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

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.

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.