In the closing hours of an earth-spin, we sometimes want more than another round of sheetrock rooms, perfect-density pile carpets, and matching furniture. And so many of us, in the evenings, go to the edge of somewhere to look out. Emily Carr, the Canadian artist, confessing her passion for earth, once gushed, I want “her volume.” We can relate. There is a kind of universal ache for supersized outdoors. There is an eye-hunger for distance and a soul lust for things far off. Stirring inside, we need and want to get up and go see something with the lid off, something unwalled, an urban-rural fringe, and a tattered edge of something undeveloped, a mud acre or two, a blue-sparkled stretch of water.
And so, on a Saturday night last summer, my wife and I broke the spell of the house — the big soft chairs, the flashing TV, and the too-frequent trips to the refrigerator. We fled the place with marine equipment and parked our car at J Street Marina on the San Diego Bay. We had come out to see it.
We off-loaded our sit-on-top kayak, paddled past the parked sailboats and yachts, slipped out of the marina, and forced our way into San Diego Bay with two hours of sunlight left. Once you’ve made the choice, the rest just flows. Or does it?
The wind was still blowing from the Pacific Ocean across the Silver Strand and into the bay, and we had to make the choice again. Sit and go backwards or paddle hard. We paddled into the stiff breeze, slicing through choppy waves. Midbay we realized that we didn’t have to be this far out to get to our destination: the humming power plant looming at the edge of the city of Chula Vista.
The tide was high; it was a straight shot to the power plant. We turned toward it. Glancing up from paddling, I could see the old plant ahead in all its latticed, ducted, and smoke-stacked glory. It looked weirdly out of place, like a giant still, sitting at the edge of a mudflat scattered with willets and marbled godwits. This huge, old metal monstrosity with nearby storage containers sits in stark contrast to the 316-acre Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge just a few miles to the north. There cordgrass, snowy egrets, and endangered light-footed clapper rails feed in the mudflats. A nature center sits near the end of the point, with a beautiful array of aquariums, shark and ray petting pools, and a variety of bird exhibits.
But the salt marsh isn’t pristine; it has its own industrial past. At the beginning of World War I, the Hercules Powder Company opened a factory where the nature interpretive center now sits and extracted acetone from kelp to make cordite, an explosive used by the British. This area is used to abuse. Old, abandoned railroad tracks still cross the marsh on a route that at one time circled the southern end of the bay. For a number of years, the uplands, just south of the Sweetwater Marsh, were a de facto dump.
As we paddled toward the power plant, I could see that at 50, it was oxidized, rusted, and wheezed faint white smoke. The Port of San Diego, which owns the plant and the 160 acres on which it sits, leases it to Dynegy, a Houston-based power producer. The San Diego Union-Tribune has reported that, among other things, it leaks chlorine and copper. The California Independent System Operator, which regulates the power grid here, has long resisted efforts to shut the plant down, arguing that it has been needed as a backup source of electricity. But just this October, under pressure from activists and politicians, the state agency decided that the plant isn’t needed. Dynegy spokesman David Byford is now saying, “Our operations will cease at the end of the year.” That will be none too soon for the creatures that make this area their home.
In the summer of 2009, a man in San Diego pleaded guilty to dumping concrete, paint, and rust into the bay to avoid disposal costs while repairing a boat in 2006. He was arrested in Malta and extradited to the United States. Justice has been done: the law enforced, reaching even to offenders far off. But offenders nearby, such as the power plant, have long been overlooked. In 2006, Michael Foster, coauthor of a California Energy Commission report and a marine biologist in Moss Landing, estimated that California’s 21 coastal power plants kill up to 50 million small fish and larvae per day.
Reflecting on the Chula Vista power plant, Jim Peugh of the Audubon Society has said, “I know a lot of herons that would sue if they could.” And not just the herons; the mudsuckers living in the bay could easily win a class-action suit. The old metal beast’s once-through cooling system can suck in millions of gallons of water a day and send it back out as much as 20 degrees hotter. The wee creatures of the bay could have argued before the bench that once-through was one time too many.
