South Bay Salt Pond Photography

Using a kite to fly a radio-controlled camera to great heights, photographer Cris Benton brings the intricate details of the South Bay’s salt ponds into focus. Cris’s aerial photographs have aided in the restoration efforts of the salt ponds and have been utilized by our habitat restoration team.

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Can you describe your process for kite aerial photography?

The idea is to take photographs from somewhere between head height and 400 ft. above the ground. To lift the camera I use single line kites selected for stability, often taking a quiver of six to eight kites when I head out to photograph.  After watching the wind, I select a kite that matches the breeze. After launching the kite I fly it up to steady air.

After the selected kite reaches steady air I fly it for about 10 minutes to establish that the wind is reliable and the kite is performing well.  And then, a hundred feet or more below the kite, I attach a little string and pulley suspension called a Picavet. Below the Picavet cross you attach the camera. Controlled by a handheld radio transmitter, the airborne cradle can point the camera in any compass direction, tilt it from straight down to the horizon, and with the flip of a switch change from portrait to landscape format.

Once the equipment is rigged to the kite line you just let out more line, the kite flies higher and pulls the camera cradle up after it. In the South Bay I have hiked five miles along the levees with the camera aloft taking photographs as I go. I frame each photograph by watching the camera, imagining what it would “see” and using the radio to pan and tilt. After the shot is composed, I wait for camera to be still and then press the shutter button to make the exposure. It only takes a few seconds per image and it’s great fun.

How has your work progressed in kite aerial photography (KAP)?

My first forays into KAP sprang from the confluence of longstanding interests in photography and radio-controlled sailplanes. In 1995, after playing with mounting a camera on one of my planes I made a shift to kites, which tend to be stable, self-tending platforms. Since switching to kites I have progressed through three photographic stages.

The first stage, lasting several years, involved sorting out how to fly kites, mount the camera, compose the photographs, and keep my lofted gear from crashing. During my middle period, again lasting several years, I traveled broadly with my KAP gear in a quest for aerial images compositionally worthy of display. This was a fine period of honing technique and skill that yielded satisfying work, the placement of images in publications, coverage in the press, and a few exhibits.

I am now well settled into my third period, the use of kite aerial photography in sustained studies of specific landscapes. The best example is my project examining the South Bay salt pond landscape. I came across the salt ponds while taking a series of hikes with microbiologist Dr. Wayne Lanier during my sabbatical at the Exploratorium.  On these hikes Wayne would photograph through his field microscope while I took overhead views of the sampled environment.

Not knowing much about the South Bay I was struck by the otherworldly colors and textures present in what was once marshland. This was intriguing territory to photograph. After learning more about the current day South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, I developed a proposal to continue photographing the South Bay landscape in service of the restoration efforts. The Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife issued Special Use Permits providing permissions conditioned on seasonal restrictions to protect wildlife. This project, still underway, has blossomed into a major undertaking.

What is the nature of this South Bay project and what has it accomplished?

I started by photographing the colors and textures associated with the various salinities of salt ponds in the South Bay. Curiously, you can see little of a pond’s color or bottom detail while hiking on the ground due to sky reflection from the pond’s surface.  Happily, an aerial vantage point reduces surface reflection to allow a view of pond colors and bottom detail. This advantage, afforded to airline passengers landing at SFO, is also realized by a kite-lofted camera.

I was having a great time bagging new colors, as though trophy animals, when I realized that many of my aerial images contained vestigial remnants of the marsh channels that once served square miles of South Bay marsh. Looking more closely I also found traces of old boat landings, 19th century salt works, and curious patterns left by over a century of dredging and duck hunting.

What began as a photographic romp through a visually compelling landscape slowly shifted toward documenting the landscape’s history and deciphering traces of it evident in my aerial photographs. My aerial images often presented puzzling artifacts. These fueled visits to libraries, map rooms, and local experts. Then it was back to the field for more photographs. After photographing for several years, I came to appreciate that the landscape was still in transition, and rapid transition at that, as the salt pond restoration project gained stride. This realization has lent a sense of urgency to the project.

Over the last ten years I have made about 250 trips to photograph the South Bay. The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project has used my images for outreach and in support of science projects guiding the restoration. For instance, my low-level aerial images of Drawbridge were used to “ground truth” the locations of invasive vegetation as predicted by the analysis of satellite data. My photographs of the project have also been used by over three-dozen non-profit agencies, including Save The Bay. I have mounted several exhibits of the South Bay work including a permanent display of sixty images at the Exploratorium and large panoramas in the Oakland Museum’s 2014 exhibit Above & Below: Stories from Our Changing Bay.

