State, Federal Agencies Affirm Salt Ponds Threatened by Development Are Part of San Francisco Bay

July 14, 2010

Minnesota-based agribusiness giant Cargill’s plan to build a massive development of up to 30,000 residents on San Francisco Bay salt ponds in Redwood City is facing growing opposition, including concerns from state and federal resource protection agencies. Agencies whose permission is needed to approve any development on the site have issued strong statements about the importance of protecting and restoring the Redwood City salt ponds, undercutting Cargill’s expensive efforts to portray the former wetlands property as an industrial wasteland.

“In light of the growing opposition to this development by federal permitting agencies, more than 140 elected officials, Bay Area cities, environmental groups, industry, and residents, the Redwood City Council has the responsibility to stop Cargill’s project in its tracks,” said David Lewis, Save The Bay Executive Director.

Today Save The Bay launched a brand-new online campaign where people can learn about Cargill’s destructive plan and add their name to the thousands of people and organizations who want to protect San Francisco Bay.  Save The Bay will deliver 5,000 signatures to the Redwood City Council this August to urge them to stop this development from being placed on 1,436 acres of restorable salt ponds.  Individuals can sign the petition, learn more about the campaign and take action at

“Over the past several decades citizen advocacy saved the Bay from becoming a narrow river by stopping countless Bay fill projects. This supportive community is the Bay’s greatest asset and it is once again time for residents to stand up and protect our great natural treasure from irreversible destruction," said Lewis.

Agencies Affirm Threatened Salt Ponds Deserve Protection, not Pavement
The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board recently became the latest agency to weigh in, telling Redwood City that in their current condition these salt ponds are “an important biological resource” that “provide foraging and nesting habitat for a variety of birds.” The Board urged Redwood City to maintain the longstanding open space zoning that protects the site from housing or other development. “When no longer used for salt production, they can be restored and support beneficial uses and habitat diversity of the bay ecosystem,” stated the Water Board in a letter dated June 24, 2010.

Redwood City Salt Ponds are Part of the Bay
While resource protection agencies highlight the environmental value of protected and restored salt ponds in Redwood City, Cargill and its Arizona-based luxury-home developer DMB Associates, portrays the site as an "factory without a roof,” a “moonscape," and a “refinery” that is “inhospitable to man or beast.”

In fact, the Redwood City salt ponds are undeveloped open space and part of San Francisco Bay, providing habitat for shorebirds and other animals. The Water Board’s recent statement echoes others from federal agencies whose permission, like the Water Board’s, is needed to develop the site. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told Cargill in April 2010 that the entire property is a protected water body under the Clean Water Act (“waters of the United States”), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently called the salt ponds “critically important aquatic resources that warrant special attention and protection.” Redwood City's own General Plan says of the site: "Due to the sensitive nature of these open space areas, it should be assumed that they will remain as open space forever."

Cargill Development is Single Biggest Threat to SF Bay
According to Save The Bay, San Francisco Bay’s leading champion since 1961, this development is the single biggest threat to San Francisco Bay. Cargill’s proposal is unprecedented in the modern era – no housing has ever been permitted in a retired salt pond since state and federal agencies began regulating shoreline development in the 1960s, and the Redwood City project would be 17 times larger than any Bay fill project ever approved.

“Cargill’s development would be devastating for San Francisco Bay and the entire Bay Area. It would put a new city in a flood plain in the path of rising sea levels, and forever destroy the opportunity to restore these ponds to wetland marshes and protect this open space for the benefit of people and wildlife,” said Lewis.

Widespread Opposition Includes Elected Officials, Industry, Opinion Leaders and Cities
Representing 25,000 members and supporters around the Bay Area, Save The Bay is joined by the Center for Biological Diversity, Audubon and Sierra Club in fighting Cargill’s proposed development. But the opposition to this project goes beyond environmental groups. The Friends of Redwood City are part of a broad range of city residents speaking out against this threat to Redwood City’s future. Worried that placing new homes near the only deepwater port in the South Bay will threaten the Bay Area economy and hundreds of jobs, the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association opposes the project. And in an unprecedented showing of regional unity, more than 140 mayors, city, county, and state elected officials from throughout the Bay Area are speaking out in opposition along with neighboring cities Menlo Park, Belmont and Atherton which have adopted resolutions asking Redwood City to reject this development to protect the Bay. State leaders who actively oppose the project include Senators Loni Hancock, Ellen Corbett and Mark Leno and Assemblymembers Jared Huffman, Jim Beall and Tom Ammiano.

“It is not 1960, and the Bay is not the place for housing” said Peter Drekmeier, former Palo Alto Mayor. “It’s not smart growth like Redwood City’s award-winning downtown projects. That’s why the City Council should just say ‘no’ to Cargill now.”

