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Inside the Salt Ponds of San Francisco

San Francisco Salt Ponds
You’ve never seen such vivid colors occur in nature. And now, after more than 40 years, the salt ponds of San Francisco Bay are disappearing. We reveal a bird’s-eye view of these stained-glass expanses.

“A Diebenkorn with a drawbridge, a Thiebaud with a transmission tower, a Pollock with a power line.” That’s how Robert Campbell describes the place where land meets water at the edge of San Francisco’s South Bay. To this 72-year-old photographer, the swathes of gold, lime green, hot pink, and fiery red remind him of abstract paintings by modern masters. These are the Salt Ponds of San Francisco, a natural wonder that remains a mystery even to many Bay Area natives – because you can’t get the full effect unless you’re a thousand feet in the air.

But over the last decade, the bright shades have been slowly fading back to a natural blue. “As time goes on, people flying in and out will see a lot more browns and dark greens and not so much red and orange,” says John Bourgeois, executive manager for the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. While bittersweet for someone like Campbell, a Forestville local who has been capturing the salt ponds from above in his personal plane for the last 40 years, the disappearance of San Francisco’s salt ponds is actually not a bad thing. Originally part of Cargill Salt, the company that first started building its salt empire here in San Francisco in 1968, the salt ponds are purposely being returned to their original state as wetlands.

Salt Pond. San Francisco Bay
© Robert Campbell Photography | The final stage of a working evaporation pond: a glistening white bed of salt crystals ready for harvest.

Why Did These Colors Occur in the First Place?

It’s a natural result of Cargill’s salt production process. Here’s how it works: Seawater from the surrounding bay is pumped into a series of shallow ponds, becoming increasingly salinized as evaporation increases the salt-to-water ratio. After a five-year journey, the salt is finally harvested. Each pond along the way has a different salt level, creating a variety of habitats that each support different micro-organisms that are responsible for the colors, from the Dunaliella algae that turn the water a vibrant shade of green early in the process all the way to the creatures that thrive in the saltiest ponds, like the brine shrimp that produce bright oranges and yellows and the Halobacteria that create a deep magenta.

Why Are They Disappearing?

With advances in computer technology and weather prediction, Cargill gradually streamlined its production, allowing it to glean the same amount of salt from fewer acres. In 1994, the company let go of more than 10,000 acres, which became the Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area. In 2003, Cargill transferred another 16,000 acres to state and federal wildlife agencies, aided by donations from four private foundations and its own donation of $100 million in land value.
This acquisition launched the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, the largest wetland restoration project on the West Coast. “We’re reversing the process – slowly bringing down the salinity in the ponds and eventually restoring them back to tidal wetlands,” says Bourgeois. “We’re taking down the levees and letting nature do the work of bringing in sediment and new vegetation.” Since the project launched, he says, the number of birds that use the ponds has doubled, there has been a dramatic increase in the fish population, local water quality has improved, and two endangered species – the salt marsh harvest mouse and the Ridgway’s rail (a chicken-sized bird) – have returned.

Salt Ponds, San Francisco Bay
© Robert Campbell Photography | The bright palette in this now-closed Redwood City salt marsh is slowly shifting back toward a natural mottled vegetal green.

How You Can See Them before They’re Gone

As with most things, change brings both gains and losses; which side the scale tips toward depends on who you ask. And even those firmly planted in one camp recognize the value of what’s slipping away. Though he’s working toward the disappearance of much of the glowing stained-glass expanses, “I think they’re beautiful,” Bourgeois says. “This is one of the most unique ecosystems you can view from an aerial perspective.” To take in the patchwork yourself during a San Francisco stay, select from one of these unique tours:
Design your own route that focuses on the Salt Ponds, or expand the tour to include local landmarks, including the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Angel Island. You can also arrange a customized “photo flight” for picture taking with more flexible hours and distances.
You and up to five friends can drop down closer to the ground (500 feet minimum) for a more-detailed view of the salt ponds – and an hour will still give you time to swing by Fisherman’s Wharf and get a nice view of the San Francisco skyline.
Borrow a pair of binoculars at the Visitor Center, and explore the ponds on 30-plus miles of hiking trails. From an elevated point on the popular Tidelands Trail, which is about a mile and a half long, you can see some of the active salt ponds, as well as a mound of harvested salt in the distance. The colors will be less visible from the ground, but keep an eye out instead for some of the 280 species of birds that call the bay their home.

Salt Pond, San Francisco Bay
© Robert Campbell Photography | The white wavy features in this orange-colored pond in Newark are salt deposits that crystallized along the water’s edge.

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