Cris Benton is a retired professor of architecture and former department chair at the University of California, Berkeley. He uses kite aerial photography as a technique for documenting several Northern California landscapes.

Cargill Tries to Gut the Clean Water Act to Build Homes in The Bay

Cargill Salt and its developer partner DMB revealed last month that they attempted to secure a key exemption from the federal Clean Water Act that would have weakened the nation’s top water pollution law for the benefit of their reckless development scheme in Redwood City. And they almost succeeded: the companies convinced a key official at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarter to unilaterally reinterpret the law. Thankfully, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervened to block Cargill’s effort, at least temporarily.

The revelation shows Cargill is still desperate to advance its massive housing development on Bay salt ponds, and even is willing to gut the nation’s most important water protection law without any public process or Congressional debate. Through vigorous behind-the-scenes lobbying of a few federal government lawyers, Cargill almost upended laws that have reduced water pollution and protected public health for more than 40 years.

In August, Cargill released documents to a Redwood City newspaper showing that general counsel of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tried to instruct the agency’s San Francisco District to decline federal oversight of the Redwood City salt ponds where Cargill wants to build thousands of homes.

The Daily News reported that the Corps’ Chief Counsel, Earl H. Stockdale, signed a memo in January exempting the Saltworks site from Clean Water Act coverage because the ponds contain “liquid” that has “been subject to several years of industrial salt making processes.” His memo repeats nearly verbatim arguments DMB made two years ago that the concentrated bay water in the ponds is actually not water.  Stockdale’s memo also suggests that most of the ponds are also not covered by the Rivers and Harbors Act, which discourages construction of structures on “navigable water”.

If adopted as policy, Stockdale’s memo would overturn decades of Corps precedents in San Francisco Bay, including the Corps’ 2010 conclusion that development on the Saltworks site does require federal permission because those ponds do contain water protected by the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act. Stockdale’s memo was issued without any public process or review, and without consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has primary authority over implementation of the Clean Water Act.

When the EPA discovered Stockdale’s memo, it intervened to halt any hasty decision about the Saltworks property. EPA officials realized that Stockdale’s reinterpretation could not only block protection of Bay salt ponds, but also jeopardize regulation of polluted runoff from mines and other sites across the nation. EPA Region 9 Administrator Jared Blumenfeld insisted that EPA have final say on the Clean Waters Act “in light of the significance of the issues raised by the Corps’ proposed approach and the ecological importance of the San Francisco Bay waters at issue.”

The EPA’s intervention prompted senior Army Corps officials to suspend any action on the Cargill site. They have launched an internal review of Stockdale’s memo and how its sweeping change to federal water law could be snuck through the regulatory process without their knowledge, public review, EPA consultation, or action by Congress.

Even if Cargill wins the ruling it seeks from the Army Corps, it will still face hurdles from other state and federal agencies to secure permits for developing on the Bay shoreline.  And no development project on the Redwood City salt ponds can advance without initial approval from the city itself.  Cargill’s formal project proposal was withdrawn from the city in May 2012, after three years of strenuous opposition from local residents and Bay Area elected officials prevented the completion of even a draft environmental analysis.

Residents objected to the city council considering the project because it was at odds with Redwood City’s General Plan and zoning, state and federal laws. Local opposition to the project prompted hundreds of residents to establish a new citizens group, Redwood City Neighbors United. These residents continue to object that Cargill’s plan would destroy restorable wetlands, add to traffic gridlock, overtax drinking water supplies, encroach upon industries at the Port of Redwood City, and put thousands of new residents at risk of floods from rising seas.

For years, Cargill and DMB have acted as if they were above the law, but they have made no progress convincing local, state and federal agencies their Saltworks project is legal. Now they have arrogantly disclosed their own effort to gut the laws that protect San Francisco Bay and the nation’s water so they can boost their profits.

These companies have been tireless and shameless, but Save The Bay and our allies remain vigilant to Cargill’s sneak attacks, and we have mobilized more than 25,000 Bay Area residents and more than 150 elected officials to tell Cargill to abandon its plan to build in the Bay.

Please help us spread the word! If you haven’t already signed our petition telling Cargill to abandon its plan, do so today, and spread the word to your friends here today.

Weekly Roundup | April 26, 2013

newspaperCheck out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay.

