City’s Plan Would Pave Bay Wetlands with Golf Course, Nearly 500 Houses

Photo of Area 4
Historic Bay tidal marsh, Newark’s “Area 4,” is one of the largest areas of restorable, undeveloped baylands in the South Bay (Photo by Margaret Lewis)

Should a bayside city work to help expand the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, restoring more than 400-football fields-worth of Bay wetlands and habitat? Or should they forever destroy that opportunity by filling in the area with an 18-hole golf course and nearly 500 single family houses?

Those are the choices right now in the City of Newark – a shoreline city of 40,000 next to Fremont. Rather than recognize the incredible opportunity to protect the Don Edwards S.F. Bay National Wildlife Refuge, endangered species, and migratory bird habitat, Newark is seeking approval to fill in over 300 acres of historic baylands, including nearly 100 acres of wetlands and aquatic habitat, sprawling the city into a FEMA-designated flood zone.

Environmental organizations and regulatory agencies have long stressed to Newark of the ecological importance of 550-acre “Area 4” – one of the largest areas of restorable, undeveloped baylands in the South Bay:

  • The 1999 Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Project, the scientific roadmap for the restoration of the Bay shoreline, identifies Area 4 as being uniquely situated for the restoration of both tidal marsh and adjacent upland transition zones, two habitats critical to the health of the Bay
  • Area 4 is host to approximately a dozen special status species –including the endangered Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse – and it is directly adjacent to Mowry Slough, a primary breeding ground for San Francisco Bay Harbor Seals
  • The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board has stated that “large expanses of undeveloped uplands immediately adjacent to tidal sloughs are extremely rare in the south and central San Francisco Bay” and that “Area 4 represents a rare opportunity to … provide an area for tidal marsh species to move up slope in response to sea level rise”
  • Similarly, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have stated that “this wetland is an integral component of the San Francisco Bay ecosystem,” and “critically important to waterfowl and shorebirds.”

Yet Newark has ignored these concerns, proposing to fill in these rare wetlands and wildlife habitat with 2.1 million cubic yards of fill – enough dirt to fill nearly 100 trucks a day for two years straight!

The City should focus future growth within already developed areas, near transit, shops and services, not on ecologically-sensitive, restorable baylands at risk from flooding and sea level rise.

Update 10/11/2013: 

Opposition to Newark’s plan to build as many as 500 houses and an 18-hole golf course on one of the largest pieces of restorable Bay shoreline in the South San Francisco Bay is growing. More than 2,000 Bay Area residents submitted comments to the city on its General Plan. You added your voice to the chorus of opposition from regulatory agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), and the Water Board.

A letter submitted by Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS) staff stated, “the proposed development of Area 4 will only add to the cumulative loss of tidal wetlands in San Francisco Bay and endangered species that are dependent on that habitat.”

Your support also helped us convince several environmental organizations to send letters of opposition, including Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Greenbelt Alliance. Thanks to you, Newark’s plan will not go unnoticed much longer. Sign up here for updates on next steps.

SLIDESHOW: Birds of the Redwood City Salt Ponds

We have written in the past about Cargill’s attempt to mislead the public and government agencies about the ecological value of the Redwood City salt ponds. While Cargill and its development partner, DMB Pacific, have withdrawn their original plan to build as many as 12,000 houses on the site, the companies consistently say they intend to submit another plan to fill the below-sea-level, restorable salt ponds with housing. As Cargill is busy lobbying federal agencies to exempt the ponds from the Clean Water Act and other important environmental regulations that protect the Bay, now seems like a good time to remind ourselves of the beauty and diversity of bird life found on these salt ponds.

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The San Francisco Bay salt ponds support hundreds of thousands of migratory shorebirds who rely on the Bay as a key stop on their route along the Pacific Flyway. The San Francisco Bay, in fact, is a recognized site of hemispheric importance for migratory shorebirds, and the Bay’s salt ponds provide important habitat for dozens of species, including several that are threatened or endangered.

