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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes
CARLSBAD FWO: Coastal Wetlands Being Restored in South San Diego Bay
Region 8, November 22, 2010
Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve restoration site (USFWS/Carolyn Lieberman)
Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve restoration site (USFWS/Carolyn Lieberman) - Photo Credit: n/a
Otay River and western salt ponds in south San Diego Bay (USFWS/Carolyn Lieberman)
Otay River and western salt ponds in south San Diego Bay (USFWS/Carolyn Lieberman) - Photo Credit: n/a

By Carolyn Lieberman and Stephanie Weagley, Carlsbad FWO

Coastal wetlands restoration is underway in south San Diego Bay. Through the South San Diego Bay Coastal Wetland Restoration Project, approximately 300 acres will be transformed into wetland habitat essential to birds, fish, plants, and other marine life. These efforts come at a time when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Coastal Program is celebrating its 25th year of conserving coastal wetlands and habitats for fish and wildlife across the country.

The restoration efforts will take place in three areas located in and around south San Diego Bay. On lands managed by the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), active solar salt ponds west of the Otay River (western salt ponds) will be converted into 223 acres of tidally connected subtidal and intertidal habitats. For lands managed by the Port of San Diego, 49 acres of salt marsh within the Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve will be restored or enhanced through excavation or fill, and 28 acres along the western edge of Emory Cove will be enhanced by removing invasive ice plant and debris. Plantings of native species, such as cordgrass, alkali heath, pickleweed, and sea lavender will enhance the native coastal habitats at all three sites. 

The first phase of the South San Diego Bay Coastal Wetland Restoration Project began in late September 2010 with a groundbreaking event at the Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve. Restoration of the western solar salt ponds will begin early 2011.

Significant components of this wetland project include the restoration of mudflat, salt marsh, and coastal upland habitat, as well as the creation of subtidal channels. To accomplish the project goals, soil excavated from one area of the restoration site will be redeposited in other areas to establish elevations needed to support desired habitats. Tidal channels will be cut and levees breached in order to restore and enhance tidal circulation and habitat structural diversity; fill will be removed from weedy and sparsely vegetated upland areas to create salt marsh habitat.

Over the past 150 years, dredging and filling operations to support commercial and port developments have resulted in a loss of San Diego Bay’s coastal wetlands.  It is estimated that 42 percent of San Diego Bay’s historic shallow subtidal habitat, 84 percent of intertidal mudflats, and 70 percent of its salt marsh habitat have been lost. This project will help reestablish these native coastal wetland habitats.

“This wetland restoration project will make south San Diego Bay even more valuable to wildlife by restoring tidal communities and expanding breeding, roosting, and foraging habitat for the migratory and coastal dependent bird species that already frequent the area,” said Carolyn Lieberman, Coastal Program Coordinator for the Service’s Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office (CFWO). “It will also improve water quality and provide additional environmental education and outreach opportunities for the community.”

South San Diego Bay has been designated a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site, and is recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. It annually supports more than 90 species of migratory and other birds dependent on coastal wetlands, of which 22 have been identified as species of concern by one or more bird conservation organizations.

This project will help support many coastal bird species, including the federally listed light-footed clapper rail, California least tern, western snowy plover, and the Belding’s savannah sparrow, currently listed as endangered by the State of California. 

Over the last two decades, the CFWO has played an important role in protecting and restoring habitats in south San Diego Bay. In the mid-1990’s, the CFWO’s Coastal Program documented significant bird use in this area and assisted in securing its protection as habitat mitigation for development in north San Diego Bay. In 1999, the South San Diego Bay Unit was dedicated as part of the San Diego Bay NWR and established to ensure that thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway, as well as the Bay’s resident species, would survive into the next century.

Since then, the CFWO’s Coastal Program has contributed to the restoration planning efforts at the western salt ponds by providing funds and expertise for the completion of San Diego Bay NWR’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, and preliminary and final restoration and engineering studies. Additionally, the Coastal Program assisted San Diego Bay NWR in preparing the necessary environmental compliance documents and applications for grant funds (i.e., National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant and NOAA Recovery Act) to support and finance the South San Diego Bay Coastal Wetland Restoration Project.

“The South San Diego Bay Coastal Wetland Restoration Project is a collaborative partnership accomplishing restoration that was first envisioned over a decade ago,” said Lieberman. “This effort is comprised of local, state, federal, and non-governmental agencies.”

Implementation of the larger restoration project is estimated at $7.69 million and is being funded with contributions from NOAA’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Fund ($2.975 million); California Coastal Conservancy ($1.2 million); Port of San Diego Environmental Fund ($1.3 million); EPA West Coast Estuaries Initiative ($1 million); and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant ($1 million), Coastal Program ($165,000) and Refuges ($50,000)]. Additional funding and project management assistance is being provided by the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association (SWIA) and volunteer support for enhancement activities is being provided by the Ocean Discovery Institute, San Diego Audubon Society, San Diego Oceans Foundation, and the Coronado Rotary Club.

Opportunities for public participation in the project include volunteering to plant native species at Emory Cove and participating in seasonal bird watching tours sponsored by San Diego Audubon and the San Diego Bay NWR. These and other related events will be posted on the San Diego Bay NWR website.

Contact Info: Stephanie Weagley, 805-644-1766, stephanie_weagley@fws.gov