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Tidal Circulation Restored as Western Salt Ponds Are Open to the San Diego Bay

Backhoe and dredge opening the Pond 11 levee (August 2011)Birdwatchers, walkers, and bicyclists along the edge of San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge are witnessing the rebirth of an estuary. The dredging of the last of two levee breaches to restore tidal circulation in the former western salt evaporation ponds within San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge is now completed. The former salt ponds within the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge are finally open to the entire bay. 

Terns, skimmers, pelicans, and shorebirds glide across exposed mudflats and calm bay waters, while fish and plankton ebb and flow with the tides. Soon, local salt marsh plants will be planted to jump-start restoration process.

These western levees, previously separated the bay from the former commercial salt ponds since the 1950s, brought in salt water as the first phase of the salt-making process. Prior to salt manufacturing, this area was a dynamic estuary with salt marsh and mudflat habitats. One of the most significant milestones of the entire restoration project, the breaching of the ponds represents one of the final steps in well over a decade of planning. The Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan, a 15-year Refuge plan, first identified this project as a priority in 2004. After the project was approved in 2006, many partners such as the Port of San Diego, the California Coastal Conservancy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Service stepped up to push the project into implementation in 2010.

By redistributing sediment, creating tidal channels, breaching the levees, and planting native salt marsh plants, approximately 220 acres of historical marsh habitat and mudflats will be restored. In turn, these habitats will provide significant benefits to fish, migratory and resident birds (including the endangered light-footed clapper rail), and the neighboring residential communities of South San Diego Bay. These former salt ponds will become productive breeding and feeding grounds for juvenile fish and invertebrate larvae, and the newly excavated channels will support plant communities such as eelgrass, which provides forage for waterfowl such as black brant and sea turtles.

“We have already seen large numbers of shorebirds foraging on the newly restored mudflats and a diversity of fish migrating in and out of the ponds," said Kurt Roblek, San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge project manager. "Wildlife has quickly responded to these restoration and construction efforts to rebuild their habitats.”

After the breaching of the ponds was completed by Bert W. Salas Inc., based in Santee, California; Merkel & Associates, Inc. were contracted to remove exposed debris from the ponds. Tires and other debris that had collected over the past half century, was necessary before any planting was to take place. The project team’s next step is to choose a contractor for planting over 40,000 plugs of native salt marsh plants such as cordgrass and pickleweed; plugs that have been grown from locally collected seeds by Tree of Life Nursery, based in San Juan Capistrano, California.

The National Wildlife Refuge’s portion of the project is part of the larger 300-acre restoration of South San Diego Bay that also includes the enhancement of the Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve and Emory Cove by the Unified Port of San Diego. The $7.7 million South San Diego Bay Coastal Wetland Restoration and Enhancement Project is made possible through a number of funding sources, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Restoration Center through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Port of San Diego, Coastal Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the EPA. The Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association, a long-time partner in the restoration of the Tijuana Estuary, is managing the construction.

“We are proud to be a partner in this historic and significant project. It is through the work of many partners that this historical salt marsh habitat will return to its former beauty, benefiting both wildlife and the people who come here to experience it,” said Megan Cooper, project manager from the California Coastal Conservancy.

Last Updated: May 23, 2012
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