San Diego Union Tribune: Restored marshes key to coming Mission Bay changes

“City, environmentalists aim to turn back the clock”

By David Garrick, published on 2/13/16 by the San Diego Union Tribune

— San Diego’s iconic Mission Bay Park is on the verge of a partial transformation that aims to enhance its recreational appeal while also helping fight climate change, sea level rise and water pollution.

Two recently launched planning efforts are studying how to turn back the clock several decades to when much of Mission Bay was a giant saltwater marsh instead of an aggressively dredged haven for sailboats and water skiers.

Most of the park will remain just as it is today, but environmentalists, city officials and community leaders are analyzing and haggling over how to restore as many as 170 acres of marshland in the park’s northeast corner near Pacific Beach.

Marshland filters carbon dioxide from the air, boosts the quality of water that passes through, and can act as a sponge to mitigate rising sea levels expected as ongoing climate change accelerates.


SAN DIEGO CA.-Feb 11, 2016:  Upcoming closures of the De Anza trailer park and Campland on the Bay are expected to allow significant expansion of Mission bay's scarce marshland.   JOHN GIBBINS / San Diego Union-Tribune)

SAN DIEGO CA.-Feb 11, 2016: Upcoming closures of the De Anza trailer park and Campland on the Bay are expected to allow significant expansion of Mission bay’s scarce marshland. JOHN GIBBINS / San Diego Union-Tribune) San Diego Union-Tribune



Marshes, sometimes called wetlands, are also crucial to the survival of many migratory birds that connect marine life with land-based animals and plants.

The new planning efforts, one led by the San Diego Audubon Society and another led by the city, were prompted by two newly available properties in crucial locations for marsh restoration: the 76-acre De Anza Cove Mobile Home Park and the 50-acre Campland on the Bay RV Resort.


The two properties are both near the path that environmental experts say La Jolla’s Rose Creek should take to connect with the bay’s 40 acres of remaining wetlands, a fenced-off area near Crown Point Drive known as the Kendall Frost Marsh.

During the bay’s environmental heyday before mass dredging from 1850 until just after World War II, its biologically rich marshes were sustained by water and sediment from Rose Creek and the San Diego River.

The creek now flows into the bay near Mission Bay High School instead of the remaining marsh, and the river has been channelized to avoid the bay completely.

“They transformed what they thought was a useless swamp into Mission Bay Park,” said Rebecca Schwartz, conservation program manager for the local Audubon Society chapter. “People didn’t really understand the importance of wetlands and ecosystems, and now we have this really broken system.”

While no firm decisions have been made, most of those participating in the local planning efforts say they expect Rose Creek to be connected to the Kendall Frost Marsh through the Campland site, which may be completely restored to marshland.

The De Anza site is farther east and not as ideally located for marshland, so many expect only a portion of it to be restored.

The size and location of that portion are expected to be key decisions along the way, because many community leaders want to see the bulk of De Anza become an iconic recreation destination with aquatics activity areas, sports fields, tented camping and other amenities.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-plan a piece of property as gorgeous as that is and as important as that is,” said attorney Paul Robinson, chairman of a city committee that began gathering public input in December.

The De Anza property’s availability is the result of recent legal settlements that will lead to the closure of the site’s 500-slip mobile home park this fall after many years of litigation.

For its planning process, the city has added the 18-hole Mission Bay executive golf course and some other nearby land to the 76-acre mobile home park to create a 120-acre study area.

Meanwhile, the Audubon Society is studying a larger area that also includes the Kendall Frost marsh and the Campland RV park, which has a lease due to expire in November 2017.

City officials say they might grant Campland a short lease extension while restoration plans are firmed up, but nothing long enough to interfere.

The Audubon Society’s effort, called ReWild Mission Bay, is expected to conclude first and help guide the city’s effort, which won’t be complete until 2018 at the earliest.

Schwartz said her group plans to release multiple wetlands restoration scenarios in June and then, after public input, narrow them down to three specific options in October.

“The city is mandated to consider wetlands restoration as part of their process,” said Schwartz, referring to the Mission Bay Park Master Plan’s guidelines for De Anza. “We’re helping them answer the question of how they can do wetlands restoration there. It’s a technical question.”

Robin Shifflet, a city planner, said the two separate-but-related planning efforts seem likely to work well together.

“We should be able to use the information they come up with to make informed decisions on the ultimate plan for De Anza,” Shifflet said. “Through their study we may find out we have to do more or less. We’re going to learn more about what’s really needed.”

Many officials and community leaders are particpating in both efforts to help them stay compatible.

Brian Curry, chairman of the Pacific Beach Planning Group, said he’s confident the separate efforts by Audubon and the city will lead to positive results.

But he said the future of the bay and a new trolley line under construction just east of Pacific Beach near Rose Creek have divided people’s attention with so many public meetings.

“It’s quite exciting but there’s a lot of moving parts,” he said. “We frankly would have preferred joint workshops because the public gets workshop burnout.”

Schwartz said the ReWild proposals won’t just be where to locate wetlands, but how they can be recreated in ways that make them user-friendly recreation areas unlike the fenced off Kendall Frost property.

“Right now the marsh exists behind a chain-link fence and a lot of people in Pacific Beach don’t know they have a wetland in their own back yard,” said Schwartz, explaining that the small size of the remaining marsh makes it risky to allow people in. “By expanding it, we can put in things like boardwalks, overlooks, a nature center and even have activities like kayaking.”

Public use of Mission Bay’s marshland may also increase awareness of its importance and greater support for maintaining and expanding it, she said.

“It’s a biodiversity hotspot,” said Schwartz, adding that nine endangered or sensitive species of bird use the Kendall Frost marsh. “It’s a key stopping point on the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migrational route from Alaska down to the tip of South America.”

Birds play a key role in the survival of many other parts of the ecosystem, she said.

Marshes do a lot more than support birds.

“Wetlands, on an acre-per-acre basis, draw down more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than a rainforest,” she said. “They also provide a really great buffer to sea level rise by acting as a sponge that cushions the blow.”

Details on the two planning efforts can be found at and (619) 269-8906 @UTDavidGarrick