Community Environment

Restoring Mission Bay: How ReWild’s Wildest Plan Will Shape San Diego’s Environmental Efforts

Nearly 30 years ago the City of San Diego identified Mission Bay as a resotration priority. ReWild’s Wildest plan would restore ecological balance and increase public access.

The coastal salt marshes of Mission Bay began to vanish during the public works projects of the New Deal years of the 1930s, when dredging and development began to alter the landscape. That development reached a critical mass with the construction of Mission Bay Park in the 1960s, culminating in a landfill in the northeast corner of Mission Bay that now marks the site of Campland, which severed the fresh water connection between the mouth of Rose Creek and the surviving native wetlands of Kendall-Frost Marsh, now managed as a reserve by UC San Diego.

Ever since the City of San Diego identified the resotration of Mission Bay as a clean water priority in 1994, and again in 2002, environmental groups have been pushing for the city to develop a wetland restoration plan. This proposal gained urgency in recent years as it became clear Mission Bay would be subject to considerable sea level rise as our climate warms, and in 2018 ReWild Mission Bay and its coalition of 75 community organizations presented a policy proposal to the city that would address these concerns.

The Importance of Mission Bay

Altogether made up of over 4,000 acres of wetlands, Mission Bay already provides valuable ecosystem services to the people of San Diego. These wetlands are home to thousands of plant and animal species that depend on freshwater streams carrying nutrients into the bay. Historically, these diverse vegetation communities created expansive root structures across the coastline, that today would provide erosion control and flood prevention through their absorbent root systems and the silty sediments they hold in place.

Unfortunately, rapid economic development over the last century has eradicated almost the entirety of these wetlands and replaced the absorbent plant and sediment systems with sand and silt. As a result, Mission Bay and the surrounding San Diego urban areas are at risk of sea level rise, which is estimated to rise 5.5 feet by 2100.

Now, ReWild Mission Bay is working to implement plans that will restore the area’s tidal wetlands and help San Diego adapt to climate change.

Restoring Mission Bay

Wetland restoration in San Diego has been a topic of debate since the 1990s, and now that the city is under threat from the impacts of climate change, it’s time to take action. ReWild has conducted extensive research on the feasibility of restoring Mission Bay, and proposed several options for effective restoration. The city has similarly developed a plan of their own, and now must decide which approach is the most effective.

ReWild’s “Wildest” Plan

In 2014, ReWild Mission Bay created the Wetlands Restoration Feasibility Study group with the help of experts from UCSD, California State Coastal Conservancy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The final study was published and brought to the city in 2018, proposing three approaches for Mission Bay restoration: Wild, Wilder and Wildest. We continue to push for the city to adopt the Wildest alternative.

This approach would restore 227 acres of wetland across Mission Bay, with an estimated 117 acres still protected by 2100 with the anticipated sea-level rise. Of all three options proposed by ReWild, the Wildest plan provides the greatest amount of cost effectiveness, habitat restoration, water quality and water optimization, and the greatest resiliency to sea-level rise.

The plan would cost the city an estimated $62.6 million, roughly three percent of its existing budget, which already allocates funds to climate and environmental plans. The plan was designed by environmental experts to ensure optimal resiliency, longevity, and functionality to both Mission Bay’s habitats and the people of San Diego.

In addition to the environmental impacts, this plan would also include:

  • 4,800 feet of publicly accessible trails connected to existing parks and bikeways
  • A visitor center where the public can learn about San Diego’s natural areas
  • Overlooks where visitors can view the wildlife inhabiting Mission Bay
  • Boat launches

The existing Campland camping concession would be moved into the inland of Mission Bay Park and be given a tidal wetland buffer between campsites and the bay, thereby protecting Campland from sea level rise impacts over time.

ReWild’s “Wildest” Plan for mission bay

This approach optimizes cost-effectiveness and restoration materials, using a balanced cut-and-fill option that minimizes the need to export soil off-site. In doing so, the Wildest plan minimizes impacts on traffic and local air quality during its construction, and will release minimal greenhouse gasses in the process. In addition, considerable amounts of state, federal, and private grants are available for wetland restoration, and the Wildest plan is specifically designed to meet funding criteria for these opportunities. These outside funding sources would enable the city to focus its existing environmental budget on other restoration and conservation goals.

Adopting the Wildest plan would ensure the most extensive restoration scope for Mission Bay and would create lasting impacts on the city’s water and air quality, and climate change adaptability, while giving San Diegans increased public access to their scenic natural areas.

San Diego’s “De Anza Natural” Plan

Despite ReWild’s proposed plans, the city postponed its scheduled tidal wetland habitat restoration in the summer of 2019 to allow existing development in the northeast corner of the bay to continue. This setback prompted further encouragement from San Diegans for greater efforts toward climate resilience and environmental protection.

In Jan. 2022, the city presented its De Anza Natural plan, which would amend the 1994 Mission Bay Park Master Plan with a balance of recreational land-use and habitat restoration aimed at climate resilience.

de anza natural plan for mission bay

The plan features 103.8 acres of new wetlands while preserving a total of 221 acres across Kendall-Frost Marsh and the area now occupied by Campland. This restoration would make a positive contribution to Mission Bay Park’s notorious water quality issues by facilitating hydrologic improvements that protect the viability of marshes in the coming years.

Recreational activities proposed by this plan include:

  • One multi-use waterfront trail
  • A non-motorized boat lease area
  • 50 acres of low-cost visitor accommodations, including campsites and recreational vehicle facilities
  • Active sports and recreational activities
  • Viewing areas
  • 45 acres of passive parkland for public use

While the De Anza Natural plan is a step in the right direction, environmental and climate experts believe it will not be sufficient for helping San Diego adapt to climate change in the coming century. The plan includes significantly fewer new wetlands than the Wildest plan, with fewer safeguards that will ensure the resilience of wetlands over time. In addition, the wetlands may not be sufficient for providing habitat to wildlife and vegetation communities, resulting in less water filtration, and less erosion and flood control.

The city must include a greater volume of wetlands into their plan to facilitate the greatest amount of climate resilience and ecosystem services from Mission Bay, and to ensure the greatest amount of longevity and resilience over time. In August 2022, the city presented its revised Climate Action Plan, with a goal to restore 700 acres of salt marshes across San Diego by 2035. The Wildest plan is critical to reaching this goal and supporting the environmental commitments the city has made.

In March 2023 the city released its draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the De Anza Natural Plan. With help from our 75-member strong ReWild Coalition, our advocates and supporters made remarks at public hearings, wrote in editorial and opinion spaces, and submitted email comments encouraging the city to include more wetlands in their plan, and to consider an adoption of the Wildest approach instead.

Learn more about the history of ReWild Mission Bay.

Banner photo by Craig Chaddock
Kayak photo by Greg Hoxsie
Marsh photo and footer coalition photo by Tommy Hough