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Why Are We Still Allowing Coastal Development?

Does new waterside growth makes sense when sea levels are rising? The debate is heating up in the San Francisco Bay area.

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Making salt is a simple process: Water flows through a series of shallow ponds, thickening into increasingly saline brine, until salt solidifies and falls out of solution. Fully-saturated brine moves from "pickle ponds" to crystallizer beds, where it dries and is scraped up by giant harvesting machines. Other ponds hold bittern, a highly saline waste solution colored red by salt-loving bacteria. Cargill's Redwood City tract includes crystallizer beds, pickle ponds, and bittern storage ponds.

"Salt ponds are not land to be paved -- they are part of San Francisco Bay to be restored to tidal marsh for wildlife habitat, natural flood protection for our communities, cleaner water, and recreation areas for everyone to enjoy," argued 92 current and former elected officials in a February letter to the Redwood City council. The San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News have also opposed the project.

Climate change will affect California's Bay Area in many ways, but sea level rise is an urgent concern: Many homes and businesses in the region sit at or below sea level. The BCDC projects that climate change will raise water levels in the bay 16 inches by 2050 and 55 inches through 2100. 

That will put some 270,000 people and $62 billion in economic assets at risk from flooding, including the San Francisco and Oakland airports and major Silicon Valley companies like Google and Intel. Commission maps show that a 16-inch sea level rise will make all of Redwood City east of Highway 101 vulnerable to flooding. 

DMB officials tout the Saltworks as a climate-friendly smart growth project that will provide homes for Silicon Valley workers, thus cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, which generates about half of the Bay area's total emissions. "Right now there's no affordable housing nearby, so everybody moves out to the hinterlands and commutes," said Smith. The region's median home price is $746,800; fewer than 15 percent of homes are affordable for families earning the median income, according to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business coalition.

But building thousands of houses at the water's edge contradicts California's climate change adaptation strategy, published in 2009. It urges agencies to "consider prohibiting projects that would place development in undeveloped areas already containing critical habitat, and those containing opportunities for tidal wetland restoration, habitat mitigation, or buffer zones." The plan supports "activities that can increase natural resiliency, such as restoring tidal wetlands, living shoreline, and related habitats." 

"California aspires to be a national leader on adapting to climate change, and this approach could be a model for other coastal areas," said David Lewis, executive director of Save San Francisco Bay, which opposes the Saltworks. "But it's still just a strategy -- it hasn't been written into regulations yet, so we don't know whether agencies will honor it." 

DMB's "50/50 Balanced Plan" for the Saltworks preserves half the site as open space, including 430 acres of restored wetlands. These marshes and a massive bayside levee are designed to protect houses from flooding. The levee would be wider than a football field in some places, with trails and parklands along its top and more plantings along its sloping sides. Because it's so wide, says Smith, the levee could be raised if necessary without building out into the bay. "It's not a mystery -- it's a matter of engineering, cost, and land," he contended. 

To convert the entire 1,400 acres to salt marsh, Cargill would have to agree to sell its land and someone other than DMB would have to pay for restoring it. (For comparison, a 1,400-acre parcel of former Cargill crystallizer ponds in Napa, north of San Francisco, is being restored now at a projected cost of $134 million.) Save the Bay's Lewis thinks that can happen.