dunes on Crissy Field, previously a concrete-covered airfield built on a filled-in wetland. 

“I think it’s amazing. I haven’t been down here for a while. It’s beautiful,” says San Francisco resident Gail Greenstein, out for a late-morning walk with a friend. “It’s attracting more people, too.” 

The 20-acre wetland is the centerpiece of the $34 million restoration of 100 acres of asphalt, concrete and chemical contamination. It’s now home to native plants and animals that haven’t been seen in the marsh for a half-century. 

The Crissy Field marsh restoration is one of numerous attempts to restore wetlands around the San Francisco Bay. 

Before the area was settled by Europeans, almost 200,000 acres of marshland ringed the bay and the Crissy Field marsh stretched along two miles of the rim. 

But about 85 percent of the marshes around the bay were diked and drained, mostly for hay fields and salt ponds, according to Marc Holmes, director of wetland restoration programs for The Bay Institute, a group seeking to restore bay watershed health. 

Steps are being taken to restore tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, he says. At least 15,000 acres have been purchased for that purpose, and that’s not including about 18,000 acres of salt ponds being eyed for restoration. 

The goal of state and federal agencies is to restore 100,000 acres to their original wetland state. It’s expected to cost $88 million a year, and to accomplish that goal in 20 years would cost more than $1.7 billion, says John Steere, director of San Francisco Bay Joint Venture, a group of public and private entities seeking to restore the bay. 

Marsh restoration has wide support, but buying land in the pricey Bay Area can cause setbacks. 

“The only significant political problem is that many of these restorable wetlands are private property, so before restoration can occur it’s necessary either to acquire the property or acquire the permission of the owners to restore the property,” Holmes says. 

Part of the land being sought for restoration is now part of the South Bay’s 29,000 acres of salt ponds owned by Cargill, Inc. The last estimate on the price of 18,800 acres of the ponds is $300 million, and would be added to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, based in Newark. 

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and other politicians have sought to link the funding for the purchase of the salt ponds for restoration to approval for new runways at San Francisco International Airport that would extend into the bay. 

While the two issues are proceeding separately, the airport could contribute to the Cargill deal to help offset environmental damage to the bay caused by the runway expansion. 

The money for the Crissy Field restoration came mainly from an $18 million donation from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. and the Colleen and Robert Haas funds, and was supplemented by more than 2,000 additional donations. 

Funding for restoration can come from state and federal agencies as well, but that sometimes can be difficult to get, Holmes says. 

“What we mainly have to rely on is a case-by-case basis talking to state and federal legislators,” he says. 

When the money comes, the next step basically is punching a hole in the dikes and letting nature take its course. But sometimes, the land has compacted so much that those restoring the wetlands have to bring it back up to its former height. 

That’s where the shipping industry comes in. Materials dredged from the bay are used to raise compacted lands to the level they need to be. 

“They have clean sediments that can be brought over and put in,” says Steere, of San Francisco Bay Joint Venture. “They would otherwise need to dump those.” 

Crissy Field actually had some soil taken away, as well as 70 acres of asphalt and concrete and 87,000 tons of hazardous material. The project was conceived in 1986, and cleanup of the site began in 1997. Restoration began the next year. 

The 20-acre marsh is a bit small, says Nancy Hornor, chief of planning for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which administers Crissy Field. An ideal size is 30 acres. 

“If it’s under 30 acres, it doesn’t have the volume of water going in and out on the tide cycles,” she says. “It’s that volume of water that scours the channels and keeps it open to the bay.” 

Because it’s small, it may periodically close off from the bay, Hornor says. Then the GGNRA will reopen the connection. 

Other wetland restoration projects around the bay include the North Bay Salt Ponds, some 9,850 acres bought for $10 million in 1994 with money from the state and former oil spill litigation funds. The Bel Marin Keys in the north of the bay are 1,600 acres to be acquired from a private developer for $16 million.