Restoration project wins Coastal America Partnership Award

Team Salt members observe the breach in the Pond 10 Levee

The South San Diego Bay Restoration and Enhancement Project Team (Team Salt) has been selected to receive the 2012 Coastal America Partnership Award for its efforts in helping to restore approximately 300 acres of estuarine habitats as part of the South San Diego Bay Restoration and Enhancement Project.

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The team includes representatives from 10 federal, state and local agencies, and non-profit organizations, including the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program.

The prestigious Partnership Award is presented annually by Coastal America, a unique partnership of federal agencies, state and local governments, and private organizations that work to protect, preserve and restore the nation's coasts. South San Diego Bay Restoration and Enhancement Team members were notified of the award in December by Coastal America.  
“The Coastal Program is very proud of our partnership with the different agencies and organizations to complete the project,” said Carolyn Lieberman, coordinator of the Service’s Southern California Coastal Program. ”Receipt of the Coastal American Partnership Award is providing national recognition of our accomplishments to restore 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 South San Diego Bay Restoration and Enhancement Project restored a range of estuarine habitats on lands managed by the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge or the Port of San Diego. The project included excavation of degraded uplands to create intertidal and subtidal habitats, dredging former salt ponds to create tidal channels, breaching levees to restore tidal influence and associated habitats, and establishment of native plant communities.
“This restoration project is one of the highlights of my career with the refuge, and it represents the result of many years of behind the scene labor, scientific studies, regulatory processing, public outreach and conservation advocacy.”  said Brian Collins, refuge manager and former wildlife biologist for the San Diego Bay NWR. “We were able to utilize many years of scientific study and species monitoring work to set our target habitats for restoration, and we could not have accomplished this project without the incredible partners we had to work with.”
Years of dredging and filling operations to accommodate maritime and urban developments have resulted in the loss of 42 percent of San Diego Bay’s historic shallow subtidal habitat, 84 percent of its intertidal mudflat habitat, and 70 percent of its salt marsh habitat. Today, south San Diego Bay contains more than 90 percent of the remaining historic intertidal habitat that was once dominant throughout the Bay. 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.
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 Service’s Coastal Program, San Diego NWR 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). The project was funded by a Service Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant with matching funds from the California Coastal Conservancy, the Port of San Diego, and the Service Coastal Program. There were also in-kind voluntary contributions from the San Diego Audubon Society, San Diego Oceans Foundation, San Diego Ocean Discovery Institute, and Coronado Rotary Club. Additional funds were secured from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, allowing for complete restoration of both the Western Salt Ponds and the Chula Vista Wildlife Reserve.
The San Diego Bay NWR manages the Western Salt Ponds, the largest portion of the restoration project. Three former solar salt ponds were made available to restore 230 acres of tidally influenced wetland habitats. A floating dredge created deep channels, and slurried the excavated material to create higher elevations of intertidal habitat. Finally, the salt pond levees were breached to the San Diego Bay to allow full tidal exchange in the ponds for the first time in over 60 years. Tens of thousands of cordgrass and other native salt marsh plants propagated by local native plant nurseries were then planted. Other areas will naturally vegetate over the time as the tides ebb and flow.
On-the-ground earthwork first started in spring of 2010 and was completed in fall of 2011. A five-year post construction monitoring program will provide information to other agencies in an effort to improve understanding of how restored systems evolve over time.
More than 90 species of migratory and residential birds are currently benefitting from this project. Federally and state listed species such as California least tern, light-footed clapper rail, western snowy plover, and Belding’s savannah sparrow are now able to forage for invertebrates and fish through new shallow subtidal and intertidal habitats. The expanded fish habitat has created new spawning and feeding grounds strengthening the fisheries resources of San Diego Bay.
“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, “ added Collins.