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2 Huge Wetlands Projects Advance

Science, engineering are put to the test in the Bolsa Chica and San Francisco Bay restoration efforts.

October 28, 2002|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Biologists are embarking on massive efforts to reclaim a pair of California wetlands -- campaigns that will take decades to unfold and push the limits of science and engineering.

The projects -- to restore oil fields in Orange County and salt ponds in South San Francisco Bay to their natural, estuarine states -- are the biggest, most expensive such wetland projects in the Western United States. Both are nearing major milestones.

In Northern California, officials are weeks away from signing a $135-million agreement to buy and begin restoring roughly 26 square miles of Cargill Inc. salt ponds along the south bay. In Southern California, experts working on the $100-million Bolsa Chica restoration are nearing agreement with an oil company over removing toxins and selling oil rights.

These steps are just the beginning. Given the evolving science of wetlands restoration and other challenges ahead, biologists say they may not even see the fruits of their efforts in their lifetimes.

"It's so hard for man to create nature," said Marge Kolar, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge that will expand to include restored ponds. "There's no instant gratification."

The restoration efforts are among hundreds being undertaken throughout the state. Most are at least partly experiments. It's often impossible to know precisely how a site looked and functioned before it was disturbed. Scientists also must reckon with existing pollution and plan for potential effects of future land uses in surrounding areas.

Decades ago, wetlands were called "swamps." Railroads and power lines were built over them. They were dammed, diked, filled or paved to make way for new development. As preservation efforts gained steam in the 1970s, the passage of the federal Clean Water Act and the California Coastal Act stemmed the destruction -- but not before nearly all coastal marshes had been eliminated or severely degraded.

"We have an absolutely horrible history of destroying wetlands in California, especially Southern California," said Jack Fancher, a federal biologist overseeing Bolsa Chica's restoration. "The massive, large-scale destruction of wetlands pretty much stopped with the enactment of those two laws."

Economic Benefits

Now, wetlands are viewed as vital filters of urban runoff, way stations for migrating birds and habitat for endangered species. They generate economic benefits by restocking commercial fisheries. And communities get recreation spots for nature lovers, hikers and birders.

"We're at one of those historic moments when people's thinking has evolved to the point that we recognize that not only are wetlands valuable for shorebirds or for what they do for coastal water quality, but if you can really restore functioning wetlands, you can achieve a whole range of different ... goals," said Mary Nichols, Gov. Gray Davis' resources secretary.

At Cargill, salt production dating to the Gold Rush has left some patches 10 times saltier than the ocean. Sea water is moved through a series of diked ponds that are colored red, orange and other bright hues by microscopic bacteria. As water evaporates, the remaining brine becomes saltier. The process results in sunken fields so encrusted with salt they appear covered in thick sheets of ice.

Under an agreement announced in May, Cargill will be paid $100 million for 16,596 acres and get a federal tax write-off of $143 million. The company also would give up salt-making rights on another 9,000 acres. The purchase, to be completed by Dec. 15, would be funded by $72 million in state bond money, $8 million from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and $20 million from four Bay Area nonprofit groups.

The private foundations and the state and federal governments also will provide $35 million to draft a plan and care for the wetlands until restoration can begin.

The planning itself is expected to take five years. Once scientists agree on the types of habitat to be created, levees will be breached and briny water released into the bay carefully so as not to overwhelm fragile ecosystems with too much salt. The levees have long protected South San Francisco Bay cities from storm flooding, so any changes also must ensure the safety of those cities. That could mean building new levees closer to populated areas.

All that work across Cargill's roughly 26 square miles could cost as much as $1 billion and take decades to complete.

"It takes time for all the vegetation to return and for all the invertebrates to get back in and to make it a real functioning wetland," Kolar said. "I would hope that in my lifetime, the initial construction would be started and some wetlands would be vegetated and others would be in the process of being restored."

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