The Redwood City Council nevertheless has chosen to move forward with the project, insisting that further study is required. This claim is rejected by municipal and environmental law experts who note that such a project can unquestionably be denied without first preparing an environmental impact report or conducting any CEQA review. [CEQA Guidelines section 15270 (“CEQA does not apply to projects which a public agency rejects or disapproves.”); California Public Resources Code § 21080(b)(5).]

Cargill Spending Millions on Advertising and PR to Push Project
Cargill – listed by Forbes in 2009 as the largest privately held company in the U.S. – owns the Redwood City salt ponds and announced its intent to discontinue making salt at the site. However, instead of selling or donating the former wetlands to be restored to tidal marsh and protected as open space, Cargill hired Arizona-based luxury-home developer DMB Associates to propose a new city with 12,000 homes, a million square feet of office space, schools and playing fields all behind a massive levee on the 1,436 acres of sea level salt ponds. The two companies have infiltrated Redwood City with television and newspaper advertisements, community sponsorships, glossy mailings and “economic summits.” As the ultimate outsiders, Cargill and DMB have spent millions of dollars on advertising, high-priced consultants, pollsters and lobbyists to “sell” their project to the Redwood City community.

In addition to falsely portraying the salt ponds as an industrial wasteland, Cargill and DMB’s ads claim that a new city adjacent to Highway 101 will not increase traffic, a claim questioned by transportation experts. The ads also tout the increased jobs and revenue that will be created by the project, but intentionally omit the high cost of police and fire service, schools, libraries, wastewater, traffic and levee construction and maintenance. They claim the development is infill, but there is no infrastructure on these open space salt ponds: no streets; no water, sewer or electric lines; no roads or mass transit.

Expert urban planners dispute the claim that these former salt ponds offer a potential infill site and instead argue that restoring the ponds would provide great benefit to the environment and the region.

“The retired Redwood City salt ponds are not an infill site," said Peter Bosselmann, an internationally-recognized urban design expert and Professor of Urban Design in Architecture, City & Regional Planning, and Landscape Architecture at the UC Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development. "Restoring the site as a tidal marsh would be to the greatest benefit of the region's air quality."

About Save The Bay
Save The Bay is the largest regional organization working to protect, restore and celebrate San Francisco Bay. As its leading champion since 1961, Save The Bay protects the Bay from pollution and inappropriate shoreline development, making it cleaner and healthier for people and wildlife. We restore habitat and secure strong policies to re-establish 100,000 acres of wetlands that are essential for a healthy Bay. We engage more than 25,000 supporters, advocates and volunteers to protect the Bay, and inspire the next generation of environmental leaders by educating thousands of students annually.


Background Information on Wetland Restoration

Wetlands Are Vital Habitat
Scientists say that 100,000 acres of wetlands must be re-established around the Bay to support a healthy, sustainable ecosystem. The Redwood City salt ponds have been slated for restoration as part of this goal and could be included in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  Just 60 miles north, the state is restoring wetlands on similar ponds Cargill sold in 2003.

Wetlands are home to endangered species, such as the California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. They keep the Bay healthy by filtering runoff pollution to improve water quality. Additionally, they act as a sponge, providing natural flood control when water levels are high and create a protective buffer for communities threatened by rising sea levels associated with global warming.  Wetlands and Bay open space also provide countless recreational opportunities to the community such as bird watching, biking, walking and kayaking. 

Era of Filling in the Bay is Over
By the 1960s one-third of San Francisco Bay had been filled or diked off and there were plans to fill 60 percent of the remaining Bay, leaving only a narrow shipping channel. Only ten percent of the Bay’s original wetlands remained, less than six miles of shoreline was accessible to the public and the Bay was choked with raw sewage and industrial pollution.

Because concerned residents founded Save The Bay in 1961, and created BCDC in 1965, the Bay is now cleaner and healthier. Citizen advocates stopped major Bay fill projects, secured better sewage treatment and reduced pollution from factories. Now more than half of the Bay is ringed with public trails, linking a necklace of shoreline parks.

Salt Ponds Should be Restored to Tidal Marsh
Salt ponds are now being restored to wetlands throughout the Bay Area. Along the Napa River north of Vallejo, salt ponds nearly identical to Cargill’s Redwood City ponds are being restored to tidal marsh by the California Department of Fish and Game, with funds from the California Wildlife Conservation Board and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s federal stimulus program. And in Redwood City, after voters prevented Bair Island from being developed a generation ago, it was purchased and added to the Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge and is now being restored to tidal wetlands. Scientists recommend that tens of thousands of wetlands must be restored to ensure a healthy Bay for people and wildlife.

Bay Area Community Wants Bay Restored; Authority Pursuing Restoration Funding
Polling shows overwhelming public support for Bay restoration and willingness to bear the cost. A new regional agency established in 2008 to raise funds to restore shoreline wetland habitat around San Francisco Bay – the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority – is currently laying the foundation for funding measures that will help pay to restore thousands of acres of thriving wetlands.