Audubon Society field crew in Kendall Frost Marsh
An Audubon Society field crew in Kendall Frost Marsh on Mission Bay. Photo courtesy EIC

The last several years have seen a deluge of news about infrastructure in San Diego. Whether it’s the future of the stadium site in Mission Valley, the extension of the Blue Line trolley to UCSD, or the push among urbanists to revolutionize housing in our city, refining our development footprint has taken up a sizable volume of bandwidth in our civic conversation.

As plans move forward to reshape San Diego’s built environment, it’s easy to overlook how these changes can negatively affect our quality of life and the sustainability of our communities. In the rush to redevelop, we often miss out on opportunities to incorporate green infrastructure that can harness natural processes to make our built environment more resilient, lower costs, and create a more beautiful, livable city.

In contrast to the “grey” infrastructure of blacktop pavement and hardened shorelines, green infrastructure incorporates features like permeable pavement, landscapes called bioswales that remove debris and pollution out of surface runoff, and living shorelines instead of concrete channels and piles of rocky rip-rap at water’s edge.

Unfortunately, current redevelopment proposals for Mission Bay are a worrying example of rushed planning processes that fail to evaluate the strategic use of green infrastructure to address some of our region’s most pressing sustainability needs.

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Over the past four years, and with the blessing of city leaders, the San Diego Audubon Society has engaged with the public in a study of how green infrastructure, in the form of coastal wetlands, can be incorporated into redevelopment plans for the northeast corner of Mission Bay surrounding De Anza Point.

The resulting project, dubbed ReWild Mission Bay, demonstrates that substantial wetland restoration is feasible, cost-effective, and would enhance the entirety of the bay. Sea level rise analyses have also determined that if we do nothing to preserve our remaining wetlands, almost all of what remains will slip beneath the sea by 2100.

Audubon delivered the results of our study to the city in the fall of 2018, but a mindset among city planners to address sea level rise threats via an outmoded “protect in place” strategy, coupled with intense pressure from commercial interests, have largely sidelined the ReWild vision.

Also, in a new and disturbing twist, short-term redevelopment proposals negotiated behind closed doors are now being ramrodded through the city’s decision-making bodies with undue speed. If these short-term proposals are approved by the City Council, land uses will become further entrenched in the area, severely limiting our ability to use natural infrastructure to protect coastal communities from flooding and sea level rise.

City leadership should reject these short-term proposals, and instead work with the many community members and groups who want to prioritize land use decisions that benefit all who enjoy Mission Bay. Maximizing coastal wetlands will deliver a more natural and ecologically-valuable living coastline, a buffer against coastal flooding and sea level rise, and cleaner water. That last benefit is now more important than ever as the shorelines of Rose Creek, Campland and De Anza Cove are considered “impaired” for recreation and habitat under the federal Clean Water Act.

Wetlands also provide foraging habitat for native species like herons and egrets, and nursery conditions for crab and halibut. Mission Bay wetlands are especially critical to the survival of the endangered Ridgway’s Rail, a marsh bird near extinction in Mission Bay that depends on protected tidal wetlands to nest.

With the “wildest” of the three options considered in the ReWild feasibility study, or a similar project with equal or greater environmental benefits, we can protect and celebrate those species and resources, enjoy a larger range of nature-based recreation and eco-tourism opportunities, and create a world-class education and research destination.

The ReWild Mission Bay proposal demonstrates the cost-effective feasibility and benefits of wetland restoration, the opportunity to enhance our park for the next 80 years, and the chance to inoculate it from the worst effects of climate change. And with ReWild we can ensure our bayfront and natural coastal habitat — already a rare commodity — won’t vanish beneath the waterline.

Jim Peugh serves as the chair of the San Diego Audubon Society’s conservation committee, and has been advocating for birds and other wildlife for decades in San Diego. He was instrumental in the creation of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the protection of Famosa Slough.