The Hidden Salt Ponds of Chula Vista

The Hidden Salt Ponds of Chula Vista

The second oldest business in San Diego County, the South Bay Salt Works is hidden away on a stretch of San Diego Bay in Chula Vista. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Monday, June 16, 2008 | Among the scattered business buildings, dusty roads and rusting fences near Chula Vista’s shores sits one of the city’s last surviving relics of the Industrial Revolution: a salt factory whose methods for extracting salt from the sea have changed little since the 19th century.

But in the wake of a new initiative to restore the salt ponds, mudflats and wetlands around the South Bay Salt Works factory and a renewed focus on the development of Chula Vista’s bay front, the company’s long-term future has come into question. Now, community organizations and residents are using their imaginations to envision a new face for the 17-acre property, which they say is poised to become an unusual nexus of history, environmentalism and public use, should it transform into an educational visitor’s center.

Situated on the edge of Chula Vista’s bay front, the Salt Works is a faded, time-worn array of rusty conveyer belts and storage barns dating back to the early 1900s. To the company’s north lie chiseled white mountains of salt, reaching heights of 40 feet. The company has been harvesting salt since the 1870s — making it the longest-running business in San Diego aside from The San Diego Union-Tribune, which started in 1868 as the San Diego Union.

As San Diego’s second-oldest commercial business, the company has weathered the test of time as well as the tides of globalization. Countries like China and India have nearly doubled their salt exports since the 1990s, and only one other salt pond system currently exists in California, on a 9,000-acre site in San Francisco.

“It’s the epitome of a landmark,” Save Our Heritage Organization Executive Director Bruce Coons said. “It’s not normal for an industrial property to engender that much affection, but people really like the Salt Works.”

But because its salt ponds will be partially or completely eliminated in the near future, the Salt Works may have to shut down — raising questions about what to do with the factory and the land it sits on. And unlike other contemplated projects in Chula Vista — the Chargers stadium and the Gaylord Entertainment hotel being the most notable — the Salt Works site has the potential to become a verifiable environmental, educational and historical focal point, local groups and residents say.

What actually ends up at the site after the environmental restoration remains to be seen.

Members of the San Diego Electric Railway Association and the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum want to see an electric trolley and historic excursion train running from a National City depot up to the eastern side of the Salt Works site, along a railroad that went defunct in the early 2000s. A bike path called the Bayshore Bikeway also traverses the factory’s eastern side, while the Otay Valley Regional Park is constructing trails which could potentially connect into the parcel.

Coons said that SOHO would like limited salt production to continue for the sake of preserving the Salt Works building, but that SOHO could also settle for a museum and educational center within a still-standing factory. The San Diego National Wildlife Refuge is seeking to connect the Otay Valley Regional Park and the 17-acre site, which they hope will offer parking space for naturalists and visitors.

Such plans, however, currently amount to wishful thinking. Nothing has been decided about the Salt Works’ future because its land is still owned by the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, and could remain that way for an indefinite period of time.

‘Practically Unprecedented’

In 2006, the California Coastal Conservancy published a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for approximately 2,620 acres of land and water owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the south San Diego Bay. Contained within the report is a plan to restore the salt marshes from which the Salt Works derives its product.

The Salt Works harvests salt by flooding its ponds with salt water and moving the waters from one pond to another until enough water has evaporated, leaving behind pure salt, Salt Works Vice President Tracy Strahl said.

With a full-on restoration, tidal waters would naturally flow into the marshes, allowing for fish and other marine life to flourish in areas where they previously could not populate. Birds would have more prey to feed on, and the ecosystem’s overall diversity would be amplified, San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex Project Leader Andrew Yuen said.

The salt ponds, intertidal mudflats and submerged lands of the South Bay span more than 1,000 acres and currently host at least 94 bird species, of which seven are federally listed as endangered or threatened.

By this fall, the San Diego Association of Governments will have finalized a “vision plan” for the Salt Works’ redevelopment, featuring four alternatives ranging from moderate development with park, plaza and playground space to almost no development of the area. The four choices are a product of meetings with over 25 stakeholders and two community forums, Sandag planner Monica Clark said.