But this evening, out on the bay, was free of litigation or spectators. A few fast-flying elegant terns whizzed overhead. The tourists who crowd to SeaWorld and the zoo miss this one. Over 200,000 people live in the city of Chula Vista, more than 3 million in San Diego County, but the south end of San Diego Bay was virtually empty. Nothing new here; this area has been relatively devoid of tourists for years. The boats that motor or sail out of the J Street Marina typically head north toward Coronado’s beautiful Glorietta Bay or under the graceful curve of the Coronado Bay Bridge and out along the edge of Point Loma where the bay opens to the ocean.
The dying wind blew softly with us now. We arm-powered toward the oozing, rusting industrial relic with high expectation. Then we stopped paddling and drifted — alone.
Why motor, sail, or paddle south? The whole of the South Bay is largely industrial. North of the South Bay Power Plant sits Goodrich Aerostructures, ensconced in spaces formerly occupied by Rohr Industries. In 1940, Rohr, an aircraft-manufacturing company, put up a 37,500-square-foot warehouse on the Chula Vista bayfront, eventually expanding to 600,000 square feet. In 1997, Rohr, Inc., became a subsidiary of the BFGoodrich Company. Its big square buildings, some new and glassy, and its huge, abandoned, cracked, and weed-infested parking lots, while set back, still define this part of the bay.
Next door and right on the water is the Marine Group Boat Works, a boat-repair facility that works on superyachts and military and commercial vessels. Here concrete docks meet dredged bay waters. The original shoreline has been destroyed, and a large dock juts prominently into the bay, but the company has put effort and money into being environmentally friendly. It has a curbed storm drain system where 100 percent of runoff is captured in a 60,000-gallon storage tank. A 665-ton Marine Travelift, while towering over the bay, does allow the company to lift its vessels onto land to perform repair work, keeping pollutants from entering the water. Projects that require sandblasting and painting are shrink-wrapped to prevent debris from entering the air. But along Bay Boulevard, the view of such businesses with the bay peaking through them is less than inspiring. Rolled barbed-wire rings the Marine Group Boat Works.
As you go south, rusting chain-link fences and No Trespassing signs define the view of the water from the street. The farther you go, the more the buildings and roads deteriorate, with only an occasional wild radish or a bright yellow mustard to add any grace to broken asphalt, weedy ditches, and sagging fences. An odd collection of businesses are in residence here and there, set at varying distances from the water — a medical institute, a cable company, several business parks, a welding-supply company, and at the southern extreme, the South Bay Salt Works.
This historic company, its roots dating back to the 1870s, has significantly deformed the south end of San Diego Bay. Taking up roughly 1000 acres, it produces salt in large evaporation ponds, bordered by old plywood walls and dirt levees. Due to the current hypersalinity of the ponds, native wetland vegetation and bay invertebrates are absent from most of them. The only fish in the ponds come in with the initial intake of tidal water. Once in the system, they can only survive in the lowest-salinity ponds; they cannot escape back into the bay. They do not reproduce. Because of the high salinities within most of the salt ponds, this area provides very little habitat for fish and aquatic plants.
And yet, as is true in many wetlands that have been harmed by business, life has survived in the ruin. The levees that define the ponds are now quasi-islands, nesting grounds for elegant terns, royal terns, and least terns. Brine shrimp and brine flies abound. Researchers have even found extemophiles, microorganisms called haloarchaea, living in the ponds’ highly saline waters.
But on the warm San Diego afternoon that we paddled out into the bay, we weren’t thinking of industry; we were floating in the bay’s shining waters, blessed by a steeply angling sun, ogling the beauty, looking for wonders. We turned in the kayak and looked west toward the Pacific Ocean. The roar of cars on Interstate 5 at our backs, we could see the Silver Strand running north from Imperial Beach to the almost-island town of Coronado, a beautiful narrow strip of sand crowned with red-tiled roofs and glowing palms. Condos, big houses, boat slips, the Hotel Del Coronado, upscale retail — more contrast to the industrial shoreline behind us.
