Community Environment News

San Diego Economy Will Benefit from Restoring and Growing Mission Bay Wetlands

Additional wetland acreage will make Kendall-Frost Marsh healthier and enhance wildlife habitat, and according to UCSD data will have a positive financial impact on the city.

This piece originially appeared as an op/ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Feb. 7, 2023, and was written by Dr. Dick Norris, a distinguished professor of paleobiology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego; Sean Reese, a graduate student at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy; and Beverly Scharnhorst, a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

We should restore San Diego’s marshes to put money in our pockets.

For the past five years, the city of San Diego Planning Department, campers, golfers and environmental advocates have been in a debate regarding wetland restoration efforts in northern Mission Bay. The planning process has been trying to balance recreational and environmental interests to create a park that can best serve the diverse interests of San Diego’s residents and visitors.

Of course, for some people, marshes are simply “birds and bugs.” It turns out, however, that they are much more valuable than most of us might have guessed.

As researchers, we have been looking into the economic value of the Mission Bay wetlands. Our project estimates what it would be worth to implement the ReWild Mission Bay Coalition’s “Wildest” plan, which would create 227 acres of new wetland directly adjacent to Kendall-Frost Marsh at the northern shore of Mission Bay. Kendall-Frost Marsh is the only parcel of wetlands at Mission Bay and is managed by the University of California’s Natural Reserve System. It is roughly 40 acres in size, meaning that the ReWild plan would more than quintuple the area of Mission Bay’s wetlands.

The additional acreage would make the marsh healthier and enhance its worth not just in wildlife habitat, but in dollar value, too. For example, its plants create roots and stems that lock away harmful greenhouse gases — a process we calculate is worth between $20,000 and $70,000 each year in carbon credits.

The winding channels in wetlands are worth a lot because they protect nearby parks, homes and businesses by absorbing storm surges and high tide flooding. San Diego has estimated that damage from sea level rise and storm surge events on infrastructure surrounding Mission Bay (such as hotels, wastewater facilities and park lands) could be upwards of $1 billion by the end of the century. Beyond the granted lands, Mission Bay High and Bernard Elementary schools are also vulnerable to flooding.

Wetlands also have value for more surprising things.

Healthy marshes make for a robust recreational and commercial fishery. Some commercial fish species, like California halibut, start life as tiny fishes in the protective embrace of wetland channels and reeds. Our calculations suggest that the annual production of these fish from a restored Mission Bay marsh is worth $440,000 of which about $31,100 of fish is caught by San Diego fishers.

Furthermore, the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute has spent the last three decades helping improve the numbers of these species, and a restored marsh would greatly help its efforts. Since many people participate in the fishery for recreation and commercial ventures, the fish nurtured by the marsh have a wide social impact in a city like San Diego.

Healthy wetlands also increase home prices. Our work has shown that housing values increase when aesthetically pleasing wetlands are restored nearby. We calculate that a wetland the size envisioned in the “Wildest” plan is worth about $39,000 in increased home value. For the neighborhood around northern Mission Bay, that boost in value represents a whopping $2.75 million in potential additional annual property taxes.

We have not yet done an exhaustive assessment of every service. For instance, the creation of a tourist venue — say, a wetlands education center or a boardwalk system through the marsh — would increase the amount of money spent by tourists at nearby attractions such as restaurants, boat rentals and SeaWorld.

Bird watchers tend to be a well-heeled group that might visit more and stay longer if we had clouds of ducks and geese wheeling over a new marsh. Improvements in water quality and public access would benefit all visitors to Mission Bay.

The bottom line is wetlands provide real value to San Diego, at least $1 million every year for the selected wetland amenities we have considered.

We think the true value is well over that figure, making services provided by restored wetlands at least as valuable as the rents the city collects on its coastal property in northern Mission Bay. From wildlife conservation to property protection, increasing and preserving wetland coverage is in the best interest of all San Diegans, not just that of the birds and the bugs.

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Banner photo by Craig Chaddock