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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

 

CARLSBAD FWO: South San Diego Bay Coastal Wetlands Restoration Project is 'a Vision Come True'

Region 8, February 1, 2012
Volunteers planting native plants at Emory Cove, South San Diego Bay
Volunteers planting native plants at Emory Cove, South San Diego Bay - Photo Credit: n/a
A mixed tern colony of elegants, royals, caspians, on the salt pond levees of San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge
A mixed tern colony of elegants, royals, caspians, on the salt pond levees of San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge - Photo Credit: n/a

By Stephanie Weagley, Carlsbad FWO

 

Significant coastal restoration is being achieved in south San Diego Bay. Through the South San Diego Bay Restoration and Enhancement Project (Project), major construction has facilitated the recovery of at least 300 acres of mudflat, salt marsh, shallow subtidal waters, and bird nesting habitat that until now has suffered a large decline regionally.

“The restoration at the western salt ponds is very special to the Coastal Program and the CFWO, as it represents the realization of a vision that was set in motion almost two decades ago,” said Carolyn Lieberman, Coastal Program Coordinator for the Service’s Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office (CFWO).

It is estimated that San Diego Bay has lost 42 percent of its historic shallow subtidal waters, 84 percent of its intertidal mudflats, and 70 percent of its salt marsh. This project is reversing that trend.

The Project’s restoration efforts occurred in three areas located in and around south San Diego Bay. The largest acreage of restoration activity took place at the active solar salt ponds west of the Otay River (western salt ponds) on lands managed by the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). These salt ponds were converted into 223 acres of tidally connected subtidal and intertidal habitats. The other two areas, part of the larger 300 acre restoration project, included lands managed by the Port of San Diego at the Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve and Emory Cove.

 Forty-nine acres of salt marsh were restored or enhanced through excavation of fill at the Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve and 28 acres were enhanced by removing invasive ice plant and debris along the western edge of Emory Cove. Native plantings of cordgrass, alkali heath, pickleweed, and sea lavender occurred at all three locations to aid in the recovery of the native vegetation communities.

Many components and phases associated with this Project have been in play for over two decades. However, on-the-ground efforts first commenced in the spring of 2010, when a new tide gate was created at the eastern salt ponds enabling the three western salt ponds to be ready for a major restoration effort in 2011. It wasn’t until the Fall of 2010, that fill was removed from the Chula Vista Reserve in order to create tidal channels and associated elevations that would support tidal salt marsh vegetation. The excavated material was then pumped to the western salt ponds to create bird nesting habitat. During this time, community based enhancement activities took place at Emory Cove that included volunteers removing invasive plant species and planting native plants.

Major construction efforts took place at the three western salt ponds on the NWR during the spring and summer of 2011. Tidal channels were dredged; levees were breached; and fill was redistributed and deposited creating elevations supporting desired habitats.

“Within days of restoring tidal action to the western salt ponds, tens of thousands of shorebirds immediately started utilizing the newly exposed intertidal habitat for roosting and foraging, thereby demonstrating how significant this habitat restoration project was for San Diego Bay and the region,” said Lieberman,  “It was an incredible transformation. It had been more than 50 years since the Bay waters flowed into these salt ponds."

Though major construction has been completed at the project sites, restoration activities are ongoing.

The South San Diego Bay Restoration and Enhancement Project includes a five year post construction monitoring program. One aspect of the monitoring program that is partially funded by the Coastal Program is an experimental study evaluating methodologies for enabling the recruitment of cordgrass. The methodologies include transplanting cordgrass with bare roots; transplanting cordgrass with a plug of soil surrounding the roots; planting rosepots of cordgrass grown in a nursery; and no planting of cordgrass (i.e., control). These experimental plantings occurred in November of 2011. Cordgrass is a plant species that is used by the federally endangered light footed clapper rail for nesting habitat.

More than 90 species of migratory and coastal dependent birds are currently benefitting from this Project. The benefits include expanded nesting, foraging, and roosting areas for shorebird, seabirds, waterfowl, and other migratory species in the restored and enhanced intertidal habitat. Furthermore, it includes additional refuge areas that now exist for shorebirds during high tides, as well as a foraging and nesting habitat for resident wetland birds in the enhanced upland/wetland transitional habitat.

Federally and/or state listed species such as California least tern, light-footed clapper rail, western snowy plover, and Belding’s savannah sparrow are also benefitting from the recently created shallow subtidal and intertidal habitats; so are numerous fish species. The expanded fish habitat has created new spawning and feeding grounds, thereby improving the foraging opportunities for fish-eating birds.

Background: Western Salt Ponds Restoration Vision to Implementation

In the mid-1990s, the Coastal Program documented significant bird use at the salt ponds, which highlighted the importance of this area for wildlife. The Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office (CFWO) then worked with the Port of San Diego to protect the salt ponds and establish the South San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in the late 1990s.

Both the Coastal Program and CFWO continued to provide funding and technical expertise to the NWR for completion of their 2006 San Diego Bay Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, including preliminary and final restoration and engineering studies. This contribution helped pave the way for seeking funding to implement the South San Diego Bay Restoration and Enhancement Project (Project).

Then in 2008, the Coastal Program and NWR formed a partnership with the California Coastal Conservancy, Port of San Diego, and Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association to apply for Project funding from the Service’s National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant. Matching funds came from the California Coastal Conservancy, Port of San Diego, Coastal Program, and NWR, while in-kind voluntary contributions came from the San Diego Audubon Society, San Diego Oceans Foundation, Ocean Discovery Institute, and Coronado Rotary Club.

The South San Diego Bay Restoration and Enhancement Project was awarded these funds in 2009. The funds paved the way for enhancement of Emory Cove and habitat restoration in portions of the western salt ponds and the Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve. The partnership then applied and received additional funds from the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allowing for complete restoration and enhancement of the western salt ponds and the Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve.

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