The Story of Cullinan Ranch

Update 1/6/15:

In a dramatic moment, on Jan. 6 work crews breached the levee that has kept Cullinan Ranch, 1,200 acres of diked wetlands in the Napa River Delta, unnaturally dry for more than a century. Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis, Habitat Restoration Director Donna Ball, and I joined representatives from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and other partners to celebrate the culmination of a decades-long effort to restore the site. What’s next? Project designers expect near-immediate resurgence of waterfowl and shorebirds, and with tidal waters already beginning to carry natural sediment to the site, native plants will eventually take root and re-establish habitat for our Bay’s wild creatures. Read the full story of Cullinan Ranch below. -Cyril Manning

The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via
The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via

Cullinan Ranch is a 1500-acre parcel of former tidal marsh at the top of San Pablo Bay, part of the Napa River Delta. As you can see from the map at right, it is an important puzzle piece in the sprawling restoration of the whole northern part of San Francisco Bay, work that has been described as an “aquatic renaissance… turning back the clock 150 years and transforming the area between Vallejo and Sonoma Raceway.”

Like nearly all the tidal marsh around San Francisco Bay, Cullinan was diked off in the 1880s to be farmland (see this nice timeline covering the history of the site). A proposed residential marina community nearly destroyed the area 25 years ago, but the proposal was defeated in 1987.

After the site was proposed for development, Save The Bay joined with local residents in Vallejo and hired Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger to sue over the “Egret Bay” development, which proposed thousands of homes on this restorable site, below sea level. Getting involved in the battle was a first for Save The Bay – actually advocating for restoration of a diked former wetland, not just against new fill and inappropriate shoreline development.

That successful lawsuit, along with the denial of construction permits by BCDC and the US Army Corps of Engineers, put a stop to Egret Bay, making possible Cullinan’s purchase by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1989, and protection as a wildlife refuge.  Now, this site — one and a half times the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park — is being returned to marsh as part of the West Coast’s largest wetland restoration effort.

After the site was first diked off for grazing and oat hay, the marshland dried out and compacted like a sponge, and now lies six to nine feet below sea level.  When the levees are opened later this year, the site will initially be open water and mud flats, then sediment from the Napa River and Bay will eventually build up, so that tidal marsh vegetation can begin to grow back.

Another key challenge is restoring the property while protecting the critical infrastructure that runs through and around it. A levee to protect Highway 37 from the new tidal action is the single most expensive element in the $16 million wetland restoration project. The SF Bay Don Edwards and San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuges are crisscrossed by much of the region’s critical transportation, electrical and water supply infrastructure, which add expensive urban complexities that are not usually a part of refuge restoration projects.

As local scientists, communities, and conservationists work together to bring us closer to the 100,000 acres of tidal marsh needed for a healthy Bay, sites like Cullinan Ranch serve as a valuable model and inspiration.  They show we can succeed in preventing projects like Cargill’s proposal to build homes in a Redwood City salt pond, and instead ensure that site is restored along with other ponds, together restoring the Bay for people and wildlife.

Sharing Inspiration to Save San Francisco Bay

Bart Ad
There’s a long history of fighting to save the Bay

It is interesting to learn how much the effort to save the Redwood City salt ponds from development is an inspiration to people all around the Bay Area. We are proud to be in the lead against this scheme to build a new city at sea level in San Francisco Bay, the biggest threat to our Bay in 50 years.

The campaign to save this important site for restoration already goes back at least a decade. Wherever I go and often no matter what subject is on the agenda, people I am meeting with frequently bring it up and ask about Cargill. And the context is invariably positive and supportive of Save The Bay’s work. It’s apparent that the Bay Area community is broadly inspired by this Baylands protection effort, by the folly of the Bayfill housing plan contrasted with the restoration vision for the site, and probably also by the drama of a small environmental group dueling one of the largest corporations on earth.

These are just a few recent examples:

  • A Bay Area high school student was recently in touch with Save The Bay and wrote a school paper about the controversial Cargill proposal. We regularly hear from students who are researching and writing about this issue, from law school to elementary schools. But this paper was a bit different. The student called us back to tell us that his paper had inspired his teacher to make a donation to Save The Bay.
  • Starting back in 2009, a group of current and former elected officials learned about Cargill’s threat to fill in these restorable salt ponds and began collecting names from each other to use their voices as community leaders to say “no.” Their collective statement of opposition to the grew rapidly in 2009 and 2010 until there are today almost 200 state and local leaders representing millions of Bay Area residents who are proud to publicly denounce plans to build in a restorable salt pond.
  • Most recently, we have seen months of engagement around the Cargill campaign from a group of second graders at Aurora Elementary School in Oakland. They have petitioned the Army Corps and the USEPA and gotten a notable response. They wrote to Cargill and also got a response from their Bay Area land manager, who reached out but then declined to participate in a debate with Save The Bay. And they made a video, which we hope to be able to share with you.

We ourselves are inspired by the work of so many that have stood up for the Bay over the years, including Matt Leddy & Gail Raabe whose work in Redwood City to preserve their threatened shoreline spans decades. You can watch their story here.


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. 

Weekly Roundup August 31, 2012

weekly roundupIn this week’s roundup, local Bay savers Gail Raade and Matt Leddy are profiled in the Redwood City Patch with a discussion about their fight to stop Cargill’s development plans. In another part of the South Bay, two lost dolphins are sighted in Colma Creek. In Berkeley, the opening of Cal’s new stadium disappoints former tree-sitting protesters, including Save The Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin. Plus, student activists in Los Angeles prompted a district-wide Styrofoam ban. As one of the hottest summers on record comes to a close, sea ice in the arctic hits a record low, prompting fears of accelerated global warming.

Redwood City Patch 8/28/2012
Bay Area Couple Fights to Stop Cargill, Save the Bay
Gail Raabe and Matt Leddy are leading the charge to preserve the baylands, specifically from Cargill’s attempt to develop over a thousand acres of salt pond.
Read more and watch the video >>

San Francisco Chronicle 8/30/2012
Two dolphins found in Colma Creek
Two bottlenose dolphins – including one that might be ill – have spent more than a day in the brackish water of a creek in South San Francisco, wildlife experts said Thursday.

The Oakland Tribune 8/31/2012
Mixed emotions for former tree-sitters as Cal opens new football stadium
As Cal football fans celebrate the opening of their renovated $321 million stadium in the season opener against Nevada on Saturday, a group of environmentalists who fought the project for nearly two years look back with a sense of both sadness and success.

Los Angeles Times 8/24/2012
L.A. Unified replaces plastic foam cafeteria trays with paper ones
The districtwide switch to recyclable paper trays was sparked by students at one middle school who were studying the effects of trash on the environment.

The New York Times 8/27/2012
Satellites Show Sea Ice in Arctic Is at a Record Low
The amount of sea ice in the Arctic has fallen to the lowest level on record, a confirmation of the drastic warming in the region and a likely harbinger of larger changes to come.

GO Giants! GO AWAY Cargill!

The Phillies weren’t the only out-of-towners that were dealt a blow yesterday. As Giants fans were filing into AT&T Park, just before the Giants/Phillies NLCS game on the beautiful Bay shoreline, a banner was flying over the stadium telling Cargill and their luxury developer, DMB Associates, not to pave our precious San Francisco Bay. Fans were reminded that while our very own SF Giants are fighting for the National League title, corporate “giants” from Minnesota and Arizona are scheming to pave over and develop the very Bay that defines our region.

Check out some pics from the flyover!

If the fact that Minnesota-based agribiz giant Cargill has the gall to try to build a city on the Bay enrages you as much as it does us, sign the petition and learn more at