Studies from Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly Point Reyes Bird Observatory), a leader in studying shorebirds along the Pacific Flyway, document that the Redwood City salt ponds are home to at least 24,800 shorebirds annually, including the federally threatened Western Snowy Plover, a species whose surviving Pacific coast population now numbers just 1,500-2,000 birds. In addition, Point Blue describes the Redwood City ponds as having “among the highest [bird] counts from the West side of the Bay between the Bay and Dumbarton bridges” making up more than a quarter of the total shorebird population of the region.

The Environmental Protection Agency has called the Redwood City salt ponds a “critically important aquatic resource that warrants special protection,” as has the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. Even Cargill’s own environmental consultants have observed over 70 different species at the Redwood City salt ponds, and have documented the federally-threatened Western Snowy Plover breeding on site.

Save The Bay has shared photos of the large numbers of birds that live on the Redwood City salt ponds in the past, but to really appreciate the beauty and fascinating behavior of these birds, you have to see them up close and personal.

Cargill has restricted access to the site, so we have turned to Bob Cossins and other talented local photographers for a good look at a few of the species that have been observed on the Redwood City salt ponds. Take a look at the slideshow and learn a little bit more about the shorebirds that are at risk of losing their home if Cargill is successful in their plans to pave over these 1,400 acres of San Francisco Bay. Help us protect the Redwood City salt ponds from development – sign our petition telling Cargill “Don’t Pave My Bay” and spread the word with your friends and neighbors!


(Special thanks to former Save The Bay policy volunteer Leland Malkus for his substantial support in the publication of this article and slideshow. All bird descriptions are courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Floating Wetlands, Coming to a Bay Near You?

Image of potential Lake Merritt floating wetlands
A visualization of the potential floating wetlands that could soon be installed in Lake Merritt. Courtesy of the City of Oakland.

We were excited to hear earlier this month about an innovative new project to tackle water pollution and habitat loss in heavily impaired waterways: human-constructed islands of floating wetlands.

Community groups in the City of Baltimore recently installed these floating wetlands in the city’s highly-urbanized inner harbor. Made out of previously-littered plastic bottles collected from the harbor itself, the volunteers planted 2,000 square feet of floating islands with native marsh plants, launching them into a waterway that is too polluted for human contact 73% of the time. (Click here to watch a video of Baltimore’s floating wetlands being installed in the Chesapeake Bay)

The marsh plants will help to filter pollutants out of the water and provide habitat for a variety of species including crabs, mussels, herons and perch. Beyond these benefits, the floating wetlands provide an invaluable educational tool to the community. They remind residents what the shoreline used to look like, and that the Bay is not just a place for cigarette butts, plastic bags, and car oil – but an ecosystem that needs our help and attention.

Next Stop: Oakland’s Lake Merritt?

We know that protecting our shorelines from development and restoring them back to naturally-functioning tidal marsh should always be our priority. Unfortunately, there are some areas of the San Francisco Bay that are so significantly altered – with tidelands paved over by urban development, and the ecosystem highly polluted and degraded – that options for habitat creation are limited.

One of those areas is Oakland’s Lake Merritt – a tidal lagoon that is in the midst of an impressive effort by the City to reconnect the waterway with the Bay, restore tidal marsh and improve public access and park space.

The natural marshes along the Lake’s shoreline have long since been filled in with roadways, housing, offices, a convention center and more. The channel connecting the Lake to the Bay had been narrowed considerably over the past century, with the tides eventually forced through a series of culverts, further constricting flows. Perhaps most damaging, 62 storm drains, from throughout Oakland, were routed directly into the Lake, bringing with them car oil, trash and other pollutants from the city’s streets. The result: what had once been the first wildlife refuge in the United States in 1870, became listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “impaired water body” in 1999.