We were floating in the middle of four worlds — one touristy, one residential, one marshy, and one belchy and industrialized. We luxuriated in this watery commons, we soaked in the distances, we beheld the reflective plane, the flat lines as beautiful as those in a John Marin seascape, and then we turned back toward the power plant. My eyes traced the long line of one of the earthen dikes built to create its intake and discharge channels. What a contrast to Coronado’s strand. Chula Vista’s thin strips of fill material are as ugly as a ransacked room, narrow lines of eroding fill dirt and pieces of broken concrete. As we sat in our quiet watery moment, the beauty of the bay broke through like a shy smile. The departing sun glittered across the ocean, over the strand, down the bay, and onto our faces. The breeze became gentle, the water smoothed, and then suddenly, very near, we saw what we had come to see.
A large, curious head and curving protective shell broke the surface of the water. We weren’t alone. Swimming very near was a giant green sea turtle, one from the group of turtles that have made their residence in the warm waters of the power plant. One doesn’t have to go far in Chula Vista to see the marine treasures. We had come to find them, and they were here. In 2009, Forbes magazine rated Chula Vista as one of the most boring cities in America. That’s interesting. Are there boring places? Or are there only bored people in uninvestigated places?
We watched transfixed as the turtle broke the surface, opened its mouth, and then slipped back into the depths. It was a sighting of a wonder. It fell into the neural folder in my mind that held all the other sea turtles I have ever encountered. It found space beside the turtle I swam with two years ago on a gorgeous California summer day in La Jolla. That day, my marine buddy and I paddled together from La Jolla Shores to the La Jolla Cove through glitteringly clear water, moving in tandem through the sparkling blue Pacific.
It landed in the same neurological row as the baby turtle I discovered while snorkeling off the west coast of Maui last summer. I found this little one on the bottom, sleeping under a rock shelf, then coming up to breathe with me and descending again in a slow arc to safer quarters. Sea turtles — they are part of the beauty that we paddle through life with.
Sixty or so green turtles, Chelonia mydas, live in shallow waters off the shores of Chula Vista. They are an isolated colony, far from their relatives living to the south in Los Cabos or in the Gulf of Mexico. The community’s matriarch is a turtle named Wrinklebutt. In 2006, researchers weighed her at 574.2 pounds. The Union-Tribune labeled her “the largest Eastern Pacific green turtle on record.” She is the superyacht of the San Diego Bay.
But how utterly embarrassing for her — to be an aging, green Chelonian, have your weight published, and your derriere memorialized in your nickname! Other members of the community have fared better, receiving monikers like Barnacle Bill, Donna, and George. For the past 20 years, researchers have sought them out for study and friendship.
Researchers have asked: “Why are these turtles here? Is the warm water from the power plant the draw?” No one seems quite settled on the answer, but life is always finding a crack in the cement, a shaded corner, a mud puddle, a heated spot in a polluted bay. An eyesore to one is home sweet trashy home to another.
In Chula Vista, ironically, and perhaps fortunately, industrial trolls have stood guard over this turtle slum and have prevented the public’s encroachment into these industrialized waters. Except at the J Street Marina, there are few or no doorways from the city streets to the south part of the bay. Try to get in and you are met with No Trespassing signs and fences around the power plant and the big-box buildings. It isn’t easy to see the terns down at the saltworks. That’s good for the terns, but for years, various visionary leaders in Chula Vista and San Diego have wanted to open up these areas to public use. For some, the tendency has been to look at what San Diego did with its waterfront as a model.
