Since immigrating to the United States from Norway in the 1950s, Hallvard Haugnes spent almost every day of his life moving mud around the South Bay salt ponds –all in an effort to keep the Bay waters out and salt in. Haugnes operated a clamshell dredge for Leslie Salt Company (later bought by Cargill), scooping mud from borrow ditches in the ponds to maintain their levees, and repairing and bolstering culverts, weirs, siphons, and the other infrastructure that made Cargill’s complex pond system possible. Seventy-one and retired now, with windswept salt-and-pepper hair and the husky build of someone who’s made his living outdoors, Haugnes pulls out a well-worn map of the intricate system of ponds and levees he knows like the back of his hand.
Q: It sounds like you may have been out on the salt ponds more than any single person alive. What was it like out there?
HH: On a day like this [a sunny, breezy, cool California day] it was the best job in the world. There was no place I would rather be. When it was blowing and rainy, though, it was the worst job in the world.
Q: How did you happen to work for Cargill?
HH: I came here in 1953 from Norway. I started working for Leslie Salt two days after I got here. My uncle worked for Leslie and got me the job. I worked up at the Napa ponds a lot too. In the early 1970s I became captain of a dredger, which sounds like a high and mighty thing. I called myself a mudslinger, which is a more accurate title.
Q: What was a typical day like?
HH: In the beginning, it was a 24-hour operation, six days a week; we would go out on the Bay for a week at a time. We had a cook aboard and we’d camp out there. The clamshell dredge had a two-man crew to operate it: one in the pilot house, one man on the deck. Later on, we’d just go out for a few days at a time.
Q: Can you tell me more specifics about what each of you did?
HH: I was the lever man. Two levers operated the boom; you had one in your hand all the time, like a steering wheel. Then you had the other lever, to pull up the spuds — those are like legs; they go into the mud; they hold the dredge in place like an anchor. You stand there with those two levers — it’s the same principle as operating a car; you’d better hold on to them, otherwise something might happen. It’s physically demanding — there’s no power steering. After eight hours standing up and working those levers, that’s about all you cared to do.
Q: And what about the other guy?
HH: The deckhand does anything from going ashore and picking up supplies to putting out stakes to show where we had to work, and then doing minor maintenance, scraping rust and painting, things like that.
Q: What changes have you seen on the Bay?
HH: The wildlife has increased—certainly the Canada geese—and you see a lot more pelicans now. The white ones are very gracious birds. I’d watch them come in for a landing like seaplanes. I saw clapper rails sometimes—they look like chickens. They’re very secretive. When the water would go out, they’d crawl under the tules. You could hear them, though. I heard Virginia rails, too, and saw peregrine falcons. Once I saw a salt marsh harvest mouse, clinging to a piece of flotsam. But the biggest change I’ve seen is probably in the water quality. The South Bay was so polluted when I first started working out there that the water was red, and there was no vegetation growing anywhere. It looked like the Red Sea. Mud Slough and Coyote Slough were particularly bad; there was raw sewage being discharged into the Bay and waste from the canneries in the fall. You would see wrecking yards and garbage dumps—smoking, on fire — all over the South Bay. I think the idea people had was “get it away from me, out of my backyard, into the Bay.” That’s changed now.
Q: The levees seem to have become part of the habitat in the salt pond system. What kinds of wildlife did you see on them? Did you have to destroy vegetation in order to maintain them?
HH: Some of the levees—especially the ones between Ponds 9 and 10—were just covered with birds, shorebirds mostly. Pickleweed, grasses, and other plants grew on the sides of the levees, but we wanted it to be there, we didn’t destroy it; the vegetation helps stop erosion.
Q: What other critters did you see on the levees?
HH: Occasionally, I’d see a red fox. Of course, they have a trapping program for them now. Eventually, we started creating islands in the ponds so the birds could get away from them.
Q: You spent so much time keeping the Bay out of the ponds. Now we’re bringing the tides back in. What do you think of this “regime change”?
HH: I think that the salt industry was doomed on the Bay anyway. I could see the extreme cost of maintaining the levees. The South Bay has subsided by six feet. When you have that kind of subsidence, it’s not surprising that you need to raise the levees by a similar amount. Some levees needed maintenance every three to four years, some never. That’s the difference in the ground. Nearer to the foothills, you have some solid ground. Other places, you have 15 to 20 feet of Bay mud or 40 feet of peat soil. The problem is building levees on Bay mud and peat soils; they are both unstable. Some engineer might want to go down to bedrock, but good luck. Who’s going to pay for it?
Some people are too impatient with the restoration process. I think what’s most important is to get [the restoration] on the right track. It’s not important if it’s done this year or not. If it takes 100 years, that’s a lot better than never.