National Wildlife Refuge System

New Life for San Diego Bay Salt Ponds

volunteer and partnership
Children from Imperial Beach Elementary School clear invasive plants from restored habitat at San Diego Bay Refuge, CA.
Credit: USFWS
volunteer and partnership
Black skimmers are finding their way to the newly restored salt ponds at San Diego Bay Refuge, CA
Credit: USFWS

Terns and stilts, black skimmers, grebes and scoters – all are returning in great numbers to the newly restored wetlands of San Diego Bay, CA. The Bay’s coastal habitats support seven federally or state listed threatened and endangered species, tens of thousands of migratory birds that travel along the Pacific Flyway, and a diverse fish population. Because of its importance to birds, the south San Diego Bay has been identified as a Globally Important Bird area and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site.

Over the past 150 years, dredging and filling operations resulted in the loss of 42 percent of San Diego Bay’s historic shallow subtidal (submerged) habitat, 84 percent of its mudflats and 70 percent of its salt marsh habitat.  Most of the native upland and wetland/upland transition habitat had also been lost to development. 

Restoration of San Diego Bay was discussed for many years, but no single agency had enough resources to start a large scale restoration project. In 2008, the Coastal Conservancy formed a partnership with the Port of San Diego, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association with a goal of restoring three sites in south San Diego Bay: Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve (50 acres), Emory Cove (20 acres), and the Western Salt Ponds (230 acres).  

These Western Salt Ponds are managed by San Diego Bay Refuge.  Deep channels were created and salt pond levees were breached to allow tidal flow into the ponds for the first time in more than 60 years. Children from Imperial Beach Elementary School helped remove invasive species to make room for natural native vegetation. Tens of thousands of cordgrass and other native salt marsh plants were planted. 

Earthwork began in 2010 and was completed in late 2011.  For the next five years, the restored ponds will be monitored to improve understanding of how restored systems evolve over time.
Brian Collins, refuge manager, said, “It’s going to be exciting to see how our restored wetland develops over time, to see the flora and fauna return and to know that for this place, we’ve made a positive change by returning a human-altered landscape to a new, more natural condition.

The ten project partners received the 2012 Coastal America Partnership Award to recognize the restoration of at least 300 acres of mudflat, salt marsh, shallow subtidal waters and bird nesting habitat in San Diego Bay.

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Last updated: February 11, 2013