Cargill's Plans to Pave Over Wetlands Gets Residents Riled Up

sf bay salt ponds photo

Photo by ingridtaylar via Flickr CC

Cargill, a Minnesota-based agribusiness goliath, is looking to spread its real estate ownership to San Francisco. However, its planned development of as many as 30,000 residents is aimed at an ecologically vital area of the bay -- the Redwood City salt ponds. Cargill calls it an industrial wasteland, but agencies who issue permission for development stress that the 1,436 acres of wetlands-turned-salt-ponds are anything but, and need to be restored to their former glory. Those opposed include everyone from the Water Board, the US Army Corps, the EPA and over 140 elected officials and environmental groups. It spells a heated battle of political will that could have national consequences.
Currently, the area is used for salt production. And while Cargill calls the site a "factory without a roof" and "inhospitable to man or beast" the reality is that the area could be restored to a thriving wetland when no longer used for salt production, providing important habitat to birds and other species. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weighed in and called the salt ponds "critically important aquatic resources that warrant special attention and protection." Expert scientists say that the bay area needs to see 100,000 acres of wetlands restored to support a healthy ecosystem, which is home to endangered species, acts as a filter for runoff pollution, provides natural flood control, and is a buffer protecting communities from rising sea levels due to global climate change.

Cargill, however, has enough weight to toss around that the project, which would be 17 times larger than any Bay fill project ever approved and the only housing project ever approved on retired salt ponds, is still looking to get the go-ahead from Redwood City. The company is, according to Forbes in 2009, the largest privately held company in the United States. It owns the salt ponds, and just needs the proper permitting to move forward on the project. Save The Bay, an advocate for the San Francisco Bay ecosystem since 1961, reports that "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," and that the company has already spent millions in advertising, consulting, and lobbying for their project.

"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."

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The Huffington Post writes, "Although they are the ultimate outsiders, Cargill and DMB have infiltrated Redwood City, trying to buy influence with community donations, from sponsoring little league teams to buying the prize-winning turkey at the local 4H club; they have promised that group a farm.

"But despite this public relations blitz, the hurdles to project approval are rising, and community opposition is growing. The State of California's new Climate Change Adaptation Strategy singles out restorable shoreline parcels as a place to prohibit new development. Save The Bay's Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the federal government has determined that the site is a protected water body under the Clean Water Act - a direct rejection of Cargill's legal claims and their public relations spin."

The loss of an important habitat like these wetlands is something felt not only locally, but nationally -- both ecologically and economically. As business giants are allowed to determine our landscape to the point of paving over important habitats, citizens loose out on the chance to live next to and be supported by nature. It's not healthy for anyone. And in a time when ecosystems are collapsing all over the world, we need to keep every little bit we have left.

Save The Bay hopes to deliver 5,000+ signatures to the Redwood City Council next month. Don't Pave My Bay launched earlier this month as a tool of citizen activism, where supporters of restoring the wetland habitat and stopping construction of yet more residents can voice their opinions.

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