SLIDESHOW: Birds of the Redwood City Salt Ponds

We have written in the past about Cargill’s attempt to mislead the public and government agencies about the ecological value of the Redwood City salt ponds. While Cargill and its development partner, DMB Pacific, have withdrawn their original plan to build as many as 12,000 houses on the site, the companies consistently say they intend to submit another plan to fill the below-sea-level, restorable salt ponds with housing. As Cargill is busy lobbying federal agencies to exempt the ponds from the Clean Water Act and other important environmental regulations that protect the Bay, now seems like a good time to remind ourselves of the beauty and diversity of bird life found on these salt ponds.

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The San Francisco Bay salt ponds support hundreds of thousands of migratory shorebirds who rely on the Bay as a key stop on their route along the Pacific Flyway. The San Francisco Bay, in fact, is a recognized site of hemispheric importance for migratory shorebirds, and the Bay’s salt ponds provide important habitat for dozens of species, including several that are threatened or endangered.

Studies from Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly Point Reyes Bird Observatory), a leader in studying shorebirds along the Pacific Flyway, document that the Redwood City salt ponds are home to at least 24,800 shorebirds annually, including the federally threatened Western Snowy Plover, a species whose surviving Pacific coast population now numbers just 1,500-2,000 birds. In addition, Point Blue describes the Redwood City ponds as having “among the highest [bird] counts from the West side of the Bay between the Bay and Dumbarton bridges” making up more than a quarter of the total shorebird population of the region.

The Environmental Protection Agency has called the Redwood City salt ponds a “critically important aquatic resource that warrants special protection,” as has the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. Even Cargill’s own environmental consultants have observed over 70 different species at the Redwood City salt ponds, and have documented the federally-threatened Western Snowy Plover breeding on site.

Save The Bay has shared photos of the large numbers of birds that live on the Redwood City salt ponds in the past, but to really appreciate the beauty and fascinating behavior of these birds, you have to see them up close and personal.

Cargill has restricted access to the site, so we have turned to Bob Cossins and other talented local photographers for a good look at a few of the species that have been observed on the Redwood City salt ponds. Take a look at the slideshow and learn a little bit more about the shorebirds that are at risk of losing their home if Cargill is successful in their plans to pave over these 1,400 acres of San Francisco Bay. Help us protect the Redwood City salt ponds from development – sign our petition telling Cargill “Don’t Pave My Bay” and spread the word with your friends and neighbors!


(Special thanks to former Save The Bay policy volunteer Leland Malkus for his substantial support in the publication of this article and slideshow. All bird descriptions are courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Case Study: Napa Salt Ponds and Federal Oversight of the Bay

Aerial photos of the Napa salt ponds
Aerial photos before and after the levees were breached at the former Cargill salt ponds in the Napa River (Google Earth). Future public access opportunities will include walking trails, fishing, kayaking, and more.

After Cargill and developer DMB’s sudden withdrawal last May of their initial proposal to pave over San Francisco Bay salt ponds in Redwood City, the companies have been busy lobbying federal agencies to exempt the below-sea-level ponds from important environmental regulations that protect the Bay from being filled. Cargill/DMB’s stated intention is to bring back another proposal to put thousands of houses on this 1,400-acre restorable site.

We have written in the past about Cargill’s flawed arguments for why they think the Clean Water Act doesn’t apply to them. (See “Cargill’s 370-Page Attack on the Bay,” Part I and Part II) Another key reason the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency should ensure federal oversight over the Redwood City salt ponds is the fact that these agencies have a long-history of asserting jurisdiction over San Francisco Bay salt ponds, including ponds nearly identical to those in Redwood City.

Exhibit A is the Former Salt Ponds along the Napa River in the North Bay

Now being restored back to wetlands and abundant with wildlife, Cargill’s former salt ponds along the Napa River are now known as the “Green Island Unit.” Like Redwood City’s ponds, they were former Bay marshes, diked off for salt making over 50 years ago and used by Cargill as “crystallizers” for the saltiest part of the salt production process.

Cargill sold the Napa ponds to the State in 2003 so they could be restored back to marshes. Thanks to federal stimulus funds and the support of generous private foundations, the levees have since been breached, the site connected back to the Bay tides, and if you visit the area now, it’s nearly impossible to determine where the Napa River ends and the former salt ponds begin. It’s all flooded with water.

In a submission to regulatory agencies in 1996, before Cargill sold the site, the company gave similar assertions to federal agencies about why the Napa ponds should not be governed under the Clean Water Act. Cargill claimed that the millions of gallons of water pumped from the Bay into the salt ponds was not water at all and that the Napa salt ponds are a “highly manipulated industrial facility” supporting “little to no biological activity,” despite their use by migratory shorebirds. (Sound familiar? See “Cargill Misleads Gov’t Agencies about Salt Pond Wildlife“)

100% “Waters of the United States”

When federal agencies finally decided on the jurisdictional status of the Napa salt ponds, the results were clear: As below sea-level, diked off tidal waters adjacent to and formerly part of the Napa River, the Napa salt ponds are entirely “waters of the United States,” wrote the Army Corps of Engineers in 2008.

Despite Cargill’s repeated claims to the opposite, the Army Corps ruled that the Napa salt ponds are unequivocally subject to the important federal environmental rules enshrined in the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. If anyone wanted to fill these ponds, they would have to get a permit from federal agencies first.

Will the Army Corps follow this strong precedent and continue to assert jurisdiction over the Bay’s salt ponds – this time in Redwood City? We’ll find out soon.

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