A federal district court on Monday determined the Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City are covered by federal Clean Water Act protections, adding another barrier to any future effort to develop the site.

The decision by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California overturns a determination made in 2019 by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration, which claimed the salt ponds are not actually “waters of the United States,” but “fast lands” exempt from CWA protections.

“This is an important victory for protecting clean water in our communities. And it’s a good reminder to the Trump administration that it can’t use the San Francisco Bay as its political playground,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement.

Becerra and various environmental advocacy groups last year filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s determination against CWA protections for the salt ponds.

David Lewis, executive director for the nonprofit Save the Bay, described the district court’s decision as “quick and strongly worded.”

“As federal lawsuits go this was a very quick and strong decision,” he said. “The judge said our case was so strong he didn’t need to hold hearings or weigh evidence.”

The EPA under the Trump administration determined the salt ponds are exempt from CWA protections essentially by claiming the water in the ponds is not in fact water, but an industrial by-product, Lewis said. Monday’s ruling is very much at odds with that claim.

“The ponds themselves, however, remain subject to CWA jurisdiction because they are wet (plus they are not uplands). And, they have important connections to the Bay,” the decision reads.

The Trump administration’s determination on the salt ponds was in response to a request by Cargill, which owns the 1,400-acre site, and its developer partner DMB Pacific Ventures.

DMB submitted and then withdrew a proposal to build 12,000 homes on the salt ponds in 2012, but continued to engage the community about future opportunities for the site. That effort was dubbed Reimagine Saltworks.

A representative of DMB said the company disagrees with the district court’s ruling and is reviewing all options moving forward.

“We are disappointed by the district court’s ruling on the saltworks site in Redwood City,” said David Smith, an attorney for DMB. “We disagree with the court’s ruling on critical facts, application of court precedent, and deference to the administrative expertise and authority of the past two administrations to implement their governing regulations.

“We are reviewing all options,” he continued. “Our focus is on working with our neighbors in the Bay Area to consider all future uses of the site while protecting environmental resources.”

Lewis said DMB should give up on its decadeslong effort to develop the site.

“If I were them reading this ruling I’d conclude we won’t be able to build on these salt ponds,” he said.

Lewis said even if DMB secured approval from Redwood City to develop the site, it’d still need federal permits under the CWA to alter the wetlands “which is very difficult to do” and then “it still needs state agency permits which are even harder than the federal ones.”

Lewis wants the salt ponds restored to a tidal marsh and protected in perpetuity.

“Cargill should now give the ponds back to the public to be added to the wildlife refuge and permanently protected and restored to tidal marsh,” he said. “That’s the highest and best use, that’s what’s best for the Bay and for protecting Redwood City from sea level rise.”


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