Since then, the City of Oakland has worked hard, alongside dedicated residents and the Lake Merritt Institute, in improving the health of the Lake. Several large water fountains were installed to get more oxygen into the water to support aquatic species. The City, thanks to local funding approved by Oakland voters, has completed an historic project to take out the old culverts, widen the channel connecting the Lake to the Bay, re-design the nearby roadways to slow traffic and increase parkland, and carve out 3 acres of new wetlands. (Click here to read our blog on the history of Lake Merritt and learn more about the major projects underway)

However, future wetland restoration around Lake Merritt is limited by the highly urbanized shoreline – the fact that so much of the former mudflat and tidal marsh areas have been filled in and developed.

Rather than let the constraints stop continued progress on bringing back the health of the Lake, staff with the City of Oakland are currently designing a large track of floating wetlands –similar to those developed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – to be installed in the Lake in years to come. While staffers are still determining the size, plants and anchoring material, early visualizations show a long, curved expanse of marsh, floating along the shoreline of the Lake near stormwater outfalls.

Rebecca Tuden, Watershed Specialist with the City of Oakland, notes that they are currently looking at this as a pilot program, which should provide benefits to water quality including improved oxygen and the uptake of harmful pollutants that make their way to the Lake from city streets. The floating wetland would also offer habitat for benthic species – critters at the base of the food web that support fish, birds and other wildlife.

While floating wetlands will never replace the need to restore our natural shorelines, we are encouraged by their potential benefits to water quality and species at the base of the food system, and most importantly, the educational value they provide for local communities. If we can begin to think about our local waterways as an exciting ecosystem full of opportunities for improvement, rather than a trash-filled cesspool, that will make a big difference for what our Bay’s future looks like.

This Sunday, the City of Oakland is teaming up with the Measure DD Community Coalition, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition and others to organize “Love Our Lake Day” – a celebration of the grand opening of the new trails, wetlands, and re-configured roadways at Lake Merritt. 3 miles of streets around Lake Merritt will be closed to car traffic, allowing walkers and bikers to enjoy the improvements to the area. Visits for more information, and make sure to stop by the Save The Bay table in Snow Park!

Explore the Newly-Opened Trail at Bair Island

Image of Bair Island's new pedestrian bridge
The new pedestrian bridge – the public’s gateway to exploring Bair Island

Save The Bay was thrilled last week to join the Redwood City community in a celebration of an important milestone in the nearly-completed restoration of Bair Island. Last Monday morning, the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge celebrated the opening of a new pedestrian bridge, and the first segment of trails accessible to the public since restoration work began in 2007. [Click here to see the Palo Alto Daily News’ slideshow from the event]

Bair Island is a 3,000-acre series of wetlands along the Bay shoreline in Redwood City. Frequently called the “crown jewel” in the restoration of the South Bay, Bair Island is home to over 150 species of birds and wildlife – including several pods of adorable, yet skittish harbor seals who nurse their pups on the Island. With a history including salt production and agriculture, the current restoration project aims to bring back the natural functions of this ecosystem by punching holes in the old levees and reconnecting the tides to allow the return of Bay tidal marsh and the endangered species that depend on them.

While there is still some work to be done before full public access is opened (expected to be late 2013 or early 2014), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided it was ready to open up a 1-mile trail loop for the public to visit the area and get a peek at the restoration work underway. This loop goes around a triangular-shaped area of Inner Bair Island called Area D.

Area D has subsided over the years, and so project planners raised the elevation with dredge material from the nearby Port of Redwood City. The area is currently covered in water and shorebirds. As construction crews complete the final breaches of the old levees of Inner Bair Island later this year, the water will drain out and the area is intended to be upland habitat for Bay wildlife.

How to visit Bair Island – the 1-mile Area D loop trail:

There is currently only one way to access Bair Island – through the new pedestrian bridge that connects Uccelli Boulevard in Redwood City with Inner Bair Island.

