The Case for a Corner of Mission Bay to Be “Wild”

This piece originally appeared in the O.B. Rag.

By John Riedel

For centuries, Mission Bay was utilized by the bird populations of Southern California and along the Pacific Flyway as habitat, and by our region’s indigenous Kumeyaay communities for survival. But a great deal has changed in the bay since the arrival of Europeans, particularly in the last several decades.

The post-war 1940s and 1950s brought dredging and a wholesale, man-made redesign and reimagination of Mission Bay as a water park for the region’s swelling population. At the time it was considered progressive, popular policy to provide a manicured place for residents to play and recreate along the bayfront.

But as development and reconfiguration of the bay advanced unimpeded, it devastated a carefully balanced natural dynamic, wiping out wildlife and green infrastructure to the extent that less than five percent of the bay’s original wetlands survive to this day, now found in Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve near Crown Point. It’s a startling percentage of loss.

In 1994, the Mission Bay Park Master Plan called for the restoration of at least 80 acres of wetlands in northeast Mission Bay to complement the existing 40 acres of surviving, original wetlands at Kendall-Frost. Sea level rise data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts an increase of 5.5 feet by 2100 in this area of the bay. To reach the 120 acres of mandated wetland conservation, models show that more than 200 acres of wetland and associated habitat would need to be conserved and restored today – at this moment. The good news is the ReWild Mission Bay “Wildest” wetland restoration proposal is capable of meeting this standard.

The wetlands in Mission Bay are shoreline dependent, meaning they can’t be relocated inland like other infrastructure competing for real estate in Mission Bay. Wetlands provide foraging habitat for native species like herons and egrets, and nursery conditions for crab and halibut. Mission Bay wetlands are especially critical to the survival of the endangered Ridgway’s Rail, a marsh bird near extinction that lives in Mission Bay and depends on protected tidal wetlands to nest.

When considering the Wildest proposal, it’s important to note that ReWild Mission Bay is not proposing the elimination of camping, biking, golfing, or other recreational activities. But because these activities are not shoreline dependent, it means they can exist elsewhere in Mission Bay that’s not at the expense of wetland habitat.

In fact, the Wildest plan creates considerable opportunities for conservation and recreation. Along with the bird watching many residents and tourists already enjoy at Mission Bay, boardwalks and paddle board opportunities to explore newly-restored, growing marshlands could also be a hallmark of an accessible wetland, and are recreational opportunities that don’t currently exist in Mission Bay.

That’s why the ReWild Coalition of more than 40 community organizations supporting the Wildest plan includes local businesses that rely on tourism and outdoor recreation. And the additional benefits from the expanded recreation opportunities of the Wildest plan come in the form of cleaner water, carbon sequestration, improved habitat, greater bayfront access, and a robust buffer to sea level rise that will help protect our neighborhoods and city infrastructure.

As city planners look to revitalize the northeast corner of Mission Bay, a grand opportunity presents itself to pursue benefits our community will enjoy many decades into the future. Decades from now, San Diegans will recognize that we planned, with foresight, with their lives and families in mind. Mission Bay brings so much joy to San Diegans with all the outdoor activities afforded to us, but it’s also our responsibility to protect and provide greater natural habitat for our region’s extraordinary volume of wildlife.

Regrettably, in June, Mayor Faulconer and San Diego City Council again missed an opportunity to embrace Wildest with the current budget by voting to allocate an additional $3 million into a Capital Improvement Program (CIP) now totaling some $10 million for a non-coastal related or coastal dependent use: Mission Bay Golf Course.

This allocation decision should have been delayed until the ongoing city plans for the area are finally determined. And with the coronavirus pandemic straining city budgets for the foreseeable future, one could argue it’s hardly the best use of city funds at this moment in time, especially with the Wildest proposal waiting at our collective doorstep.

Choosing a golf course over the Wildest plan at a moment when city revenue is plummeting? That kind of decision is, indeed, for the birds.

John Riedel lives in Bay Park and is a ReWild volunteer. This piece originally appeared in the Sept. 21, 2020 edition of the O.B. Rag.