Opinion: Guest Commentary: Transform Mission Bay into a park that’s good for the environment and tourism

Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve on the corner of Pacific Beach Drive and Crown Point Drive.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego needs to prioritize a restored, connected wetland and to drastically improve our recreation


In Mission Bay Park, the city of San Diego has an opportunity to create a public park that is ready for the next 100 years, and not stuck in the past 100 years. The city needs to transform Mission Bay, which annually welcomes 15 million visitors to its 27 miles of shoreline and is home to at least 144 bird species and 56 plant species. The city needs to prioritize a restored, connected wetland and to drastically improve our recreation and access opportunities by offering genuine access, including low-cost camping and new recreation along the banks of a vibrant, restored wetland with boardwalks, group camping, and blue trails for kayaks and paddle boards that connect Rose Creek to the bay.

As recently as the 1930s, the mouth of Rose Creek was part of a vast estuarian complex with salt marsh habitat and mud flats supporting thousands of migratory birds and serving as the foundation for life we depend on for such commercially important fish as the California halibut and our sports fishing industry.

For the last 100 years or so, San Diegans have been at odds with natural processes through altering the terrain and burning fossil fuels. These are expensive and harmful choices. Our decisions have created the climate crises, monstrous wildfires, ginormous storms and widespread flooding around the country. No part of San Diego is immune to these disasters.

The cost to our economy is catastrophic. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from 1980 through July 9, the U.S. has spent nearly $2 trillion in Consumer Price Index-adjusted dollars for the 298 natural disasters that exceeded $1 billion dollars per incident, with a dramatic spike in costs since 2010. The actual costs to communities are far greater. From lost lives, homes and livelihoods to the psychological and social toll of repeated human-created “natural disasters,” business as usual needs to change.

In the decades after 1930, Rose Creek was forced into a concrete channel, straightened and blocked from its floodplain. Instead of depositing sedimentation and nutrients onto the salt marsh and mud flats where it would become part of the food chain, it is dumped into the open waters of Mission Bay. Millions of people who swim in Mission Bay immerse themselves in urban runoff that contains motor oil, brake dust, fertilizers, pesticides, feces and so much more. Not a pretty picture.

Then the city spends millions of dollars to dredge up this sedimentation and dump it elsewhere. Water pollution discourages tourism, which hurts many of our small local businesses and our overall economy.

Luckily, there is a cost-effective climate healing project for the mouth of Rose Creek launched by the San Diego Audubon Society to advocate for tidal wetland restoration in the northeast corner of Mission Bay. When protected or restored, blue carbon ecosystems, such as tidal wetlands, sequester and store carbon. In fact, salt water marshes sequester carbon even more effectively than old-growth rainforests.

Restoring the maximum acreage of wetlands in this area as identified by the “ReWild Mission Bay” project of the San Diego Audubon Society and its coalition partners can contribute to strengthening our city’s Climate Action Plan by using nature to solve a human-created problem.

I look to our city’s leadership to prioritize wetlands restoration and ecotourism in the upcoming plan for the northeast corner of Mission Bay at the mouth of Rose Creek.

Hopefully, 100 years from now, people will look back at how the vision to restore the Rose Creek wetlands will have created a thriving place where Indigenous Kumeyaay communities connect to their heritage, residents and visitors of all ages learn about the wonders of wetland habitat and the wildlife it supports, and the city of San Diego has shown leadership in the movement to work with nature to mitigate the impacts of climate change for cost-effective solutions that immensely enhance human life by connecting us to the natural world.

Karin Zirk is a mythologist, writer and database administrator, and a member of the group Friends of Rose Creek. She lives in Pacific Beach.