Why Save The Bay Talks to Generals

In our efforts to protect and restore the Bay, we often meet with local, state and federal elected officials, senior staff at resource and regulatory agencies, and appointees to state boards and commissions.

But over the last several years, we’ve left no stone unturned in our effort to prevent the largest Bay fill development in decades, Cargill’s proposal to build 12,000 homes on Bay salt ponds in Redwood City.  We met repeatedly with senior officials of DMB Associates, Cargill’s developer partner, and with members of the Redwood City Council. We even reached out to the Bay Area venture capitalists backing the project, who refused to even respond.

Last month, I traveled to the E-ring of The Pentagon to meet with the U.S. Army’s Deputy General Counsel.  And just days earlier, I had met with the General who commands the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Major General John Peabody’s distinguished military career has won many decorations – the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Joint Meritorious and Army Meritorious Service Medals, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, and others.

Compared to surviving in battle zones, it must have seemed easy to decide whether Cargill’s Redwood City salt ponds are in the federal government’s jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.  All the precedents said “yes”, and the Corps’ San Francisco District and the U.S. EPA’s San Francisco regional headquarters agreed.  But Cargill is the largest privately-held company in the country, with plenty of lobbyists and friends in high places. Cargill’s lawyers created a novel interpretation of the Clean Water Act that would exempt its ponds from federal oversight, and made major progress behind the scenes convincing senior Army Corps lawyers to adopt their view.

Even with all of Cargill’s lobbying clout, the Corps final decision was still pending after nearly three years. Save The Bay activists signed petitions to the Corps and to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Local activists, led by Redwood City Neighbors United, kept up a drumbeat of concern and stayed visible in the local media.  We met repeatedly with the staff of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who was chairing the committee that oversees the Corps.  We asked U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier to raise concerns about Cargill’s self-serving legal theory, and the damage it poses to the Bay in her Congressional district.

Then in February, Senator Dianne Feinstein, alerted by Save The Bay’s outreach, challenged the Corps’ leadership at a Senate hearing:  “I’m very concerned about this.  What makes our whole area is the bay, and we do not want it filled in,” she said, and insisted that General Peabody actually see the salt ponds before deciding to relinquish federal regulation of them.

The general flew west, toured Redwood City, and met me with grace and openness.  He acknowledged that a lot of my questions were good ones for which he didn’t have answers; he told me it was helpful to actually meet someone who had been working on the issue for a decade. But he also made it clear the Corps was about to decide in Cargill’s favor.

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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. 

Cargill threatens regional agencies over SF Bay salt pond map

Redwood City Salt Ponds
Does this site look ‘urbanized’ to you?

You may not have heard about Cargill’s controversial plan to build a new city on restorable salt ponds in San Francisco Bay for a while. But the company recently threatened and misled Bay Area regional planners into incorrectly designating Redwood City salt pond properties as “urbanized” areas. Clearly, Cargill was after yet another way to justify developing this important open space.

Fortunately, Save The Bay beat back this underhanded effort by the largest privately held US company.

Here’s what happened:

For years, Bay Area cities and agencies have been shaping an ambitious project called Plan Bay Area, intended to address growth and transportation at a regional level. The plan included maps of the Bay that correctly showed salt ponds in Redwood City and Newark as open space.

Before the plan was adopted, however, Cargill submitted a letter threatening public agencies with legal action over those maps. Cargill brazenly claimed there are no “significant restrictions [that] exist on the current and future use of these properties.” That isn’t true, but soon a new draft of the plan was released, and it included maps depicting the salt ponds as “urbanized.”

Contrary to Cargill’s claim, there are many significant protections on the Redwood City salt ponds. They are designated as open space in Redwood City’s general plan and in Cargill’s contract with the state of California under the Williamson Act; and many state and federal laws protect the Bay.

Thanks to vigilant Save The Bay supporters like you, we caught wind of Cargill’s sneaky move – and we reached out to our allies and supporters to ensure the maps were fixed, just days before the final plan was approved. It was a close call, but swift action by our Save The Bay policy team prevented this important open space from coming one step closer to development. We know that Cargill will stop at nothing to clear their way to build homes on these below sea level, restorable ponds. And we need all the help we can get to continue to block their moves.

It is astonishing that, after benefiting from dramatically reduced taxes for decades in exchange for preserving the areas as open space, Cargill shamelessly bullied Bay Area public officials with false claims and threats of legal action.

Cargill is demonstrating yet again that they aren’t listening to the community in Redwood City and throughout the Bay Area.

Won’t you please stand with us again today with a special gift to help us block the Cargill threat? With your support we will remain vigilant against Cargill and work to ensure that San Francisco Bay salt ponds are restored—not paved over for development.

Want to learn more about why the Redwood City salt ponds are important to the Bay? See our slideshow profiling some of the more than 24,800 shorebirds that call the ponds home.