Support South Bay's natural infrastructure

by Carolyn Chase


he US Fish and Wildlife Service has released a Draft Environmental Assessment proposing the creation of the South Bay Unit (SBU) of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge and is seeking public comment on the proposal. The area proposed for the refuge stretches west from the 24th Street Channel to just north of Crown Cove, goes south around the salt ponds, then north along the bay's edge. It covers portions of the cities of Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City, Chula Vista, and San Diego.

Historically, San Diego Bay was once one of the richest wildlife resources along the California/Baja coast. The Bay was host to a wealth of native wildlife including osprey, halibut, mussels, lobster, and whales. But the wetlands and habitats for fish and wildlife in the North San Diego Bay are mostly destroyed. The massive dredging and filling of wetlands for airports, industry, and commercial and naval facilities on the Bayfront occurred many years ago and was never mitigated.

Wintering waterfowl have dwindled by up to 90 percent. Seventy-five percent of the wetlands along the entire San Diego coastline have disappeared since the 1800s. South San Diego Bay contains 84% of San Diego's remaining 76 acres of wetlands. While it is impractical to restore the Bay to its original abundance, we can take this opportunity to conserve what's left.

All habitats remaining in south San Diego Bay are at risk and will continue to deteriorate if not protected soon. The habitat that does remain in South Bay is heavily used by migrating and wintering birds including: 79,000 waterfowl (such as surf scoters and scaup); 10,000 seabirds (such as gulls and terns); and populations of brown pelicans and brant geese. In 1994, the salt ponds were used by 522,553 birds including 312,000 shorebirds, 70,000 waterfowl, and 64,000 seabirds. Without South Bay, these birds have few options for areas in which to rest, feed, and prepare for migration.

San Diego Bay's shallow water, eelgrass, mudflats, and salt marshes - the most biologically productive habitats in the Bay - have been virtually eliminated elsewhere in the Bay. Protection and enhancement of habitat in South Bay is the last remaining hope for many of threatened species still hanging on. They need professional management by qualified agencies.

As the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano and the blooming flowers of Anza Borrego draw tourists (and their dollars) so, too, is there a significant market that has yet to be "exploited" in South Bay. Ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry, increasing at a rate of 30% a year. A National Survey on Recreation and the Environment showed a significant increase in passive recreation: walking - up 42%, hiking - up 93%, and bird watching - up 155%. Birding is a sport that is enjoyed by people from 8 to 80, from all demographic and economic backgrounds.

By protecting remaining habitats and promoting compatible use of the resources, we can develop our economic base and, at the same time, protect our unique natural treasures for future generations.

The establishment of the SBU completes a major corridor of natural and open spaces including the Otay Lakes, Vernal Pools units of the SDNWR and the Otay River Valley Regional Park. Together, these projects will ensure that residents and visitors in the South County will have beautiful, natural open spaces to enjoy into the next century.

The development of a refuge and park side-by-side will create the marvelous opportunity for ecotourism development in the South Bay. Protecting this "natural infrastructure" will ensure that the resources and natural areas that people travel to South County to see will be there permanently.

This Refuge will provide easy access, educational, and interpretive opportunities for all who live locally. The SBU is uniquely situated so that low-income communities of color, who suffer from a disproportionate share of toxic pollution in their communities, will benefit from a federal action that will not pollute their communities. Where else is there a refuge that is easily and directly accessible by mass transit? The SBU has significant potential to serve communities in Barrio Logan, National City, Chula Vista, and Imperial Beach. It is close to several schools.

Now is our chance to insure that San Diego Bay's natural community can thrive into the next century.

The Preferred Alternative:

  • Will protect 4,772 acres of South San Diego Bay -- nearly all of the last remaining shallow water, mudflats, and salt marshes in San Diego Bay.
  • Is important for nesting and migrating waterbirds.
  • Offers permanent protection managed by professional wildlife managers.
  • Offers opportunities to restore some degraded habitats in the bay.
  • Is home to 562 species of animals, plants, and invertebrates including eight federally protected species: light-footed clapper rail, brown pelican, California least tern, western snowy plover, green sea turtle, peregrine falcon, salt-marsh bird's beak, bald eagle.
  • Will enhance important juvenile fish nursery and spawning areas.
  • Will protect 90% of the remaining eelgrass beds in San Diego Bay.

The Preferred Alternative will not:

  • Affect the boat navigation channels in the South Bay.
  • Add additional restrictions on adjacent development.
  • Condemn any land.
  • Require funds from local governments.
  • Impact SDG& E, Salt Works, Coronado Cays, Chula Vista Marina, or Silver Strand State Beach.

The creation of this refuge in San Diego Bay constitutes both a historic and visionary opportunity to make history for San Diego Bay.

Letters of Support are due by April 10, 1998. Email comments to: (type South Bay in the subject line) or mail to Director Michael Spear, USFWS, 911 NE 11th Avenue Portland, OR 97232; or FAX to: (503) 231-6161. The full proposal is available on-line at