CNN 4/22/13
7 stunning U.S. spots for wildlife
Naturalist Beth Pratt has been exploring and celebrating wildlife since she was a child, whether discovering the great whales of Cape Cod with her parents or creating a special luxury habitat for her backyard frogs. As a young girl she gazed with longing at photos of grizzly bears and wolves, and vowed to see the charismatic mega-fauna of the West. She realized her dream in her 20-year career in environmental leadership has included work at Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. She’s the director of the National Wildlife Federation’s California office, living just outside Yosemite.
Read more>>

Palo Alto Online 4/20/13
Locals celebrate Earth Day at Palo Alto Baylands
At 9 and 8 years old, Alex Carvalho and Julian De Sa can articulate the significance of Earth Day and how it isn’t the only day people should care about the planet.”You have to be extra nice to the Earth,” Carvalho said. “You should be nice to the Earth every day, but extra nice on Earth Day.” Carvalho and de Sa rode their bikes from East Palo Alto to the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve for Baylands Earth Day on Saturday afternoon. The event, which included activities that range from games to invasive species clean-up, was coordinated by the City of Palo Alo and several organizations, including the Palo Alto Open Space Nature Preserve.
Read more>>

KTVU 4/24/13
PACIFICA: Plastic bag ban goes into effect in coastal town
Watch video>>

CBS SF Bay Area 4/22/13
12 San Mateo County Cities Enact Plastic Bag Bans On Earth Day 
A dozen San Mateo County cities celebrated Earth Day on Monday by implementing plastic bag bans. Grocery stores, retail shops and pharmacies in 12 Peninsula cities and unincorporated areas throughout San Mateo County will no longer use plastic bags as of today, county Director of Environmental Health Dean Peterson said.“The Bay is getting a very important present for Earth Day,” Peterson said.
Read more>>

San Jose Mercury News 4/23/13
New Bair Island bridge opens way to almost fully restored wetlands
Thirty years after Redwood City voters saved Bair Island from being transformed into a massive residential development, officials and some of the project’s early opponents gathered Monday to celebrate the opening of a pedestrian bridge into the almost restored 3,000-acre wetlands site.”It was such a thrill,” Sandra Cooperman said after strolling over the new bridge onto the island, which until then had been off-limits to the public since 2007. She was one of the residents who organized a ballot referendum in 1982 that blocked the city council’s approval of the controversial development.
Read more>>

San Jose Mercury News 4/20/13
Sleek new trail opens through heart of San Jose, connecting downtown to San Francisco Bay for bikes and hikers
A new thoroughfare to help travelers get across San Jose more easily opened on Saturday with celebrations and crowds of people. But there were no cars, trucks or motorcycles. The route was a trail. After a year of construction, a 6.7-mile section of the Guadalupe River Trail was officially unveiled, running along the Guadalupe River’s levees from the Interstate 880 overcrossing near Mineta San Jose International Airport north to Alviso on the edge of San Francisco Bay. The trail had existed before, but only as a dusty, uninviting gravel access road. Paved with smooth asphalt, the trail is now 12 feet wide with signs, a center stripe and five commemorative plazas along the way. The plazas highlight everything from the discovery of the skull of a 14,000-year-old Columbian mammoth along the river in 2005 to the Hetch Hetchy water system to the history of Alviso.
Read more>>

The Oakland Tribune 4/24/13
Don’t weaken the successful Endangered Species Act 
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, America’s landmark law to prevent the extinction of our most at-risk plants and animals. In the Bay Area, we can appreciate the protections this farsighted act has provided for our native wildlife and how preserving their habitat contributes to our quality of life. Just last month, local agencies began the environmental review process for a series of fish passage projects that will allow steelhead trout to return to more than 10 miles of historic spawning and rearing habitats in upper Alameda Creek — for the first time in half a century. This regionally significant stream restoration has been driven by Endangered Species Act protections for steelhead trout, as have similar efforts to restore steelhead and iconic coho salmon in other Bay Area streams such as Codornices Creek, Suisun Creek, Napa River, Lagunitas Creek, San Francisquito Creek and the Guadalupe River.
Read more>>

San Jose Mercury News 4/26/13
Cupertino quarry agrees to restore and improve Permanente Creek
Cupertino’s Lehigh Southwest Cement Company has agreed to cut discharges of toxic water pollutants into Permanente Creek, which runs through Los Altos and Mountain View the bay.
Read more>>

Notes from the Field | Restoring Ecotone Around the Bay

MLK Shoreline
East Creek Slough, part of the MLK Regional Shoreline. Save The Bay restores the ecotone, the transition zone between the aquatic habitat of the bay to the dry upland habitat.