North of the Coronado Bay Bridge, the tourist destinations begin, Coronado Ferry Landing, the San Diego Convention Center, Seaport Village, San Diego’s embarcadero, Harbor Island, and Shelter Island — all plump with motels, restaurants, and shops. Here are the reasons for Chula Vista’s long-standing admiration of San Diego. The old tuna fleets have been replaced by dinner cruises, whale-watching tours, and ferry rides. On the waterfront, people board cruise ships and historic ships. The north end of San Diego Bay is a retail and recreation bonanza, a ubiquitous assemblage of riprap seawalls, flat lawns, queen palms, and shop counters where locals and out-of-towners slide credit cards, eat good food, and stroll the waterfront with their families. Once mudflats and salt marsh, the northern edges of the bay are now filled and deepened, shores maximized for walking, shopping, and boating.
But this came at a price — to wetlands. North Island, at the end of Coronado, was commissioned a naval air station in 1917. At this same time, the Navy Department purchased Dutch Flats, a semisubmerged tideland located halfway between the naval coal depot on Point Loma and the downtown waterfront, and began a massive dredging and filling operation. The City of San Diego donated 500 acres of adjacent tidelands to complete the package.
Dredging the harbor for large naval ships, adding fill to extend usable land, building seawalls and docks, it was a boon for San Diego real estate and the local economy, a great opportunity for the Navy, a step forward toward greater protection of our country, but it was another of many deaths suffered by San Diego Bay’s mudflats and tidelands. It was a death sentence to many of the plants and animals that made their homes there. Today, docks and ships cover what was at one time a sanctuary for marine life. Some of the life is still there, but it is a barnacled, clammed, and small-fish existence, clinging in murky waters to the pilings of docks and the bottoms of boats.
Fortunately, it is too late for the south end of the bay to reprise this kind of development. The destruction of significant areas of San Diego Bay’s wetlands was carried out in another era, a pre-green mentality with pre–Endangered Species Act thinking. The guiding concepts of preservation, harmonization, and mitigation weren’t on the docket. But they are now, and so there is an opportunity to optimize the functionality of what is left.
The South Bay Unit (3940 acres) of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge was dedicated in June of 1999. This was the dream of San Diego’s environmental community for years. With 90 percent or more of submerged lands, intertidal mudflats, and salt marshes eliminated in the north and central bay, the South Bay refuge will work to preserve and restore the remaining southern wetlands, mudflats, and eelgrass beds to ensure that the bay’s migrating and resident shorebirds and waterfowl will survive into the next century. There is now an environmental awareness, and there are supporting laws that simply didn’t exist when so much of San Diego’s beautiful bay was ravaged by development.
Now there is a chance to do something special, to develop the southern part of the bay in ways that value and protect the wetlands and the turtles and the eelgrass and yet accommodate the business and recreational needs of the community. Chula Visa has an opportunity to do something San Diego didn’t do: harmonize housing, recreation, business, and the natural world. This is the new model, to honor natural history while making new history.
When Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed into this natural bay in 1542, he sailed into a wildlife sanctuary. The Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge provides us with a hint of what he must have seen, sinuous marshy channels with stingrays slicing along the bottoms and crabs skittering along the hole-filled mud banks. He must have cast his eyes over a whole bay of salt marsh and tideland and seen thousands and thousands of birds feeding in and flying over clean, sparkling water. The inner shores of what he named “San Miguel” must have been green, teeming with marine life, thriving with biota. And now, except for a battered slice of cordgrass, an odd patchwork of salt marsh, a small collection of shorebirds gathered on an isolated mudflat in the south part of the bay, much of what Cabrillo saw is gone. And in some cases, due to the pollution of the bay, even the life once thriving on the bottom has been replaced by dead zones and black sludge beds. The bay, juxtaposed with its past, is strikingly altered, but not entirely.
Recently, a friend of mine, biologist and conservation specialist Jeff Opdycke, pointed out to me that the South Bay is “wildlife’s last toehold here.” He spoke of being in meetings with developers on projects elsewhere and hearing them quip sarcastically to each other, “The last developer gets the park.” Well, in the case of the San Diego Bay, the last developers really do have the extremely enviable privilege of getting, or at least restoring, the wildlife park.
