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Poseidon, U.S. Fish & Wildlife launch wetlands restoration in South Bay

Partners in a plan to restore 125 acres of degraded coastal wetlands as a mitigation project for the Carlsbad seawater desalination plant celebrated the start of construction Friday morning in Imperial Beach.

The Otay River Estuary Restoration Project in South San Diego Bay is a joint effort by the desalination plant operator Poseidon Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to improve the habitat for native fish, plants and birds, particularly migratory shorebirds and other salt marsh-dependent species.

The mitigation project is required by the California Coastal Commission to compensate for the marine life that is drawn into the desalination plant’s intakes and killed, primarily fish eggs and other small organisms. The plan includes a 30-year independent monitoring program.

“This project is a perfect example of how environmental stewardship and water sustainability can go hand-in-hand,” said Poseidon Resources President Sachin Chawla, at the groundbreaking ceremony near the end of Florence Street in Imperial Beach.

Built over three years at a cost of about $1 billion, the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant is the largest and most technologically advanced desalination plant in North America. It began production in 2015 and supplies about 50 million gallons a day, or 10 percent of the drinking water consumed in San Diego County.

The restoration site is 45 miles south of the desalination plant, in part because Poseidon had trouble locating a large enough eligible site any closer to satisfy the mitigation requirement.

Planning for the wetlands restoration project began 11 years ago, and construction was delayed at least a year for a number of reasons including the need to obtain permits from multiple local, state and federal agencies.

“It is amazing how many agencies you have to go through to permit a project like this,” said Dan Malcom, chair of the Port of San Diego Board of Commissioners, which provides access to the restoration site.

About 80 percent of Southern California’s coastal wetlands has been lost to development and much of the rest is degraded, Malcom said.

Two separate restoration sites are included within the 2,620-acre wildlife refuge. One is 34 acres east of 13th Street in the Otay River floodplain near Imperial Beach. The other is 91 acres of an existing solar salt pond west of the intersection of Bay Boulevard and Palomar Street in Chula Vista.

Construction is expected to take three years, and much of the work is limited to between Oct. 1 and Feb. 15 to accommodate bird nesting season.

The salt ponds are part of the South Bay Saltworks, an operating salt factory that has had dozens of evaporation ponds in San Diego Bay for more than 150 years.

Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, praised the restoration as “a durable solution to benefit wildlife and local communities.”

“Science is showing us more and more how important these estuaries really are,” she said, and the site “will receive the life-restoring ebb and flow of the tides for the first time in more than 75 years.”

The restoration also benefits residents who will have improved access to the wildlife refuge for hiking, biking and birdwatching, said former San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox.

“It used to be we’d just put up a fence and tell everybody to stay out,” Cox said.

People are more enlightened now, he said, pointing to cyclists passing nearby on the 24-mile-long Bayshore Bikeway. There will be multiple viewpoints, staging areas and other places where visitors can see the restoration work.

The planned restoration was good news for Kelly Clarke, who was taking a walk along the edge of the bay with her 20-month-old granddaughter Arabella Cardoza.

“We love it,” Clarke said. “We just come here for the wildlife and the flowers.”

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