To get some idea of how much San Francisco Bay has changed during the past two centuries, unfold a map and trace the estuary's amoeboid outline as it squeezes through Carquinez Strait into the Delta's confusion of sloughs and marshes. There, 33 miles inland from the Golden Gate but still bathed in tidewater, lie a pair of features named Grizzly Bay and Grizzly Island.

Once common on California's coastal hills and plains, grizzly bears vanished from the Bay Area during the 1800s. The absence of Ursus arctos is by no means the most remarkable difference between the Bay Area of the Gold Rush era and that of today. Filled, diked, drained and paved, the largest estuary on the West Coast has been reduced to half its pre-statehood size. Once a lonely outpost of European empire, San Francisco Bay lies now at the heart of a metropolitan area of 7 million people.

The disappearance of grizzlies is a reminder, though, that not all the changes wrought by human activity are immediately obvious or restricted to the physical landscape. They reach deep into the complex web of life that depends on the bay and its surrounding wetlands, dunes, beaches and grasslands. And it is that biological web that stands to benefit most from a landmark deal announced in late May, through which several public and private entities agreed to pay $100 million to buy 16,500 acres in the South Bay and near Napa from Cargill Salt.

If the sale goes through as planned, the agri-business giant's property — former wetlands that were diked and flooded more than a century ago for commercial salt production — will be protected from urban development and restored as wildlife habitat. In both cost and scale, it will be the biggest wetlands restoration effort ever undertaken on the West Coast. Nationally, only the Everglades restoration — a $7.8 billion project to be carried out over the next 30 to 40 years on 18,000 square miles in Florida — is bigger.

Political leaders and Northern California environmental groups hailed the Cargill deal as a turning point in their long effort to reverse the destruction of San Francisco Bay wetlands, nearly 95% of which have been lost to urban development and agricultural conversion. Gov. Gray Davis, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Interior Secretary Gale Norton all rushed to share credit for brokering the deal. But even Davis and Norton acknowledged that it was Feinstein's involvement that finally made the agreement possible after years of speculation about the fate of Cargill's holdings, most of which lie in a 20-mile-long arc around the bay's southern tip from Redwood City to Hayward.

Although the tentative agreement announced May 29 is significant, ecological restoration experts warn it barely counts as a first step in a long, expensive and difficult process. A host of contractual and liability issues must be resolved before the purchase can be concluded. Even if those negotiations succeed, there will remain the much more complicated matter of planning, funding and carrying out the restoration itself, which could take decades and cost as much as seven times the actual purchase price.

The stage for the May 29 deal was set about three years ago, when Cargill offered to sell to the state and federal governments about 19,000 acres of its San Francisco Bay property. Cargill had acquired the property in 1978 when it purchased Leslie Salt Company. Cargill determined that modernizing its production techniques would allow it consolidate operations near its Newark processing plant and dispose of excess evaporation ponds, which are inefficient to operate and costly to maintain.

The property Cargill initially offered to sell — a combination of land it owns outright and mineral rights to land it sold in 1979 for inclusion in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge — was appraised at about $300 million. That amount was far more than any government agency was willing to pay, so negotiations stalled.

San Francisco officials continued to press acquisition as a way to offset a proposed new San Francisco International Airport runway in the bay. (See CP&DR, February 2001, September 2000 and January 1999.) San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and other local officials persuaded the Legislature to budget $25 million for salt pond purchases in 2000, but local officials eventually dropped their effort to link airport expansion and salt pond acquisition.

Discussions resumed in January after Feinstein persuaded several private foundations to join state and federal agencies in fashioning a deal acceptable to Cargill. The preliminary agreement reflects a reduction in the acreage from the offer three years ago and, as a consequence, a drop in the overall value of the deal, now down to $240 million. Cargill agreed to accept $100 million for 16,500 acres, and will take a tax deduction for the difference.

Most of the property is already within or will be added to the Edwards wildlife refuge, although about 1,400 acres lie along the Napa River north of San Pablo Bay. Cargill also agreed to negotiate the future donation of mineral rights to another 8,000 acres inside the wildlife refuge, where salt production will continue for now.

Of the total purchase price, $53 million is due at the closing of the sale, which is scheduled for December 16. The money will come from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund ($8 million), the state ($25 million, budgeted two years ago), the Hewlett, Moore and Packard foundations ($6.33 million each) and the Goldman Fund ($1 million).

The remaining $47 million will be payable to Cargill once the salt ponds have been cleaned up enough to meet Regional Water Quality Control Board discharge standards. The source of that money, however, is unclear. Under the agreement announced May 29, the state promised to provide the money. But no additional state funds have been budgeted, and the state faces a projected budget deficit of $23.6 billion. In June, the Legislature formed a committee of six Bay Area lawmakers to scrutinize the deal.

The agreement calls for another $35 million to be spent over the next five years to plan and begin carrying out the ecological restoration. The Hewlett, Moore and Packard foundations have agreed to contribute $5 million each toward that expenditure, and the state and federal governments will split the remaining $20 million cost. Again, no funds have been budgeted for the government share.

Other hurdles also remain. Before the sale closes in December, the state and federal agencies must negotiate with Cargill a purchase agreement and a phase-out agreement, the deadline for which is September 16. Those agreements will specify how the salt-contaminated ponds will be cleaned up, who is responsible to perform the clean up, and how permits must be obtained. The agreements are also supposed to specify who is responsible for maintaining the vast system of levees that prevents the bay from rushing into the ponds and, ultimately, flooding San Jose and other urban areas below the high-tide level.

Once all those hurdles have been leaped, there remains the much more complicated matter of how the ponds will be restored — what types of habitat (mudflat, marsh, open water), they should become, and how quickly. Those decisions are crucial, because they will determine how much the project ultimately will cost.

Projections vary. In a report issued in April, the environmental group Save the Bay estimated it would cost between $148 million and $228 million (exclusive of acquisition costs) over the next 20 years to turn the Cargill salt works into a mosaic of tidal wetlands and shallow ponds, while raising and reinforcing key levees to protect low-lying urban areas from flooding.

A more detailed feasibility analysis, issued in May by Wetlands and Water Resources, a private engineering firm in San Rafael, places the total restoration cost at between $264 million and $523 million if the ponds are allowed to silt in and become marsh through natural processes. If dredged fill is used, the estimate ranges up to $720 million.

Despite the challenges remaining, many of those involved in the long effort to preserve some of the last unprotected but restorable wildlife habitat along the bay are optimistic, although clearly aware that the process will take a long time. "We're working to restore the whole thing," said Dev Novack, public affairs director for the Audubon Society's San Francisco Bay Restoration Program. "This is just the first step."


Lori Johnson, Cargill Salt, (510) 790-8157.
Marge Kolar, Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, (510) 792-0222.
David Lewis, Save the Bay, (510) 452-9261.
Dev Novack, Audubon Soceity, (415) 947-0331.