Some steps have already been taken. The Port has removed old boats from the bay. Some old buildings have also been removed from the waterfront. San Diego Gas and Electric has removed some of the huge transmission towers that run to the power plant. Two hundred thirty acres of existing salt ponds at the South Bay Salt Works, located on the west side of the Otay River channel, are in the process of being restored to shallow, subtidal, and intertidal habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and the Port of San Diego. These acres are being removed from the existing commercial solar-salt operation of the saltworks.
And a big step in the commercial redevelopment of the Chula Vista bayfront was taken early this year when the board of port commissioners approved a land exchange between the Port of San Diego and Pacifica Companies. The resolution swaps 97 acres controlled by Pacifica on the northern end of the bayfront near the Chula Vista Nature Center with 35 acres closer to the Chula Vista harbor at the end of J Street. This move will be a step toward keeping development away from the national wildlife refuge and the nature center. Pacifica plans to build a 250-room hotel and 1500 condominiums on the land. A 1500- to 2000-room resort and conference center, two more hotels, and environmental buffers are expected to be part of the redevelopment project. Last week, the State Lands Commission approved the land exchange, and the project now awaits California Coastal Commission approval.
Redevelopment of the South Bay will be a lengthy process and require some hard paddling into the wind. Environmentally enlightened decisions for the South Bay aren’t a given. Even as recently as 2009, there was a proposal to consider the Chula Vista power plant site as the location for a football stadium for the Chargers. Some local officials were excited about this. It hasn’t worked out, but should it have under any circumstances? Are a towering sports stadium and a flood of traffic harmonious with a low-lying salt marsh? Future development needs to work for both creatures and people, so both can enjoy the unique nuances and surprises of the bay. The elegant tern needs an elegant solution. The green Chelonia mydas needs a green solution, more eelgrass, not more concrete.
It might be argued by some developers that mudflats and salt marshes aren’t that attractive. They certainly aren’t if when the tide goes out the mudflats are littered with beer bottles, plastic cups, and shopping carts sunk in the mud, as is now the case at the foot of Chula Vista’s J Street. And mud isn’t as pretty when a plant that is a part of the ecosystem, like the lovely, sky-poking cordgrass, has been destroyed. But watch a great egret stride like a leggy model over a mudflat runway, pure white splashed against dark brown, lounging toward dinner, and you have seen something elegant and fine, a stunning natural beauty.
The San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge has as part of its vision statement to provide the public with the opportunity to observe birds and wildlife in their native habitats and to enjoy and connect with the natural environment. The objectives of the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan include a continuous shoreline pedestrian walkway. At the Chula Vista Nature Center, gardens featuring beautiful native species have been planted, a model for what could yet come to the whole South Bay. Of course, future bay amblers will also see ship masts, bistros, condos, and quite likely a convention center, hotels, and other remaining businesses. But if the big projects are properly guided, there will be a nature corridor along the bay where one might walk paths among native sages and California buckwheats; happen on kestrels, hawks, and shrikes; look bayward over California sealavender, salt grass, and pickleweed; and see black-necked stilts and American avocets at the edges of the water. Waterfowl and shorebirds stop or overwinter here to feed and to rest as they migrate along the Pacific Flyway, so the possibilities of what strollers might see are exciting.
The question is, what will it really mean for the South Bay to “get the park”? It will mean that developers, government agencies, city leaders, and citizens will not only develop the bay’s uplands for business but will also redevelop and sustain the bay’s uplands, tidelands, and mudflats for wildlife. This is the new challenge of a new era, for people and wildlife to share the land and the water. It will not mean to slam a pile of boulders, some fill dirt, a little lawn, and a few palm trees up against the water. It will mean not going too high with buildings, not going too dense with housing, not getting too greedy with commercial possibilities, not getting too close to wildlife with countertops and credit-card machines, and not leaving the wetlands plundered.
