The San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the American continents, and the wetland ecosystem of tidal marshes and related habitat comprises some of the most valuable natural resources in the region. In 2003, twenty-five square miles of these salt marshes were sold by Minneapolis-based Cargill, Inc., the world's largest marketer of salt products, to be restored through the careful stewardship of federal and state agencies. The acquired land totals 16,596 acres—an area roughly the size of Manhattan.
Restoring these salt ponds represents one of the largest projects of its kind in the world, second in the U.S. only to the Everglades restoration effort in Florida. The project was made possible through an unprecedented collaboration of environmental organizations, government agencies, and private foundations. The work to acquire and restore the South Bay salt ponds presented a unique historical opportunity, with the potential to increase the Bay's naturally functioning tidal wetlands by nearly 40%. The restoration project conserves open space, improves water quality, provides critical habitat for endangered species, disperses flood flows, prevents shoreline erosion, recharges groundwater, and creates opportunities for public access and environmental research and education in one of the most urbanized regions in the country.
In April of 2002, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation approved a grant of $6,330,000 over three years for the public acquisition—priced at $100 million total—of the salt-producing land and associated salt-making rights for sale by Cargill. The Foundation assisted in the acquisition together with state and federal agencies, a number of environmental organizations, and the Packard, Hewlett, and Goldman Foundations.
In collaboration with the Hewlett and Packard Foundations, a grant of $180,000 over one year was awarded towards a combined $540,000 advance on the planned $15 million designated for initial stewardship and restoration planning. Having the funding in place directly following the signing of the purchase and phase-out agreements helped to maximize the resource values of the ponds by ensuring that agencies could begin work on tidal restoration and the enhancement of wildlife habitats immediately after acquiring the properties.
The initial stewardship resulted in maintenance and enhancement of existing wildlife values for salt-pond associated species. Special emphasis was placed on reducing salinities to facilitate tidal restoration and maintaining salinities where appropriate for wildlife. Well-executed stewardship helps yield lowered overall costs for long-term restoration.
The California Coastal Conservancy's San Francisco Bay Program, in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Game and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, led a five-year restoration planning effort. This effort helped to ensure that the full benefits of the acquisition would be realized over time—acquisition alone would not bring about functioning wetlands with key wildlife habitat, public use, and environmental educational values.
Restoration planning encouraged the best scientific information and the active participation of key members of the public, for the delivery of a scientifically sound, broadly supported restoration plan.