07/15/2010 09:33 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Pave My Bay!

The gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico is a daily reminder of how vulnerable our bays, estuaries and oceans are to devastation from human activities. But the efforts of brave people over decades also prevented man-made destruction that threatened to shrink the West Coast's largest bay to a narrow river.

Now thousands of people are working to restore San Francisco Bay for people and wildlife. So it's shocking that the country's largest private corporation proposes to pave over San Francisco Bay salt ponds where tidal marsh could be restored.

When I was born in 1961, more than one-third of San Francisco Bay had already been filled in for development, or diked off and drained for agriculture and salt-making. At that time, developers could pave the shallow bay without limit or regulation. Nearly every city on the bay had plans to fill in the marshes and mudflats on their shorelines, urged on by big corporations like Standard Oil and Santa Fe Railroad.

Then three Berkeley housewives began an unlikely revolution. They mobilized tens of thousands of residents over the next five years to defeat the powerful land barons and halt further paving of the bay. Their success inspired similar movements from the Chesapeake to Puget Sound, and prompted passage of the Clean Water Act and other landmark legal protections for the nation's environment.

Nearly fifty years later, it's astonishing to see a big corporation again pushing development in San Francisco Bay, over the outcry of the entire region.

Minnesota-based agribusiness giant Cargill has joined with Arizona luxury-home developer DMB Associates to propose a massive development of 12,000 homes, a million square feet of office space, plus schools and playing fields on 1,436 acres of sea level salt ponds in Redwood City, half way between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. These ponds were once thriving wetlands, diked and drained before any legal protections were in place for the shoreline. Cargill announced the end of salt-making here a few years ago, and now wants to make billions of dollars by building a new city in those ponds.

Cargill's project would put 30,000 people in the path of rising sea levels and behind a massive levee on unstable mud in earthquake country, paving over ponds that should be restored to wetland marshes and open space for residents to enjoy.

Scientists say that 100,000 acres of wetlands must be re-established around the Bay to support a healthy, sustainable eco-system. The Redwood City salt ponds have been slated for restoration as part of this goal and could be included in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Just 60 miles north, the state is restoring wetlands on similar ponds Cargill sold in 2003.

In the 1960s, before the modern conservation movement blossomed, corporations believed they had the moral and legal right to fill in the Bay. But that careless disregard for nature has mostly changed, except in the corporate board rooms of Minnesota and Arizona where greed has bred blindness, denial, and developer double-talk.

Cargill and DMB have already spent millions of dollars on television and newspaper ads, laboring to depict this site as an industrial wasteland so toxic that it "is inhospitable to man or beast." They deny that the ponds are part of the bay and legally protected by the federal Clean Water Act. They suggest the project will not create traffic havoc, although the site is not served by public transit. They claim their project is the only way to protect the existing city from sea level rise, but leave levee construction up to future generations. They tout the jobs and consumer spending their project would create, but omit the cost of police and fire service, schools, libraries, wastewater, traffic, levee construction and maintenance.

The shipping industry warns that the development threatens the adjacent Port of Redwood City, the only deepwater port in the South Bay and an economic and jobs engine for the entire region. Because Redwood City doesn't have enough drinking water for thousands of new residents, the developer proposes to import water from the state's parched Central Valley farm region - a plan the state legislature's leading water expert calls irresponsible and unrealistic.

Although they are the ultimate outsiders, Cargill and DMB have infiltrated Redwood City, trying to buy influence with community donations, from sponsoring little league teams to buying the prize-winning turkey at the local 4H club; they have promised that group a farm.

But despite this public relations blitz, the hurdles to project approval are rising, and community opposition is growing. The State of California's new Climate Change Adaptation Strategy singles out restorable shoreline parcels as a place to prohibit new development. Save The Bay's Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the federal government has determined that the site is a protected water body under the Clean Water Act - a direct rejection of Cargill's legal claims and their public relations spin.

And in an unprecedented show of regional unity, more than 140 mayors, city, county, and state elected officials from throughout the area have officially opposed the project and asked Redwood City to reject it. San Francisco and San Jose newspapers both editorialized against the project.

San Francisco Bay is a natural treasure for the nation and the whole world. Bay Area residents long ago woke up and rejected corporations trying to pave the bay we need to restore, but Cargill and DMB still don't get it. That's why thousands of local residents are enlisting friends from all over the country to stand up for San Francisco Bay, and add their voices to the demand that Redwood City reject development on salt ponds, and "just say no" to Cargill and DMB's massive scheme to pave the bay. Learn more and add your voice --