Salt Pond Update: 2013 Year in Review

Don't Pave My Bay

As we enter the new year, two square miles of the Bay remains at risk in Redwood City.

It’s been a year and a half since you helped Save The Bay and a broad coalition of environmental organizations, community groups, elected officials, and others defeat Cargill’s initial proposal to build as many as 12,000 houses atop restorable salt ponds in Redwood City.

Still, Cargill is unwilling to back away from its intent to submit a revised development proposal for the site, let alone sell the salt ponds so they can be restored and included in the Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Instead, Cargill has pressured the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grant an “exemption” from the Clean Water Act, which would make it easier for Cargill to get permits to develop the site. Insider sources tell us that in recent months Cargill has ramped up its lobbying efforts in Washington D.C.

Thousands of you have called on the Army Corps and the EPA to stand up for the Bay and not let Cargill get out of basic environmental regulations that protect the health of our great estuary. The federal agencies have yet to make a decision, but thanks to you, we know they are hearing us.

Overall, there’s hope for the long-term health of the Bay. Every day the Bay Area moves further and further away from Cargill’s archaic plans to pave the Bay:

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a long-awaited blueprint to restore the Bay’s wetlands. Called the Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan, this federal report specifically calls for the protection and restoration of Redwood City’s salt ponds.
  • Through the recently adopted Plan Bay Area, the region has chosen to move away from sprawl, focusing future development near transit, in already urbanized areas. Cargill tried to undermine this plan at the last minute, threatening regional agencies with legal action unless the Redwood City ponds were were listed as “urbanized,” but we beat them back before it was too late.
  • As sea levels continue to rise, policymakers throughout the state are beginning to realize that we need to protect the infrastructure we already have – not put more people at risk. San Mateo County’s recent sea level rise summit shows this message is getting through.
  • Finally, the historic restoration of the Bay continues at a rapid pace, as thousands of acres of the shoreline are returned back to Bay wetlands. The restoration of former salt ponds in the North Bay demonstrate what’s possible in Redwood City, if only Cargill is willing to cooperate.

None of this progress could happen without our members and supporters. You’ve signed our petitions, shared our actions with your friends, donated, and helped us continue to lead this campaign that is shaping the future of the Bay. We’ll keep you updated as we continue this important fight in the new year.

Curious to learn more about the nearly 25,000 shorebirds that use the Redwood City salt ponds annually? View our Birds of the Redwood City Salt Ponds slideshow. 

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

Cargill Misleads Gov’t Agencies about Salt Pond Wildlife

Video of shorebirds on the Redwood City salt ponds
Click the image above to view a video of shorebirds on the Redwood City salt ponds

One of Cargill’s most consistent efforts in its campaign to pave as many as 1,436 acres of restorable salt ponds in Redwood City has been an attempt to mislead the general public, especially voters in Redwood City, into believing that that the salt ponds have little value to wildlife.

Cargill/DMB representatives have repeatedly denied the significant wildlife use of these salt ponds – saying, for example, that there is “nothing alive” on the salt ponds and that birds would “burn their fannies” if they tried to land on these two square miles of the Bay. Eneas Kane, the CEO of developer DMB Pacific has even gone so far as to describe the salt ponds as “inhospitable to man or beast.”

This is a theme that is repeated in Cargill’s official 370-page submission to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where the company argues that the Redwood City salt ponds should be declared “exempt” from the Clean Water Act and other federal regulations that protect the Bay.

One of the attachments in their submission to the federal agencies is a 2002 “Significant Nexus Analysis” performed by Cargill’s long-time consultant, Mike Josselyn, that outrageously claims that the Redwood City salt ponds are only used on a “relatively limited basis by birds” and that the salt pond site “does not contribute to the integrity of the surrounding watershed.”

We understand why Cargill would prefer to ignore, downplay and outright deny wildlife use of the Redwood City salt ponds, but the annual presence of thousands of migratory shorebirds on the site is simply indisputable.

PRBO Conservation Science, a leader in studying birds along the Pacific Flyway, notes that San Francisco Bay, including the salt ponds, is a recognized site of hemispheric importance for migratory shorebirds. PRBO’s studies document that the Redwood City salt ponds are home to at least 24,800 shorebirds annually, including several threatened species. They describe 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. They also believe these numbers are an underestimate.

We could cite additional reports, but it doesn’t take reams of scientific data to prove that Cargill has been misleading state and federal permit agencies about the habitat value of the site. Just take a look at the video in the top right of this blog post, or any of the images in Save The Bay’s photo set of shorebirds on the Redwood City salt ponds to see for yourself. Do you see birds “burning their fannies?”