Map of Bair Island's Area D
Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge


(Note: This trail area is so new that it doesn’t appear on Google Maps. If you want to plug an address into your GPS or navigation device, use the intersection of Bair Island Road and Uccelli Boulevard in Redwood City)

  • From Highway 101, take the Whipple Ave. exit
  • Go east and turn right on E. Bayshore Road
  • Passing the car dealership and old movie theater, use the new roundabout and continue on to Bair Island Road
  • In one quarter of a mile you will see the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge parking lot on your right. Make sure to drive slowly, as the sign is easy to miss. There will likely be construction equipment in the lot, but you shouldn’t have trouble finding a parking spot
  • Park and walk back to Bair Island Road. As you turn right, the road becomes Uccelli Boulevard. In about 400 feet, you will see the new pedestrian bridge on your left. Cross over the bridge and you can walk around the 1-mile Area D loop trail

Additional notes

  • Note that due to the sensitivity of this wetland restoration area, dogs are not allowed
  • For boaters, note that the changing hydrology associated with the restoration has created temporary fast-moving water in Smith and Corkscrew Sloughs that can be unsafe. Boaters can read more on the website of the Bair Island Aquatic Center

To learn more about Bair Island and Redwood City residents’ successful effort to save the area from development, read “Bair Island Restoration Nearing Completion” here on Save The Bay’s blog. You can also visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife / Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge’s official website for the site, which includes updates on the current construction work.

Case Study: Napa Salt Ponds and Federal Oversight of the Bay

Aerial photos of the Napa salt ponds
Aerial photos before and after the levees were breached at the former Cargill salt ponds in the Napa River (Google Earth). Future public access opportunities will include walking trails, fishing, kayaking, and more.

After Cargill and developer DMB’s sudden withdrawal last May of their initial proposal to pave over San Francisco Bay salt ponds in Redwood City, the companies have been busy lobbying federal agencies to exempt the below-sea-level ponds from important environmental regulations that protect the Bay from being filled. Cargill/DMB’s stated intention is to bring back another proposal to put thousands of houses on this 1,400-acre restorable site.

We have written in the past about Cargill’s flawed arguments for why they think the Clean Water Act doesn’t apply to them. (See “Cargill’s 370-Page Attack on the Bay,” Part I and Part II) Another key reason the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency should ensure federal oversight over the Redwood City salt ponds is the fact that these agencies have a long-history of asserting jurisdiction over San Francisco Bay salt ponds, including ponds nearly identical to those in Redwood City.

Exhibit A is the Former Salt Ponds along the Napa River in the North Bay

Now being restored back to wetlands and abundant with wildlife, Cargill’s former salt ponds along the Napa River are now known as the “Green Island Unit.” Like Redwood City’s ponds, they were former Bay marshes, diked off for salt making over 50 years ago and used by Cargill as “crystallizers” for the saltiest part of the salt production process.

Cargill sold the Napa ponds to the State in 2003 so they could be restored back to marshes. Thanks to federal stimulus funds and the support of generous private foundations, the levees have since been breached, the site connected back to the Bay tides, and if you visit the area now, it’s nearly impossible to determine where the Napa River ends and the former salt ponds begin. It’s all flooded with water.

In a submission to regulatory agencies in 1996, before Cargill sold the site, the company gave similar assertions to federal agencies about why the Napa ponds should not be governed under the Clean Water Act. Cargill claimed that the millions of gallons of water pumped from the Bay into the salt ponds was not water at all and that the Napa salt ponds are a “highly manipulated industrial facility” supporting “little to no biological activity,” despite their use by migratory shorebirds. (Sound familiar? See “Cargill Misleads Gov’t Agencies about Salt Pond Wildlife“)

100% “Waters of the United States”

When federal agencies finally decided on the jurisdictional status of the Napa salt ponds, the results were clear: As below sea-level, diked off tidal waters adjacent to and formerly part of the Napa River, the Napa salt ponds are entirely “waters of the United States,” wrote the Army Corps of Engineers in 2008.

Despite Cargill’s repeated claims to the opposite, the Army Corps ruled that the Napa salt ponds are unequivocally subject to the important federal environmental rules enshrined in the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. If anyone wanted to fill these ponds, they would have to get a permit from federal agencies first.

Will the Army Corps follow this strong precedent and continue to assert jurisdiction over the Bay’s salt ponds – this time in Redwood City? We’ll find out soon.

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