Building Anew Along the Shores of San Diego County

Local chapters, universities, Indigenous groups, and Audubon California collaborate to revitalize a shoreline that has long been left to the depredations of industrial action.

The coastline in southern California is getting friendlier for marsh birds thanks to the collaboration between local Audubon chapters, their coalition partners, and Audubon California. Together, they’ve begun restoring portions of Mission Bay and land adjacent to Buena Vista Lagoon to what the land and plant life looked like before European colonizers arrived. That hard work was on full display earlier this month during Love Your Wetlands Day at Mission Bay, where coalition partners organized a variety of interactive learning experiences and opportunities for attendees to do a little restoration work of their own: Kids and parents worked alongside college students to pick up trash from the shoreline and helped weave harvested tule grass into the structural components for traditional boats and nesting platform covers for endangered Ridgway’s Rail.

Love Your Wetlands Day is one part of a much larger initiative that has brought together San Diego AudubonBuena Vista AudubonSan Diego City College Audubon Club, their other coalition partners in ReWild Mission Bay, the local Kumeyaay and Payómkawichum Indigenous communities, and Audubon California in an effort to rewild some of the most built-up shorelines in North America. This work is part of a hemispheric-wide effort to protect marshes and rebuild resilient coastlines in the face of a warming world.

 “These wetlands supported bird and human communities for thousands of years before they were transformed by development,” says Natalie Shapiro, the executive director of Buena Vista Audubon Society. “They were part of a large corridor of migratory stopover habitat all along the Pacific Coast—and they can be that again, with the restoration and care that we are investing in them today.”

Before European colonization, Mission Bay was a 4,000-acre complex of wetland habitats, including saltwater bays, tidal estuaries, tidal marsh, and surrounding upland habitat. The Kumeyaay people lived near and relied upon the wetlands, and other Indigenous communities knew it as an important resource as well. But starting in the mid-19th century, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a series of connected saltwater lagoons and diked rivers, and, by the mid-1940s, had dredged and filled the wetlands. Today only 40 acres of wetland remain in the Mission Bay area. Thirty miles to the north, Buena Vista Lagoon, historically a tidal influenced ecosystem with salt marsh and mud flat habitats, was cut off from the ocean due to a weir constructed in the 1940s. This shifted the lagoon to a freshwater habitat, ultimately destroying the marshes in the area that depended on the tides.

In both cases, wetland birds like Ridgway’s Rail, Long-billed Curlew, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and Belding's Savannah Sparrow, have all lost vital habitat and the coastline and surrounding human communities have become far less resilient to climate change and sea-level rise.   

“Ridgway's Rail depend on tidal wetlands to survive," says Andrew Meyer, director of conservation for San Diego Audubon. "Up and down the Pacific Flyway, those are the same places humans have moved into in the last couple hundred years and changed drastically. But our Native American partners show us that humans can live alongside these habitats and these now-endangered birds for tens of thousands of years in a different way. We must restore tidal wetlands not only for these rails, but also Belding's Savannah Sparrow, and many other species that benefit from coastal wetlands, and very importantly, all of us.”

It took years to have all of the necessary conversations around these two projects, but once local communities, ecologists, state agencies, and others had agreed that restoration was necessary, things picked up. Both Buena Vista Audubon and San Diego Audubon worked with experts on what the wetlands had been like before—many of whom are members of the Kumeyaay and Payómkawichum communities that had stewarded the land for thousands of years and upon which much of their traditional lifeways are based—and began the challenging process of getting the work funded. That’s when Audubon California’s Andrea Jones and Liliana Griego joined the efforts, and Audubon California has been instrumental in getting more than $1.5 million in grant funding to make these restoration projects happen.

“We are grateful for the Dorrance Family Foundation in their ongoing support for this regional restoration effort and the ability to leverage that for additional state funds," says Liliana Griego, senior coastal program manager for Audubon California. “The work the chapters are doing locally are contributing to large scale improvements across our coastline by increasing resiliency for coastal communities and enhancing habitat for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway.”

These projects are a work in progress. At press time, San Diego County is leading a project to return the lagoon to its historic conditions as a salt marsh estuary open to the ocean. Volunteers from Buena Vista Audubon and its Payómkawichum partners will begin the challenging process of rewilding 3.8 acres of marsh adjacent to the lagoon and watch to see what happens.

That work is informed by centuries of knowledge that the Payómkawichum are trying to protect and maintain, despite being displaced from their coastal ancestral homes. That knowledge—their stories—are being documented and shared by and for tribal members in an effort to ensure that this knowledge is conserved and carried into the future. Buena Vista Audubon is collaborating with members from the Payómkawichum to increase access so they can reconnect to their ancestral land, reclaim their stories, and ensure that they play a leading role in shaping the future of their ancestral land around the Buena Vista Lagoon. The development of the Payómkawichum Ecological Knowledge 101 Program will be created by local Indigenous and Payómkawichum educators for multigenerational tribal participants to share and document Indigenous stories, participate in hands-on restoration opportunities, and learn and help shape the future restoration efforts around Buena Vista Lagoon.

In Mission Bay, the ReWild Mission Bay coalition continues to fight for more wetland restoration and collaborate with the Kumeyaay community to highlight their stories and the stewardship they've engaged in for the land since time immemorial. Their eventual goal: up to 315 acres of restored habitat, including 227 acres of newly restored wetland. A fully rewilded Mission Bay will not be achieved this year or next or even the year after that. But each step forward is a chance to create more habitat for birds, more carbon pulled from the atmosphere, more places to absorb the effects of rising oceans, and most importantly, more places where communities can access the land and dream of what might be possible for generations to come.