October 9, 2008

New Bay Area Wetlands Created With Breach of Berm

By Mike Taugher

Staff Writer

HAYWARD -- A backhoe clawed through a dirt berm Wednesday, creating a channel that Bay water poured through to former industrial salt ponds that had not tasted tidal waters for more than a century.

With the dirt berm removed, the Mount Eden Creek will spill into the former salt ponds on high tides and returning life to one rich shoreline wetlands.

Mudflats will form. Pickleweed should start growing and eventually birds, fish and mammals, including endangered clapper rail birds and salt marsh harvest mice, are expected to move in.

Biologists said they expect to see results quickly.

"Just add water," said Eric Larson, the state Fish and Game Department's deputy regional manager for the Bay and Delta.

It was the latest in a steady stream of marsh rehabilitation projects around the Bay, where roughly 80 percent of tidal wetlands that existed at the time of the Gold Rush have disappeared.

On Wednesday, it was 350 acres of former salt ponds that are now destined to become wildlife-rich marshes. Earlier in the week, another levee was breached to flood 30 acres in Marin County. In the coming days, 500 acres will be "restored" along the Napa River on the Bay's northern shore.

"It's fabulous to see so much of this habitat coming back to the Bay after being closed off from the Bay for so many decades," Larson said.

The former salt ponds at the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve form a northern extension of the salt pond complex that rings the southern tip of the Bay.

From ground level, parts of it make up a flat, salt-whitened and barren landscape. Viewed by satellite images on Google's maps page, the region looks like an abstract painting of unusual shapes filled with unnatural-looking purples, oranges and greens -- algae thriving in different concentrations of salinity.

In addition to restoring wetlands, the East Bay Regional Park District on Wednesday dedicated a 2.5-mile extension of the Bay Trail, where it is expected one day to continue around the South Bay. The extension is scheduled to open to the public later this month.

The Eden Landing property was purchased by the state in 1996 for $12 million from Cargill.

The purchase signaled the epilogue in a long-running battle over a developer's plans to build a horse track on the property.

Frank Delfino and his late wife, Janice, were among those who led the fight against it.

"It lasted until the 70s, when they went belly up," Delfino said, referring to the developer.

David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, said the fight waged to stop the racetrack might have been pivotal to the fate of the other salt ponds.

"If this development happened here, that could have been an anchor for more development," Lewis said. "It was definitely a turning point."

Cargill, the agribusiness giant, later sold 16,500 acres that rim the Bay to the government for $100 million in 2003, launching what supporters say is the largest tidal wetlands restoration project on the West Coast.

Around the Bay, 190,000 acres of tidal marsh before the Gold Rush was reduced to about 40,000 acres by 2000. That year, ecologists, wildlife agencies and environmentalists set a goal to increase that number to 100,000 acres in an effort to expand thriving ecosystems.

About 13,000 acres of marsh has been restored since then with an additional 35,000 acres in various stages of planning or design, said Steve Ritchie, project manager for the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project.

Mike Taugher covers natural resources. Reach him at 925-943-8257 or [email protected]

Originally published by Mike Taugher , Contra Costa Times.

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