But despite all the input that has been solicited, no single plan can be chosen, modified and enacted because the Salt Works’ future relies on a number of contingencies.

First, the site is owned by the airport authority, so the authority would have to want to sell the property. Second, the property would have to be sold or eventually fall into a city agency or the wildlife service. Third, the wildlife service would need to obtain enough funding to fully restore the salt marshes adjacent to the Salt Works.

Because most of the natural environments in the north and central areas of San Diego Bay have been eliminated, the 2,000-plus acres of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex in the southern portion of the bay are the last remaining wetlands for native and migrating birds.

“It’s really a unique area in that here in the second largest city in California, you have an area that is incredibly rich with wildlife,” Yuen said. “The potential to make it more productive for wildlife is practically unprecedented in California.”

Depending on how much funding USFWS obtains and how much restoration it can carry out, the Salt Works could then shut down, function partially or carry on as it does today. A full-on restoration would most likely close down the plant, since reconstituted salt ponds with free-flowing water could no longer facilitate salt harvesting.

Although salt harvesting would no longer be a commercially viable venture after restoration is implemented, a salt-production demonstration arena may still be in the works as part of a museum or visitor’s center, District 1 Supervisor Greg Cox said. Yuen said a small portion of the salt ponds would maintain high salt levels in order to support the birds who feed on brine shrimp found in high-salinity areas.

USFWS is in the process of obtaining funds to kick-off the first phase of restoration, and Yuen said that he is optimistic that over time full funding will be obtained for the expensive multi-million dollar endeavor.

A Symbiotic Relationship

The Salt Works has USFWS’ permission to use the USFWS-owned salt ponds, while the salt factory leases its lands from the airport authority. The salt production process, in turn, assists USFWS by maintaining salinity levels to sustain the birds feeding and nesting in the area.

Although the Salt Works has been sustaining wildlife for decades with its salt-production process, Strahl said the company began to actively support the surrounding habitat in 1999 when USFWS acquired the salt ponds. The Salt Works was ready to close that year, he said, but after realizing that the salt ponds sustained wildlife in the refuge, USFWS asked the Salt Works to stay open.

From then on, Strahl said, the company prioritized ecological maintenance, rather than salt production. While the company’s methods and production capacity changed little after 1999, he said, the shift in priorities was still “a flip flop.”

“Our primary product is refuge creation, our byproduct is salt,” Shtrahl said. “If we didn’t provide the habitat we wouldn’t continue making salt, whereas previously whether we provided habitat was a moot point — it happened to be coincidental that the environment we were creating created a wonderful habitat for the nesting shorebirds.”

Strahl said that as long as the Salt Works provides an ecological benefit for the area, the company will continue to operate. The Salt Works has also taken on a few other responsibilities, he said, such as placing sandy soils on levees which resemble beach sand and appeal to nesting shorebirds, he said.

But for now, the Salt Works factory will stay put. The airport authority currently has no plans to sell the property or change the property’s designation as a salt production factory, Schultz said.

The Salt Works parcel fell into the airport authority’s hands in 2003, when the California legislature enacted the Airport Authority Act to create an agency that would represent the county of San Diego in managing San Diego International Airport. Under the act, the Unified Port of San Diego ceded the Salt Works parcel to the airport authority because the Unified Port of San Diego had purchased the parcel using federal aviation funds in 1998.

“The airport authority is in an odd situation, they have these 17 acres that they got through sort of a fluke,” Cox said. “They don’t have any real long-term interests in the property. I think they’re willing to work with this, and if we can come up with a viable plan and figure out how we can finance the plan.”

Architect Glenn Schmidt, whose firm has been contracted by Sandag to draft the Salt Works’ vision plan, said the vision plan could become a useful tool for the future, should public agencies seek grants to redevelop the area.

“You can almost say [the vision plan] is a promotion piece to say what could happen if this was used for public use,” Schmidt said. “It helps everyone to understand where we have opportunities in the future. Rather than it be condos, wouldn’t it be nicer to have it be a place that the public can enjoy?”

Please contact Lea Yu directly at lea.yu@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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