“So are we going into the marsh?” A question I receive every so often when a volunteer looks out into the Bay and imagines us trudging around in knee high mud doing restoration work. At Save The Bay, our restoration work actually focuses on the ecotone.

Eco-what? For many this is not a word they hear everyday. The ecotone is a transition zone between two differing habitats. For our restoration sites around the Bay, the ecotone is the transition between the aquatic habitat of the Bay up onto shore to the higher dry land.

For many of our sites, especially in the Palo Alto Baylands, our restoration work is on former salt ponds that for a long period of time were blocked off from the tides. Large levees blocked the tidal flow so the water could stay stagnant and evaporate, leaving behind the desired salt. But when we break down these levees of former salt ponds, the tides bring in the seed bank of aquatic vegetation such as pickle weed and native cord grass. These species are pioneers in the re-vegetation of former marsh.

Our work involves making a palette of plants ranging from more water and salt tolerant plants which prefer to be closer to the marsh, to upland plants. This gradual change in vegetation type is the ecotone habitat we’re trying to create.

This ecotone is vital habitat to many species, including the endangered California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse, protecting the creatures during high tides and storm surge events. The natives planted by our volunteers grow to provide essential cover from predators, food and habitat. So, I answer to the worried volunteer looking at their clean clothes and shoes, “No, don’t worry we’re not going into the marsh for our restoration project.”


Weekly Roundup October 5, 2012

weekly roundupIn this week’s roundup, Save The Bay’s founder Sylvia McLaughlin is honored with a renaming of Eastshore State Park. Monday was a big day for fighting plastic pollution in the Bay, as San Francisco’s plastic ban now applies to all local retailers. David Lewis was quoted in the Chronicle: “San Francisco is showing that it is vital to stop litter at its source before it flows into creeks, chokes wetlands, and harms wildlife.” Farther south, courts ruled against plastic bag industry in San Lois Obispo and Haiti banned plastic bags and Styrofoam. In wetland restoration news, Watsonville Slough project is improving life for people and birds. And Bair Island restoration continues near Redwood City. The Los Angeles Times profiles Delta landowners fighting the proposed peripheral tunnel. Finally, Hayward’s salt ponds are memorialized with a US postage stamp.

San Francisco Chronicle 10/3/2012
Park to take name of noted bay advocate
A parks commission has approved a resolution to rename Eastshore State Park after the last surviving founder of the environmental watchdog group Save the Bay.

San Francisco Chronicle 9/29/2012
Monday is D day for bags, a dime apiece
There’s one more thing San Franciscans need to add to their shopping list, unless they want to pay up: a reusable bag.
Learn more about San Francisco’s expanded bag ban >>

Miami Herald 9/24/2012
Haiti bans plastic bags, foam containers
Plastic and foam food containers are everywhere in this enterprising Caribbean nation — clogging canals, cluttering streets and choking ocean wildlife.

New Times 10/4/2012
County plastic bag ban upheld in court
On the same day a plastic bag ban went into effect, a challenge to the controversial law impacting grocery and other retail outlets across San Luis Obispo County was shot down by a SLO County Superior Court judge.

Santa Cruz Sentinel 10/3/2012
Wetlands restoration a boon to birds, people; transportation agencies help fund latest Watsonville project
Crews are wrapping up the restoration of a section of Watsonville Slough that’s been little more than a drainage ditch for years.The work along a stretch of the slough between Ohlone Parkway and Highway 1 is the final phase of a 25-acre wetlands restoration project mandated when the city annexed the 94-acre Manabe-Ow property at its western edge for a business park.

Field Notes 9/25/2012
DON EDWARDS S.F. BAY NWR: Innovative Deal on Restoration Dirt Saves Taxpayers Money
An innovative arrangement to acquire uncontaminated dirt for an ongoing wetland restoration project on Bair Island, a part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge near Redwood City, Calif., is saving taxpayers more than $5 million.

The Los Angeles Times 10/4/2012
Delta, accustomed to water wars, prepares for battle
As a child, Brett Baker learned farming fundamentals from his grandfather, who taught him to drive a tractor and gave him some advice about water.

The Daily Review 9/30/2012
Hayward photo by Berkeley photographer chosen for stamp
At first glance, the magenta field slashed down the middle by a multicolored strand could be an abstract painting in an art gallery. The striking image, though, is the work of aerial photographer Barrie Rokeach of Berkeley, who elevated a sight familiar to Bay Area residents — salt ponds along the Hayward shoreline — to a work of art.