And it will mean an enlightened step beyond that. It will mean allocating a significant, continuously renewable pile of dollars to expand the restoration and preservation of the mudflats and tidelands. This won’t be cheap, or easy. Brian Collins, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the South Bay, speaking from restoration experience, says, “What you need for a salt marsh is salt marsh soil.” Soil with toxins in it won’t grow a garden. Some areas of potential still exist in this traumatized bay, but they are in need of vision, creativity, and a pile of money as high as the highest salt mound at the saltworks.
The Chula Vista Nature Center, located in the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, recently got a lesson in how important funding is to environmental causes and how fragile it can be. In 2008 and 2009, when the City of Chula Vista felt it could no longer afford to operate the nature center, there was talk of closing it. Fortunately, city leaders, residents, and volunteers rallied, forming an organization called the Friends of the Chula Vista Nature Center to raise the needed support to stay in operation. To be sustainable the center is now pursuing funding from a diversity of sources: private donations, corporate investment, and public money. Some of Chula Vista’s businesses have led the way in helping. The Marine Group Boat Works has donated all the food for the animals at the nature center for 2010. The South Bay Fish and Grill, a restaurant on the bay, has catered meals for fund-raising, providing all the food free. Both of these businesses are helping the nature center work at better marketing itself.
This is a model for the future; those who get to live or work by the water, those who get to look at the bay from their condominiums, shops, convention spaces, and hotels are the very ones who should help pay to beautify and maintain what they get to gawk at. Too often the money is put aside to create something, but not enough is allocated to steward it. But with sustained resources and effort on the part of everyone involved, the South Bay could become and remain a delight. It will never be what it was when Cabrillo sailed into the bay, but it can and should be more beautiful and habitable than it is now, for the wildlife and for the people who now possess it.
All the myriad government agencies, cities, fund-raisers, political powers, and involved citizens can become the last developers who “get” the park. To do this, they will have to work together and pay together from public, private, and corporate pocketbooks. But they should, because this matters; this matters hugely. There are superb opportunities here to restore natural history and to create venues for wildlife-dependent recreation, for bird-watching, kayaking, fishing, biking, and walking in sight of the water. The national wildlife refuge here is now a public trust, waiting for the next generation of enlightened imaginations to plan and create and fund.
As my wife and I paddled back from our turtle encounter, back toward the marina, through the sunlit jewels on the water, I was moved by these spaces. The sun was setting over the Pacific in soft, warm tones. A glitter path formed on the water in front of us. Birds whirled overhead. My wife and I paddled in unison, our blades entering the water at the exact same moment. We swung our paddles with strong, deliberate stokes, much like the movements of all creatures moving toward home in the evening. We reentered a settled place, the boated sanctuary of the J Street Marina, and coasted into water calm and smooth.
This urban-wildlife interface, where the city meets the water, is one of the last smudged lines between development and the natural world that might yet invite us to unharbor from a day’s work, to savor a sweet and natural serving of beauty, and to sit and down a mug of therapeutic distance. Rachel Carson wrote, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength.…”
We need such strength. We need the strength transmitted to us upon seeing a black skimmer drag its lower beak in the water as it flies, the surprise of seeing a snowy egret spear a lunch, the possibility of seeing a peregrine falcon take a shorebird in midair, the kick that comes from seeing a fish jump clean from the water even if we can’t say just what kind of fish it is, the hope of seeing a 574-pound green Chelonia mydas named Wrinklebutt.
We need a break from sheetrock, paint-covered walls, and hurtling cars only six feet away — all day. We need the refreshing option of soaking our eyes in a watery commons and in distant, therapeutic volume. We need the core strength that open spaces have to offer, spaces to sit, to eat, and to walk with the people we love.
Will the South Bay get the park? It should. And if it does, the rest of San Diego and a bunch of ambling, out-of-town water lovers and a Cabrillo-sized flock of birds will come down to the bay to take a good, long, much-needed look at the beauty wrested from the ruin.