Mission Bay — to be perfectly frank — is a fake.
Mother Nature didn’t create the vast paradise we see today. Man did. And while it’s quite the site, with its sandy beaches and many inlets, a price was paid.
That would be the hit to the ecological system.
Mission Bay was once mostly wetlands, which play key roles, such as removing pollutants from the environment and providing animal habitat. However, only about 5 percent of the original 4,000 acres of wetlands remains.
They made way for boats, kayaks, paddle boards, Jet Skis …
The San Diego Audubon Society is on a mission to bring back some of that lost habitat and protect the wetlands that remain. Under a program it calls ReWild Mission Bay, it hopes to enhance and restore up to 170 acres of wetlands.
It feels it is critical.
A California State Coastal Conservancy report on the planned restoration noted that the lost habitat “has left much of Mission Bay without the functional benefit of wetlands to provide sediment trapping, nutrient uptake and habitat/cover for native biota.”
The Coastal Conservancy awarded the Audubon Society a $460,000 grant in 2014 to develop plans for the restoration. The Audubon Society has been holding public meetings to get input.
“There’s been a lot of excitement and support,” said Chris Redfern, executive director of the San Diego Audubon Society. “I think it bodes well that this won’t be a plan that sits on a shelf somewhere, but one that actually gets done.”
The restoration is planned for the northeast corner of Mission Bay, where two pieces of property are becoming available.
One is De Anza Cove mobile home park, where the last of the residents are leaving after reaching a settlement with the city of San Diego. They fought for years for the right to stay on the 76-acre parcel.
The other is Campland on the Bay, a private campground that has leased the land from the city since 1967. Its lease expires next year.
That’s opening up this opportunity. The Coastal Conservancy report noted that the area is well-suited for this type of ecological project.
“The planning area is the most likely area in Mission Bay where wetlands and their associated ecosystem processes can be recovered,” the report said. “In addition to the wetland habitat, the planning area also includes areas that could be restored to native upland habitats, areas for upslope marsh migration as sea levels rise, and public recreation and education opportunities.”
That’s one of the key parts of Audubon’s plan. Not only does it want to protect current wetlands and expand them but it also wants to create avenues for people to explore the area and see its wonders. The project could include overlooks and boardwalks, for instance.
Redfern said some people may have little understanding of wetlands because there are so few of them.
“It’s a huge opportunity for the public to learn about them,” he said.
Right now, the only surviving wetlands in Mission Bay are the Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve and the Northern Wildlife Preserve, about 40 acres in all.
And those wetlands are in danger of being lost, Redfern said, because they are contained and have little chance of surviving stressors such as climate change.
The plan is to give the wetlands a new lifeline by restoring the natural flow of Rose Creek to Kendall-Frost Marsh. Currently, it flows further east through a manmade channel.
Eradication of wetlands has not been limited to Mission Bay. Wetlands throughout the nation have been removed to make way for farmland, development, roads, etc.
According to the North Carolina State University Water Quality Group, two states lost the most wetlands — nearly 99 percent of them.
That would be Iowa …
According to a U.S. Geological Survey National Water Summary on Wetland Resources, wetlands were misunderstood when it came to their ecological benefits and seen as potential hazards.
“Wetlands have often been regarded as wastelands — sources of mosquitoes, flies, unpleasant odor and disease,” the report states. “People thought of wetlands as places to avoid, or even eliminate.”
And so it came that Mission Bay was transformed. In the 1940s, a San Diego Chamber of Commerce committee recommended that the Mission Bay site be turned into a recreational facility. It felt the city needed economic diversification, given the city’s reliance on the military.
Mission Bay had undergone manmade changes before. The San Diego River was once diverted into it to prevent the river from bringing silt into San Diego Bay.
A dredging effort began in the late 1940s, one that eventually removed 25 million cubic yards of silt, eliminating much of the marshland. The dredged soil was used to create today’s Mission Bay. This conversion took place well into the 1960s.
And the new Mission Bay did indeed become a vibrant economic engine for San Diego. It’s home to hotels and a host of water-related activities and businesses. SeaWorld rents space at Mission Bay for its park. As many as 15 million people visit the bay each year.
The Audubon Society’s plan is not the only one looking to take advantage of the changes in this part of Mission Bay. Another one is called the Mission Bay Gateway Project. It too calls for a reuse of De Anza Cove and Campland by the Bay, as well as significant additions.
It also calls for an extension of marshland.
Scott Chipman, a Pacific Beach resident and activist, came up with the plan. He said it can work in conjunction with the Audubon vision.
“Absolutely, we see the bulk of the ReWild effort occurring as a result of replacing the current Campland property with marshland, wetland,” he said.
He said his project is looking at the site in its totality, not just wetland restoration.
“Ours is a balanced plan focused on not losing any of the activities and facilities we currently have (other than De Anza Cove mobile home park) and enhancing, expanding and/or replacing the facilities we have had, such as the youth fields and tennis club,” he said. “In addition, adding new facilities, such as an amphitheater, skate park, aquatic center, etc. All of the revitalization can and should be done with environmentally sensitive strategies.”
Redfern agreed that one plan does not negate the other. His organization is more focused on the wetlands and the science behind making the expansion a reality.
“He has good ideas,” he said of Chipman. “We might be more precise at what’s possible when it comes to water ecology.”
Ultimately, it will be the community that decides what will be done, Redfern noted. The Audubon Society is getting the necessary feedback to complete three conceptual plans by May 2017. Any concept would require City Council approval.