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The Environmental Resurrection of South San Diego Bay

For decades, no fish could live in parts of southern San Diego
Bay because the water was walled off and used to make salt. Now the
area is being returned to nature, and life is flocking back.

 

There, from across the water, comes a flash of white wings, taking flight in unison. Down below, dozens of fish nip at the surface. In the mud, tiny birds are chasing yet tinier flies. In the sky above, they come in flocks. First gulls, then skimmers, then stilts.

South San Diego Bay is coming back to life. After more than a century of neglect, the southernmost part of the bay that touches Imperial Beach is being restored. Decades ago, marshland and mudflats were walled off and turned into holding ponds. Salt water was kept there to evaporate, turn even saltier, and eventually be converted into the white stuff used to keep roads ice-free in winter.

That came at a price for nature. It meant no fish could live there.

Now, three ponds are being restored, part of a $7.7 million effort funded by local, state and federal agencies to return that windswept part of the bay to what it was 150 years ago. It comes after the Dec. 31, 2010 shutoff of the South Bay Power Plant, which for decades sucked in bay water and the creatures in it and spit them back out dead.

Chris Nordby, a wetland ecologist, has been overseeing construction for the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association, a nonprofit managing the restoration. We met Nordby on the remains of one of the levees down there, which was recently cut to allow the tide to once again bring life into the area. The project will be complete in early November.

“You should’ve seen it when we first opened it up,” he says. “The birds just immediately flocked here, checking out the mud flats that hadn’t been seen for years.”

Can you describe what this huge sweeping expanse would’ve looked like 150 years ago?

This salt marsh and this grass — we call it cord grass — all this would’ve been like a sea of green. And will be again.

How did it get to this man-made, manufactured state?

Salt marshes — like in Mexico and San Francisco Bay — have always been the easiest place to turn into a salt works. They’re low, and the clay sediment will hold water and let it evaporate. A long time ago, like late 1800s, someone said: ‘What a great place to make salt.’ They built a levee, diked it all off and started evaporating salt.

People don’t know what a gem this is. They think it’s an eyesore. People think, ‘Why can’t we fill this in and make it into a Chargers stadium?’

But for those of us who are into wetlands, there’s an endless opportunity to make it better.

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Tell me why.

The whole salt works potentially could be restored. We’re just doing 240 acres out of maybe 1,200. It’s a big opportunity. Not without its controversy. These salt works have become huge nesting areas. It’s like a huge nature show when all these birds are here. Thousands and thousands. They feel safe on the levees. Local birders aren’t necessarily anxious to see this stuff all converted into what it used to be. We’re taking it a step at a time. We’ll see what effect this 240 acres has.

Through the fog, the hulking steel carapace of the South Bay Power Plant looms over this area. Tell me what impact that’s had on the ecology of this area, the creatures you find here.

It’s had two contradictory effects.

Because of its warm water (used to cool the power plant) that was discharged into the bay, it’s attracted exotic creatures. There are green sea turtles over there. Sea horses. Bonefish. And corvina. It’s very interesting, but it’s not natural. When you turn it off, you’re potentially going to lose those.

But while that thing was operating, it was sucking in fish larvae and spitting out everything dead on the other end. Turning it off should really improve the fisheries down here. It should help the whole food chain. It’s all about fish and fish larvae. You look in the channels of these wetlands and they’re just full of fish. With the power plant shut off, we won’t lose all those larvae. But we may not have our sea turtles, too.

Can you quantify the fish larvae lost?

Millions. Normally, maybe 1 percent would survive. But when you’re killing millions, you don’t even get that 1 percent.

And over half a century?

I don’t know if anyone could estimate that. But billions. A lot.

Enough to have redefined what lives here?

A lot of activists would say yes. But I would say no. The bay is a big bay, and it’s full of fish. Certainly, though, the plant is something you’d want to turn off if you could.

It’s calm and peaceful here. It’s a stark contrast to the middle part of the bay where we have shipyards and toxic chemicals lurking in the sediment. But there’s still a legacy of impact here.

The power plant and salt works kind of make the lay person think this is all a wasteland. The middle of the bay is fascinating — it’s so San Diego with the Navy — but down here has had this perception that it’s a backwater where all the trash goes, shallow and polluted.

But this has really, really improved. And these projects are only going to help.

Is there anything like this type of habitat anywhere else around here?

There’s nothing like the extensive mud flats in the South Bay. All those shorebirds that go up and down the Pacific Flyway need these areas. The lay person looks at this as a stinky, muddy wasteland. But these birds think: Smorgasbord.

What do you see when you picture this in a year, in five years?

I see this as a little, natural, power plant. With all this food that’s being produced on the mudflats and the marsh for all these creatures from fungus up to humans. These are great nurseries. Hopefully, some day, you’ll be able to eat the fish you catch here. It’s just going to be full of life, which it already is.

It was probably eight or 10 years of effort to get this done. And there’ve been a whole lot of people with this vision.

When it finally gets done, you just rejoice.

This interview was conducted and edited by Rob Davis, a senior reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

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