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.

Continue reading “Why Save The Bay Talks to Generals”

Tribute: Founding Member Ralph Nobles of Redwood City

Ralph Nobles. Photo by: Christopher-Gardner
Ralph Nobles’ legacy will forever live on in our storied Bay Area environmental lore. Photo by: Christopher-Gardner

Another giant in the battle to prevent overdevelopment of San Francisco Bay has died.  Ralph Nobles, who led the Friends of Redwood City and won the fight to protect Bair Island, passed away February 20, at the age of 94.

The 2006 winner of Save The Bay’s Founding Member award, Ralph was a long-time activist who inspired me with his tenacity and wisdom.  When I first met him in 1998, he showed me around Redwood City’s Bair Island, and shared the story of the citizens’ movement he led that saved it from becoming another Foster City development.

In 1982, Redwood City’s city council had approved plans by Mobil Oil to build 20,700 homes and corporate offices on those diked islands that had been Bay tidal marsh.  Ralph and his wife Carolyn led a referendum to overturn that decision, founding the Friends of Redwood City and mounting a grassroots campaign from their living room against a massive corporation.  Mobil Oil rented a camel from Marine World and staked it out in the Baylands, with a big billboard calling the area a desert where nothing grew. Ralph hired a plane to fly a “Yes on O” banner over a football game at Stanford Stadium.

On election night, Ralph was in Florida on a business trip for Lockheed and learned by phone that Friends of Redwood City had lost the referendum by a narrow margin, but when absentee ballots were counted, the Mobil plan was defeated by 42 votes, out of more than 18,000 votes cast.

Several years later, after Mobil had sold the property to a Japanese company, Ralph and his allies in the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge placed an advertisement in the Tokyo edition of the New York Times that shamed the owner into selling the property to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, and it eventually became part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  Save The Bay volunteers have helped restore native vegetation on Inner Bair Island, where a breach will restore tidal action later this year.

Ralph played another part in American history years before, serving as one of the youngest physicists on the Manhattan Project in 1943.  He witnessed the Trinity test of the first bomb at Alamogordo, NM, in the summer of 1945, just before bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

In 2004, Ralph and a new generation of Friends of Redwood City helped defeat a plan to build 17 high-rise condominiums near the Port of Redwood City.  And he was a vocal opponent of Cargill’s proposal to build 12,000 homes on retired salt ponds just south of Bair Island.  That battle continues today, and Ralph’s legacy is an inspiration to those waging it.

“People want to live here because there is a healthy San Francisco Bay,” Nobles told the San Jose Mercury News in 2009.  “And if you destroy that you destroy our most precious commodity.”

See what Ralph saved for us.  Visit the Inner Bair Island trail – click here for directions.

Continue Ralph’s legacy by helping Save The Bay improve habitat for endangered species on Bair Island.  Sign up to volunteer there on April 11.

Read more about Raph’s remarkable journey here.

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.

An Open Letter to Governor Brown

Save The Bay has been working for years to rid San Francisco Bay of plastic bag pollution. This month, we are closer than ever to achieving a statewide bag ban in California. SB 270 has passed the state legislature and is awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s signature. We recently sent this letter calling on the Governor to sign the bill into law. You can do your part by sending a message to Governor Brown today

RE: Support for SB 270 – Solid waste: single-use carryout bags

Dear Governor Brown,

On behalf of Save The Bay’s 60,000 members and supporters throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, we urge you to sign SB 270 (Padilla, De León, and Lara) into law. After eight years of state and local advocacy, this bill has the support of business organizations, industry associations, unions, and environmental organizations across the state. SB 270 will establish a baseline for eliminating plastic bags in jurisdictions that have failed to enact their own local restrictions, moving our state closer to plastic-free shorelines and waterways.  By enacting SB 270, the state would also help 76 Bay Area municipalities to eliminate trash in their stormwater systems by 2022, as required by regional agency permits.

Bay Area communities have supported banning plastic bags since San Francisco became the first U.S. city to do so in 2007. Environmental organizations, solid waste professionals, elected officials, and chambers of commerce have united to craft strong local bag ordinances that reduce pollution of waterways while providing consistency for businesses and residents.  As a result, 76% of Bay Area residents now live in a jurisdiction that has banned plastic bags. SB 270 builds upon these models and the Bay Area’s leadership and will dramatically reduce plastic bag pollution statewide.

Every argument from opponents of plastic bag bans has been disproven by the actual experience of cities and counties that have enacted them. Despite industry advocacy for bag recycling, not one Bay Area jurisdiction has found it to be economically feasible. Fears that bag bans will hurt businesses have proven unfounded, as business owners continue to support regionally consistent policies. Claims that plastic bag pollution is not a problem are disproven every year on Coastal Cleanup Day, as volunteers remove thousands of plastic bags from our creeks and shorelines. Marine debris starts on land, and California has the obligation and opportunity to decrease its contribution of plastic trash to our oceans.

California is being hailed as a leader for taking action against single-use plastic bags and the degradation they cause in California’s waterways. Please implement this groundbreaking policy by signing SB 270 into law.


David Lewis
Executive Director

California Environmental Champion Began by Protecting San Francisco Bay

Byron Sher
Byron Sher wrote and passed most of California’s environmental laws.

Last week, I had the honor of presenting Save The Bay’s Founders Award to one of the greatest environmental leaders in California history. Byron Sher represented Palo Alto in the state legislature for almost a quarter-century, and he wrote and passed most of the laws that protect our state’s environment today.

But he got his start in politics as a Stanford Law Professor, when he won a seat on the Palo Alto city council in the 1960s, campaigning against the destruction of that city’s Bay marshes. The city had already allowed San Francisquito Creek to be rerouted, and some marshes to be filled to create a golf course and municipal airport. An airport expansion, conference center, and lagoon community were planned – more filling of the Bay using mud dredged from the city’s tiny yacht harbor that silted in every few years.

Byron and his colleagues fought and won a revolution that preserved Palo Alto’s Baylands, now one of the gems of the shoreline, and a top spot for shorebirds. The Save The Bay movement joined many similar local efforts into a regional movement that created the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and essentially halted large-scale filling of the Bay. Byron served on BCDC for several years while a city councilman. Then Byron continued to champion the Bay from the State Legislature, including creating the San Francisco Bay Area Conservancy, which has preserved spectacular landscapes from the ridges to the shoreline throughout the nine counties.

Byron’s contribution to California’s environment extended far beyond the Bay. He wrote the state’s Groundwater Protection Act, Clean Air Act, Integrated Waste Management Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act. As the chair of key committees on natural resources and environmental protection, he led establishment of state requirements for renewable energy generation, and helped broker the deal to save old growth redwoods in the Headwaters forest. He still serves on the Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

The Founders Award represents the spirit of Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick, the three ladies who started Save The Bay in 1961 – they mobilized thousands of individuals who battled to protect San Francisco Bay. Some, like Byron, went on to serve in elected or appointed positions; others worked for decades as activists and organizers in their own communities.

I am so grateful for all that this generation – including my own parents – did to save the Bay for me and my children. And I am proud that Save The Bay continues to pursue ambitious initiatives to make the Bay cleaner and healthier for people and wildlife, with our growing community of supporters.