KPBS Evening Edition: San Diego’s Mission Bay May Get A Naturalizing Facelift

By Erik Anderson

Video and photography by Nicholas Mcvicker

Aired 9/9/15 on KPBS News.

 

San Diego’s Mission Bay will get back a piece of its past if the effort to restore wetlands near Rose Creek happens.

The northern rim of San Diego’s Mission Bay could be in for a major facelift.

The Audubon Society is pushing to greatly expand the wetlands near Rose Creek in an effort to bring back habitat that used to dominate the area.

Rebecca Schwartz, a program manager at the nonprofit, recently stood on a small overlook on the north rim of Mission Bay and pointed out at the small sliver of existing marsh.

“Right now it’s low tide, so we can see a lot of the salt marsh. At high tides this area would be inundated, probably almost up to this fence line,” Schwartz said.

Rebecca Schwartz of the Audubon Society talks about the future of the Kendall Frost Marsh, July 10, 2015.
Rebecca Schwartz of the Audubon Society talks about the future of the Kendall Frost Marsh, July 10, 2015.

The long legs and beaks of herons and egrets allow them to gracefully navigate and feed on the muddy land.

“We have some tidal channels come in so what looks like these little creeks running through here, that’s where the bay water can actually come up and enter the marsh,” Schwartz said.

That tidal exchange alternately floods and drains the area, letting the marsh filter impurities out of the water, much like a kidney does for the human body.

Restoration

California has lost 90 percent of its historic wetlands. But there are ongoing efforts to reclaim patches of the habitat all along the state’s coast. The Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project is a key force pushing for wetlands recovery.

This protected and managed 40-acre wetland is all that’s left of about 4,000 acres of marshy habitat that used to be Mission Bay.

The bay became a recreational playground thanks to dredging in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

But without healthy wetlands, the bay’s water doesn’t get the benefit of a natural filter.

“This area of Mission Bay, we have closures sometimes,” Schwartz said. “There’s a lot of water quality issues in Mission Bay and providing that functional benefit for water quality and water purification that wetlands provide would be a huge resource to the bay.”

Schwartz wants to see the wetlands get bigger so she’s working on an effort called re-wild Mission Bay.

The idea is to nearly quadruple the size of the marsh.

“People love the natural resources of Mission Bay. People come here specifically to enjoy that,” Schwartz said. “As soon as they hear about this project they get excited. Because it’s an opportunity to have more engagement with this resource that’s right in their backyard.”

It could end up being a massive undertaking. That’s because this island of wetland habitat is surrounded by development and the marsh requires human intervention to survive, according to Jeff Crooks, a research biologist who works at the Tijuana River estuary.

“Historically, this would have been a big expansive marsh, wetland. And now we have the little fragment that is the Kendall Marsh northern wildlife preserve,” he said.

A sandy berm that keeps Mission Bay from flooding the Kendall Frost Marsh, July 10, 2015.
A sandy berm that keeps Mission Bay from flooding the Kendall Frost Marsh, July 10, 2015.
Manufactured sand berms at the southern edge of the marsh keep bay water from flooding the area. The berms are needed because the marsh is starving for sediment that used to come from Rose Creek.”They need some sediment, too. That’s part of how marshes function. They take sediment coming down the watershed and they trap it. And with things like sea level rise what will happen is the marsh will accumulate sediment and grow in place,” Crooks said.

But Rose Creek bypasses the marsh. The straight channel currently enters the bay between Campland and De Anza Cove. Leases for both facilities are expiring soon and that land could become part of a wetland restoration project.

Rose Creek empties into the northern edge of Mission Bay, July 10, 2015.
Rose Creek empties into the northern edge of Mission Bay, July 10, 2015.

Restoring Rose Creek, however, requires some extensive engineering work. But if it is done, it could change the dynamics of the region.

“I think we can reconnect habitats, and we can reconnect people with nature. And that’s an important part of this as well. We don’t want to just block this place off,” Crooks said.

The Audubon Society’s Jim Peugh holds high hopes for the project. He recently stood on the edge of Crown Point beach and peeked over a short fence.

“It’s such an invigorating thing to watch,” Peugh said.

He sees an island of ecological diversity.

“The mud is just alive with little things, so there’s a huge food chain that develops. And the part that we see the most is the birds and the crabs and things,” Peugh said.

A bigger marsh means a bigger way station for birds navigating the Pacific flyway. Peugh calls this project a rare opportunity to restore habitat that’s been disappearing in this region for decades.

The California Coastal Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are paying for the nearly $500,000 study to explore restoration options, and 18 state and federal agencies are offering support.

The Audubon Society’s Schwartz said many of those groups have offered to help with funding once the planning is done in two years. That’s important because the sweeping restoration effort could cost tens of millions of dollars, Schwartz said.