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 While Cargill and its development partner, DMB Pacific, have withdrawn their original plan to build as many as 12,000 houses on the site, the companies consistently say they intend to submit another plan to fill the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)

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.

Making Progress on Climate Adaptation?

The State of California is providing global leadership on adapting to sea level rise from climate change. But a state strategy update is in the works, and it is not yet clear that it is going to be a step forward.

In 2009, under Gov. Schwarzenegger, California released a groundbreaking Climate Adaptation Strategy (CAS). With the sea levels rising, this important report made clear that the state has a strong interest in ensuring smart development in vulnerable shoreline areas. And among the top strategies for avoiding future hazards, it recommended as follows:

State agencies should generally not plan, develop, or build any new significant structure in a place where that structure will require significant protection from sea-level rise, storm surges, or coastal erosion during the expected life of the structure. (CAS, Chapter 6 page 73.)

Many homes and businesses in the Bay Area are below sea level (Matt Leddy)

The wisdom of this policy was graphically demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy late last year, when we saw lower Manhattan under water and the Jersey shoreline devastated. The environmental and economic impact from shoreline development damaged by the hurricane was extensive. There is no evidence that the threat posed by rising seas is abating.

Faced with these stark realities, the most risk-averse approach to avoid serious effects of sea level rise is to carefully consider proposals to build new development in undeveloped areas that are already vulnerable to inundation and erosion.

Save The Bay appreciates California’s leadership and the initial steps that have been taken to implement portions of the 2009 strategy. We urge the Governor to strengthen his direction to state agencies and local governments. This is especially important in light of updated scientific studies showing the severity of impacts and vulnerability, and the national and international emphasis on reducing risk from extreme events – which is far more cost effective than recovery.

A primary purpose of the 2013 Strategy should be to prohibit projects that would place development in undeveloped areas with critical habitat and opportunities for tidal wetland restoration or buffer zones. An effective policy will further strengthen this “First Do No Harm” approach from the 2009 Strategy, emphasizing how the state will both ensure that opportunities for protection and restoration of critical habitats are preserved, and that increased risks to people, wildlife and infrastructure are prevented.

The Governor should direct state agencies to focus on areas where additional implementation is a high priority, and to provide clear guidance to achieve significant progress in those areas, consistent with “no regrets” planning in the face of climate change.

What will Gov. Brown do today to further strengthen California’s adaptation strategy to protect the state and its taxpayers? Stay tuned.

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.

Stay updated on the latest news. Sign up for Salt Pond Updates by signing our petition at

Big Wins for a Cleaner Bay in San Jose and on the Peninsula

Thanks to the San Jose City Council, brighter days are ahead for Coyote Creek, which flows more than 60 miles to the Bay. (Photo by Dawn Ellner)
Thanks to the San Jose City Council, brighter days are ahead for Coyote Creek, which flows more than 60 miles to the Bay. (Photo by Dawn Ellner)

Yesterday was an exciting day for Save The Bay’s multi-year efforts to rid the Bay of trash. San Jose’s City Council voted 9-2 to move forward with an ordinance to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam) food ware. Once implemented, San Jose will be the largest city in the country to ban this creek-clogging, wildlife-choking product!

Two years in the making, this is a big win for the Bay and especially San Jose’s Styrofoam-clogged Coyote Creek. Running more than 60 miles from the Diablo Range, through Morgan Hill and San Jose down to the Bay, Coyote Creek is one of the few remaining homes for threatened steelhead and salmon in the South Bay. The trash pollution situation had gotten so bad that the Creek was listed by regulatory agencies as a “303(d) impaired waterway” in violation of the Clean Water Act. We expect the city’s ban on polystyrene, like its recent ban on plastic bags, will have a significant positive impact on the health of both Coyote Creek and San Francisco Bay.

If the win in San Jose wasn’t already enough, the Peninsula city of San Carlos voted 4-1 on Monday night to join the regional movement to ban plastic bags! Once the city’s ban is implemented on July 1, San Carlos will join over a dozen other cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in banning this common litter item from the shores of our Bay. Its neighbor, Redwood City, will be voting on banning bags on March 11.

Over 50% of Bay Area residents now live in areas that are covered by plastic bag bans, and more than 30% of jurisdictions have bans on polystyrene. We’re going to keep working hard to ban these destructive single-use products until we stop finding them clogging our creeks, littering our shoreline and harming Bay wildlife.

Want to hear about important wins and opportunities to make the Bay cleaner in your city? Make sure you are signed up for our BaySaver Action Alerts!