Environment News

San Diego Has a Once In a Lifetime Chance to Save Mission Bay

To address the mistakes of the past century, we must implement a new future for Mission Bay Park.

This piece originially appeared as an op/ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Jan. 28, 2022, and was written by ReWild Mission Bay founder Rebecca Schwartz Lesberg. The former director of conservation at San Diego Audubon and ReWild Mission Bay project manager, Rebecca was also a San Diego De Anza Ad Hoc Subcommittee vice chair, and now serves as president of Coastal Policy Solutions.

San Diego has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to save the wild heritage of Mission Bay and protect the public’s right to access our beloved coastline.

The city of San Diego is currently developing plans for how to revitalize the northeast corner of Mission Bay, a place that has been cut off from true public use for decades. This spot is home to the area’s last remaining 40 acres of salt marsh in what was once a 4,000-acre wetland complex at the mouth of the San Diego River. Mayor Todd Gloria’s De Anza Natural proposal is much better than the plan released under the Faulconer administration. He and city staff are to be commended for listening to the passionate advocacy of the many people who work to protect these lands.

However, the plan still has a long way to go.

If city leaders want to meaningfully improve water quality, increase climate resilience, protect endangered species and safeguard public access, some important changes need to be made. The decisions that Mayor Gloria and the City Council make will cement the future of this crucial habitat for generations to come.

First and foremost, the De Anza Natural plan does not restore a high enough acreage of wetlands to achieve the project goals. Wetlands are nature’s workhorse — they filter pollutants out of the water, protect the shoreline from erosion and sequester carbon in their soils. With trails, boardwalks and overlooks, they give people the kinds of nature-based recreation and access to the outdoors that so many San Diegans crave (and have come to rely on during the COVID-19 pandemic). Wetlands also provide habitat for amazing birds like great blue herons and snowy egrets.

To truly achieve the city’s water quality, species protection, recreation and sea level rise resiliency goals, the city must adopt the wetlands design included in ReWild Mission Bay’s “Wildest” plan. That plan is the result of nearly five years of stakeholder outreach, public engagement and technical expertise. It is a feasible way to accommodate the true scale of wetlands restoration that is both possible and necessary.

Second, and just as important, the area set aside here for “guest housing” must truly be designed as low-cost accommodation. The California coastline belongs to all Californians, not just the wealthy few who can afford expensive hotels or bus-sized RVs. Tent camping, eco-cabins, and, yes, even some RVs can be mixed to create a world-class travel destination that exists for the public good, not private profit.

Making these choices may not be easy. Mayor Gloria must be willing to stand up to the monied interests that have for too long controlled land use decisions in San Diego. This is the first time in half a century that the public has had a chance to help determine how these public lands are used — lands that belong to all of us. And it’s likely our last chance to do so before our coastal communities experience some of the most damaging impacts of a changing climate. With these decisions, San Diego has the opportunity to act like the big city it is and be a leader in the restoration and protection of our natural infrastructure. It’s time to invest in these working lands that work so hard for our communities.

Before Mission Bay was dredged to create the islands and peninsulas we know today, tens of thousands of migratory birds thrived in the bay’s eelgrass, mudflats and salt marsh. Generations of fish emerged from the bay’s wetland “fish nurseries,” contributing to abundant fisheries along the Southern California coast. And since time immemorial, the Kumeyaay (Iipay and Tipai) have called this land home.

The city itself said it best, in the 1994 Mission Bay Park Master Plan: “We have learned, through the painful mistakes of yesterday’s ignorance and myopia, that we cannot view the natural environment as something apart from the human race. Shifting the direction of Mission Bay Park to account for its long-term ecological health is a choice for the future.”

To address the mistakes of the past century, we must implement a new future for Mission Bay Park — one that corrects the bay-wide imbalance that has for so long favored commerce at the expense of the environment. ReWild Mission Bay provides this vision, and the city of San Diego should implement the “Wildest” plan as we chart the course for the area’s next 100 years.

Photo by Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune