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Feds join hands with state officials to purchase salt ponds

By Colleen Valles The Associated Press
Thursday May 30, 2002

FREMONT — State and federal officials have joined philanthropic groups in pledging $100 million to buy 16,500 acres of salt ponds ringing San Francisco Bay, launching the largest wetlands restoration project on the West Coast. 

After negotiations led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Cargill Salt agreed to sell the land at 40 percent of its appraised value. The Minneapolis-based agribusiness giant also is responsible for cleanup of the land, which includes 1,400 acres along the Napa River. 

“Today we’re taking the first steps to reverse the course of history. Together we will restore an extraordinary but endangered natural resource,” Gov. Gray Davis said in formally announcing the deal Wednesday. “For the last century, we did not do a very good job of protective this resource.” 

The plan pools money from state and federal governments, as well as four private foundations, to turn the salt flats into habitat for both endemic species and migratory birds flying between Alaska and the tropics. 

Feinstein said Cargill came down in price $200 million from its original demand, in part by removing about 400 acres of salt ponds in Redwood City from the deal. 

“At $300 million, we didn’t have a deal,” Feinstein said. 

Cargill Chief Executive Officer Warren Staley said the company had been considering restoration for some time, and decided to sell now because the market was soft. 

“We looked at the marketplace, which wasn’t as good as it was previously,” he said, adding that the company has not yet decided what to do with those 400 acres in Redwood City. 

The bay used to have 190,000 acres of tidal marsh, but the bulk of that land has been diked, drained, filled or paved. Now, only about 20 percent of the marsh survives. 

The Cargill land has been in salt production since the 1850s, which will mean intensive cleanup of a highly concentrated brine that is toxic in its solid form. Purifying the land could take decades and the cost has been estimated between $200 million and $1 billion. 

“Some of these ponds should be relatively easy to restore,” said David Lewis, executive director of Save San Francisco Bay Association. “Other ponds will be more difficult.” 

The federal government will chip in $8 million. The state will cover the rest with four private-sector partners: the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. 

The agencies and charities have pledged $35 million for planning and management beyond the $100 million purchase price. 

A Cargill spokeswoman said the company will not lay off any of its 200 employees at its Newark plant and plans to keep producing 650 tons of salt a year on the 11,000 acres it will retain. 

“The acquisition is based on land we no longer need for salt production,” said spokeswoman Lori Johnson. 

Most of the land is expected to become part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The rest will be part of a state-run wildlife preserve. 

Diluting the ponds and restoring them to healthy marshes will rank as the largest wetlands restoration project attempted on the West Coast, rivaled only by projects to restore the Florida Everglades and Chesapeake Bay. “The Everglades in Florida is the largest wetland restoration in the country, and this is the largest shoreline restoration that increases tidal wetlands,” said California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols.