Time for Cargill to Join the 21st Century

Published in The Daily Journal on 3/11/20

The Cargill salt ponds are just beyond Bedwell Bayfront Park and the Ravenswood pond complex. Photo by Jitze Couperus. 

Recently, Redwood City leaders were informed that Cargill and its development partner, luxury housing developer DMB Associates, would be conducting a poll of residents concerning potential development on the Cargill-owned salt ponds in Redwood City. These salt ponds, which stretch more than 1,400 acres of Bay tidal flats from Woodside Road to Marsh Road on the east side of Highway 101, have been proposed for development before — and the proposal met with such overwhelming opposition from local residents that Cargill and DMB were forced to withdraw their development application.

It seems that Cargill just hasn’t gotten the message: It’s the 21st century. We don’t build in the Bay any more.

Let’s be clear, the Redwood City salt ponds are simply the wrong place for development. This is an open space tidal plain that’s part of the Bay and was a thriving wetland for centuries. The entire Bay used to be ringed with tidal marsh wetlands, which filtered pollutants from the water and served as nurseries for birds and fish. More than 90% of those historic wetlands have been lost to development, and the health of the Bay depends on restoring on the order of 100,000 acres of former wetlands. We can’t afford to give up a single acre of former wetlands to development. There are many other places where we can build housing, but there’s nowhere else where we can restore 1,400 acres of wetlands.

Restored tidal marsh provides invaluable natural flood protection, buffering communities against sea level rise and absorbing storm surges. And even in their current state as tidal flats, the Cargill salt ponds provide important habitat for migratory birds every winter when the ponds fill up with rainwater.

Furthermore, the Cargill salt ponds are a terrible location for housing. This site is right across the street from heavy industries like rock crushers and metal recyclers — not a good place for residents to live. It’s far from transit centers and dependent for access on the Woodside Road/101 interchange — one of the most congested on the Peninsula. It’s literally a mudflat that’s subject to seismic hazards like soil liquefaction during earthquakes. And it’s right in the path of sea level rise — every flood projection map shows that it’s one of the first areas along the Bayfront to be inundated during storms and floods.

With climate change, levees won’t be enough to keep communities safe from flooding, because floodwaters come not just from the Bay but from rising groundwater and overflowing creeks during rainstorms. The mobile home communities along Bayshore Road, directly adjacent to the Cargill salt ponds, experience regular flooding during heavy storms — a problem that several jurisdictions have been working for years to solve. The last thing we should do is build more housing in low-lying areas subject to flooding.

Last year, several environmental organizations (including Green Foothills) and the California attorney general sued the Trump administration over its decision to remove Clean Water Act protections from the Cargill salt ponds. This decision, part of the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on the environment, had one primary result: It made it easier to develop on the salt ponds. Cargill might be willing to use the Trump administration’s eagerness to gut environmental laws for its own advantage, but our community doesn’t have to go along.

Experience has shown that it’s simple to restore salt ponds to tidal marsh wetlands — just breach the low earthen dikes and let the Bay water back in. The Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge is proof of this — an entire system of former Cargill salt ponds in the South and East Bay that are now thriving tidal marsh and shallow water habitat. There’s no reason Cargill can’t sell the Redwood City ponds for restoration, just like it did two decades ago with the former salt ponds that now make up the refuge.

It’s time for Cargill to realize that filling in the Bay for development is an irresponsible, destructive idea left over from the 1950s that has resulted in thousands of homes and businesses now at risk from sea level rise. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. Cargill, please join the rest of us in the 21st century — where we don’t build in the Bay.

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