By Shani Kleinhaus and Dashiell Leeds
As always, the SCVAS Environmental Advocate has been working on many issues throughout Santa Clara County. For this Conservation Corner, we chose to highlight a planning effort from Palo Alto.
Palo Alto Baylands: Should derelict infrastructure continue to blight wetlands?
Palo Alto Baylands Option 4
In 1921, the Federal Telegraph Company leased approximately 200 acres of saltmarsh in Palo Alto to build a radiotelegraph transmitting station and support ship-to-shore communications. The station was located in the marshlands because transmission bounced off the high water table and wetlands, so the wetlands were an ideal location for this function. The station was eventually sold to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), who operated it to transmit overseas cables, telephone calls, and other communications. Technology and the advent of satellite transmission later rendered the ITT facilities obsolete.
Over the years, most of the land was acquired by the City of Palo Alto to become an integral part of the Baylands and Emily Renzel Wetlands. However, 35.6 acres remained in control of ITT. Meanwhile, hydrological integrity was impaired, the marshlands were degraded and partially dried out, and the infrastructure fell to disrepair. In 2017, the City of Palo Alto purchased the remaining acres, and promptly dedicated the property to parkland.
Now, Palo Alto is considering the future of the 35.6 acres of the former ITT property. Our Advocate and several SCVAS members - including the honorable Emily Renzel herself – have been participating in the planning process. Central to our interest is the obsolete ITT infrastructure that is still present on the land. There is a very large sealed building and a field of 22 antennae. The building is unattractive, and it would cost millions to make it useful. Access and parking would negatively impact wildlife. The antenna field is a collision hazard to birds. The tall poles and buildings also provide raptors with perches to hunt the endangered animals of the wetlands. We are also concerned with the damage to the hydrological integrity of the site; tidal flow through the marshlands is in dire need of restoration.
Palo Alto is considering several options for the future of the property and the infrastructure in the wetlands. We support a variation of the option named “Return to Nature” (see Option 4 photo) in which the ITT building and all of the antennae are removed in an effort to return the wetland habitat to its natural state and to provide a contiguous area large enough to restore a functional marshland habitat. We also advocate for limiting human access to the outside perimeter of the site in order to regenerate a robust ecosystem and to protect it from fragmentation and disturbance. And naturally, we support restoring hydrological integrity to the marshlands.
Palo Alto Baylands Option 3
However, there are other options being considered that could harm the wetlands habitat. An option called “ITT Park” (see Option 3 photo) would keep the ITT building intact for historical value, even though it is the wetlands that are most historical. Pedestrian access would be encouraged and new trails would be built, bringing disturbance across the heart of the wetlands. The freshwater effluent treatment pond would have its footprint expanded, reducing the total area of the saltmarshes. Two antennae would be left standing. History buffs support keeping the infrastructure and activating the buildings. SCVAS and other nature-oriented stakeholders oppose this option because the buildings, new trails, and increased human activity will further disturb the habitat and prevent full restoration of the site for the benefit of birds and wildlife.
Fortunately, Palo Alto is still early on in its planning process and there is still time to get involved! The City plans to hold two community/stakeholder meetings (dates TBD). The draft action plan will be completed this month, and the final plan in December. Palo Alto residents can help us advocate to restore the wetlands that reflected the radio waves, not the building where the radar sat! Please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will keep you posted on opportunities to help advocate for the marshes!