“Back to the wild on Mission Bay”
By Deborah Sullivan Brennan, published on 3/11/16 by the San Diego Union Tribune
More than a century and a half ago, Mission Bay began its transformation from a wilderness of wetlands to the man-made recreation complex we know today.
Rebecca Schwartz is working to coax a corner of the bay back to its original state, by restoring natural habitat around Kendall Frost Marsh and connecting the marsh to nearby Rose Creek.
Schwartz, a coastal conservation ecologist who serves as conservation program manager at the San Diego Audubon Society, grew up with an interest in the outdoors, spending weekends in the water and summers on Catalina Island. She earned an undergraduate degree in ecology, behavior and evolution at UC San Diego and a master’s in marine science from the University of San Diego, before going to work for San Diego Audubon.
The wetland restoration project would improve water quality on Mission Bay, open new recreation opportunities and offer a haven to shorebirds, said Schwartz, 29, of Normal Heights. She sees it as part of a never-ending effort to conserve California’s coastline.
“As long as we continue working hard to protect, restore and appreciate our coastline, we can have even more beautiful waves and cliffs, birds and marsh, hiking trails and expansive vistas than we do today,” she said.
Q: How did you become interested in conservation?
A: The environment has always been a huge part of my life. I planted trees with TreePeople as a toddler (although I’m not sure how helpful I was) and I was in a mask and snorkel while still wearing floaties. Growing up in Southern California, I was almost always outside, but it was the summers I spent working at the Catalina Island Marine Institute that made me realize how important environmental connections are.
Q: Please tell us about your project to restore wetlands on Mission Bay.
A: ReWild Mission Bay is an effort of San Diego Audubon and our partners to protect and restore up to 170 acres of wetland habitat in the northeast corner of Mission Bay. We’re focusing on enhancing the existing Kendall Frost Marsh and restoring habitat at the mouth of Rose Creek to expand opportunities for wildlife to thrive and for San Diegans to enjoy nature in their own backyard.
Q: How has development since the 1850s changed the nature of that bay?
A: For the majority of the bay’s existence, it wasn’t really a bay at all. It was a 4,000-acre estuary complex at the mouth of the meandering San Diego River. As the city grew, they needed to simplify the course of the San Diego River, and in about 1850, the Army Corps of Engineers installed a dike separating the river from San Diego Bay, forcing it to flow exclusively into Mission Bay. That started about 150 years of large-scale alteration, including the complete channelization of the San Diego River mouth and Rose Creek, which is now the largest source of freshwater to Mission Bay. During the post-WWII boom years, the city of San Diego transformed what they saw as useless swamp into Mission Bay Park, with the expansive marshes dredged to form the islands and peninsulas we see today.
Q: What species will benefit from restoration of Mission Bay’s marshes?
A: At the risk of sounding cheesy, humans! Salt marshes provide tremendous ecosystem services to local communities. They sequester carbon more efficiently than rainforests. They act like a sponge during high tides and storm events, which is important in protecting adjacent development from the effects of sea level rise. They act like nature’s kidneys, filtering out pollutants from the watershed before they reach the bay. And given this project’s location in the middle of the city, it gives San Diegans an opportunity to engage with nature in an urban setting. We’ll also help the endangered and threatened birds that call Mission Bay home or use it as a stop on the Pacific Flyway, such as the light-footed Ridgway’s rail, California least tern, and Belding’s savannah sparrow, and expand habitat for juvenile fishes, such as the California halibut, a local favorite.
Q: How will it affect recreation on Mission Bay?
A: Right now, the small, fragile marsh exists behind a chain link fence. There are people who live in Pacific Beach who don’t even know that they have a wetland in their own backyard. By expanding the area, we can have space for things like boardwalks, overlooks, or a nature center. We could possibly have kayaking or stand up paddle boarding in the restored marsh. The project would give San Diegans a really amazing recreational asset in this northeast corner of Mission Bay that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
Q: What’s the best advice you ever received?
A: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I mean, they’re wrong; you’ll still work. And often times you’ll work even harder because you love it. But at the end of a long day, you know it was worth it. I’m privileged to do this work, and I’m grateful every day that I get to call this my job.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I actually come from a family of writers and Hollywood/entertainment types. My grandfather created “Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island” — both shows he saw as microcosms for how people from different backgrounds can come together and get along. Most of my family is still in the industry and I’m sort of the crunchy environmentalist of the group.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: If I’m not working at one of our community habitat restoration events, I’d say a Saturday morning trip to the Grape Street dog park with my fiancé, who drives search and rescue boats with U.S. Coast Guard, and our pups, followed by a stop at one of the North Park breweries and then making dinner with friends. Oh! And planning a wedding. We’re getting married in June on Catalina Island.