Turning Back the Clock in San Francisco Bay

Restoration of a Wetlands Ecosystem

Despite their regular appearance in the news, grantmaking foundations remain something of a mystery to most people, surveys show. Recently the Hewlett Foundation newsletter took a look at some of the many forms foundation work can take. Here’s one. To see the others, click here.

The health of the environment was a concern of William Hewlett and his wife, Flora, long before they created the Foundation. So when the opportunity arose in 2003 to restore vast swaths of San Francisco Bay to its pristine state, it was natural that the Foundation would be only too happy to help.

The result is the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, the largest tidal wetlands restoration on the West Coast and an unusual example of public and private cooperation. When its work is complete, the project will have restored 15,100 acres of industrial salt ponds at three locations to a rich mosaic of tidal wetlands and other habitats.

The Hewlett Foundation’s $12 million contribution to this work was part of a total $35 million contribution by four California foundations that joined to make the project possible. The other partners are the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. The restoration also is an example of the Foundation seizing an opportunity when it arises, even if it lies outside the strategies of grantmaking programs.

The San Francisco Bay has lost fully 85 percent of its historic wetlands to development, a loss that has caused a dramatic decline in marsh-dependent fish and wildlife, a drop in water quality, and a higher risk of flooding in surrounding lands.

The goals of the project, which will take decades to complete, are to restore and enhance a mix of wetland habitats, provide public access to wildlife and recreation, and improve flood management in the South Bay.

The project was launched in 2003 when, with the help of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the South Bay Salt Ponds were purchased from Cargill, Inc. Funds for the purchase were provided by federal and state resource agencies and the four private foundations. The 15,100-acre purchase was the largest single acquisition in a larger campaign to restore 40,000 acres of lost tidal wetlands to San Francisco Bay.

Shortly after the property was purchased, the California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Coastal Conservancy launched a four-year public process to design a plan to restore it. Its first levees were breached in 2006, reconnecting some 800 acres of salt ponds to the Bay. Work on all three sites is expected to be completed in 2037.

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