U.S. Coast Survey. San Diego Bay, California. 1857.
Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Jul 19, 2016

SFEI's Resilient Landscape Program recently completed a "reconnaissance" historical ecology study of San Diego's Mission Bay. This targeted project collected high-priority historical data (such as maps, photographs, and texts) that shed light on how Mission Bay and the surrounding region looked and functioned prior to major landscape modification during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The rich historical dataset reveals complex and diverse landscape. In the Bay proper, islands of marsh grass were subject to the ebb and flow of the tides. Along the Bay's north shore, liberal growths of sycamores, willows, and oaks lined the former course of Rose Creek. To the south the San Diego River alternated between Mission Bay and San Diego Bay, building a great sandy delta (dotted with fresh-water ponds and willow groves) that extended between the two bays. To the west rolling sand dunes fifteen feet high covered what is now Mission Beach.

The historical ecology study, funded by the San Diego Audubon Society and the California Coastal Conservancy, was designed to support 'ReWild Mission Bay,' a three-year project led by San Diego Audubon to develop wetland restoration plans for the northeast corner of Mission Bay. In March, SFEI staff presented its findings to the ReWild Mission Bay project's science advisory committee and working group, as well as project consultants charged with developing an Existing Conditions Report. “Results from the MBHE Reconnaissance Study were exciting,” notes ReWild Mission Bay project manager Rebecca Schwartz. “We got confirmation of things we'd known anecdotally and learned new things about our study area.” Specifically, SFEI’s preliminary finding that the bayward edge of Kendall-Frost marsh has receded over time “helped minimize our shifting baseline of how loss of sediment inputs are hurting the marsh.” Ultimately, says Schwartz, the work has “expanded our understanding of what's possible in the area.”

In addition to informing the ReWild Mission Bay science team, the study has also been utilized at public stakeholder meetings. Schwartz says: “The images SFEI provided are wonderful outreach tools that really get the public excited about the area. It gives people something tangible to look at and say, ‘Wow, this is what Mission Bay used to be and could be once again.’”

It is SFEI’s hope that this work is only a first step towards understanding the historical ecology of Mission Bay and its surroundings. The reconnaissance study provides a strong foundation for a more in-depth research project that would be able to address unanswered questions and better inform ongoing restoration planning efforts.

Programs and Focus Areas: 
Resilient Landscapes Program