Mission Bay wetlands
Mission Bay wetlands. Photo_by Greg Hoxsie

California is famous for beaches and craggy shorelines that draw visitors from around the world and fuel local economies. The coastal wetlands, seagrass meadows and kelp forests that also dot our coastline are perhaps less famous but are equally vital to our state. 

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These aquatic gardens provide food and shelter for fish and birds, improve water quality and buffer communities against severe storms. They are also a critical ally in our fight against climate change.

Coastal wetlands capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and surrounding waters and keep this greenhouse gas locked away—sometimes for thousands of years—as “blue carbon.”  And healthy, coastal habitats such as tidal wetlands can store up to five times the amount of carbon per area as tropical rainforests. But when degraded or destroyed, this stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to a warming planet.

Unfortunately, we have lost close to 90% of our coastal wetland carbon sinks over the past two hundred years due to diking, draining, pollution and other threats. Below the tides, eelgrass meadows and kelp forests have also declined because of unsustainable development and, more recently, warming ocean waters.

This has had real and noticeable effects on our wildlife, with a recent report showing that North America has lost 3 billion birds since 1970. Our kids are 3 billion birds poorer than our grandparents.

San Diego Audubon, and the ReWild Coalition of over 60 supporting organization and institutions, are leading an effort to help restore some of this lost tidal habitat and get many of the other benefits that come from natural infrastructure projects. The ReWild Mission Bay project shows that, with our “wildest” wetland restoration plan, we will have a shoreline more resilient to sea level rise, more wildlife habitat and better water quality.

And there’s a critical human component to this restoration opportunity. We’re just starting a project with Native American partners Renascence and Native Like Water, UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography to help revitalize the Native American presence at this shoreline, where they have lived since time immemorial, and begin to redefine the management and access to this vibrant, fragile, and celebrated habitat.

With the release of its “Climate Smart Natural and Working Lands Strategy,” California’s Natural Resources Agency is proposing nature-based actions to keep more carbon stored in the ground and out of the atmosphere. This strategy provides the perfect opportunity for our state to show global leadership in protecting and restoring blue carbon areas in San Diego Bay, many of our coastal lagoons, and Mission Bay.

Key steps include protecting and restoring nearby space to allow coastal wetlands to move inland in the face of rising seas, taking down barriers such as dikes and dams that starve blue carbon areas of much needed sediment, and reducing pollution of coastal waters. In addition, investing in restoration projects like ReWild will provide good-paying jobs, access to green space for our local communities, and an opportunity for our Native American community members to reconnect to our shared shoreline. 

Protecting and restoring our coastal landscapes that store blue carbon is a no-regret measure that will benefit people and nature. San Diego should act now to prioritize tidal habitat restoration and the state should make protection and restoration of its blue carbon sinks a central pillar in its Climate Smart Strategy. 

Andrew Meyer is director of conservation at the San Diego Audubon Society.