The Dream of a Canal From San Diego Bay to Mission Bay

by on September 30, 2022 · 8 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

Back in the mid to late 1990s, during the Mayor Susan Golding administration, the grandiose idea of creating a canal between the two bays, San Diego Bay and Mission Bay, was alive. With the then recent closure of the Naval Training Center — now Liberty Station — there was interest in a canal. It seemed more than a dream at the time.

It won support from public workshops on the future of the Midway area. And from Mayor Golding. For a while at least, the canal plan was dubbed “Golding’s Locks.” As U-T columnist Michael Smolens reported in 2020:

In 1997, the North Bay Revitalization Advisory Committee recommended that the water link be included in future land use plans, according to the city.

According to a city document profiling the Midway-Pacific Highway Corridor:

“Development of a canal linking San Diego and Mission Bays through the Midway community would be a critical step towards revitalization of the community.”

But — now over twenty years later, we can see that the canal plan never drew water. It faded away, like the fog of Point Loma.

Yet — now, the dream is back!

With the confluence of two events, the dream of a bay-to-bay channel has been resurrected. Maybe.

With the redevelopment of the Midway District grabbing people’s attention — along with the waterway beside NTC Park ready to be transferred from the Navy to the City, U-T reporter David Garrick raised the dream back up from the depths of the murky waters near Shelter Island. And the Peninsula News of the Pt Loma Association recently highlighted it:

Garrick also resurrected a dream we had heard little about in recent years.

“The boat channel is a key part of ambitious plans to someday create a bay-to-bay water link. Such a link would connect San Diego Bay – at the end of the boat channel – to the San Diego River and Mission Bay by constructing a canal usable by small boats.”

Peninsula News asks: “Would that fit in with future plans for the Midway District?”

It turns out the dream of a canal has been around for almost a century. “The project was mentioned in the city General Plan in 1926,” Smolens adds. Plus, “The 1974 report ‘Temporary Paradise?’ renewed ‘calls for a water connection between the two bays,’ the Midway profile says.”

So, what was it?

It was a dream of creating a waterway of up to 100 feet wide, surrounded by parks, walking and bicycling paths, along with hotels, retail and other uses. All sorts of small watercraft common to Mission and San Diego bays would have been allowed to traverse the canal: kayaks, canoes, rowboats, outriggers, water taxis, small power boats and sailboats with retractable masts.

For your information, here are portions of the profile of the plan by the City:

Development of a canal linking San Diego and Mission Bays through the Midway community would be a critical step towards revitalization of the community. The idea of a bay-to-bay link was documented as early as 1926, when the connection was mentioned in the General Plan. The landmark 1974 report Temporary Paradise? renewed calls for a water connection between the two bays.

However, development of a canal linking San Diego and Mission Bays could result in adverse impacts to endangered species, wetlands and environmentally sensitive habitat areas. Therefore, the canal cannot be constructed without further assessment of environmental impacts and a further amendment of the Local Coastal Program Land Use Plan. Development of this area as a linear park or waterway is a Plan alternative that does not require future amendments to the Local Coastal Program Land Use Plan.

Recently, the closure of the Naval Training Center, re-use of the former Plant 19 site (renamed as the Navy’s Old Town Campus) for space and naval warfare research, and the real possibility that the former main post office and the Sports Arena may be relocated or down-sized, have revived interest in the bay-to-bay link as a way of bringing in new and exciting development to the community.

A series of public workshops in 1994 resulted in a report recommending that the water link be built. In 1997, the North Bay Revitalization Advisory Committee recommended that the water link be included in future land use plans.

Action Plan from City profile.


Complete development plans of a bay-to-bay water link through the community as an urban and recreational amenity to improve the image of the community and stimulate revitalization and development.

Such a water link would connect San Diego Bay, from the end of the NTC boat channel, to the San Diego River by constructing a canal that can be navigated by small hand-powered and motorized watercraft. Completion of such plans will require further environmental assessment and amendment of the City’s certified land use plans. Develop this area as a linear park or waterway if plans for the bay-to-bay water link are not approved. …

Canal Alignment

Reach 1

From its terminus in NTC, the canal would exit the base and cross Barnett Street in the vicinity of Gate 1. Crossing Barnett, the canal would then run through the Gateway Village Housing site, with new housing built on the remainder of the parcel around the canal.

From here, the canal runs through the paved parking/storage area on the north side of the U.S. Post Office parcel, and then through a portion of the western parcel of the Navy’s Old Town Campus (former Plant 19 parking lot), north of the warehouse currently under construction.

A variation of this alignment would keep the canal running through the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot parallel to Barnett Street, then running through the post office’s south parking lot, and then through a portion of the western parcel of the Navy’s Old Town Campus. This alignment is somewhat less likely, because traversing MCRD appears incompatible with Marine operations at this time.

Either alignment ends, for this segment, at Rosecrans Street north of Sports Arena Boulevard. Both the preferred alignment and the variation take advantage of existing publicly-owned land and keep the canal at a relatively low and even elevation.

Reach 2

Reach 2 brings the canal from Rosecrans Street to I-8. Alignment options in this reach are few. The conceptual alignment is from Rosecrans Street, between Sports Arena Boulevard and Kurtz Street, which contains existing private commercial facilities, and then the City-owned Glasshouse Square retail area, Sports Arena and Red Lobster retail centers.

The canal would exit the community by flowing under I-8 west of the Sports Arena. Since the parcels involved are, for the most part, large sites with numerous development possibilities, the canal can be sited anywhere within those parcels to best suit planned development.

Reach 3

In developing plans for this segment, the goal is to locate this segment in the San Diego River flood control channel. The bay-to-bay canal would be constructed as a separate facility within the flood control channel; a jetty separating the two channels would be required. The bay-to-bay canal would likely parallel the flood control channel along the southern rock jetty, and then cross north to enable watercraft to exit the channel to the Pacific Ocean and/or Mission Bay.

A gate or lock would probably be needed to protect the bay-to-bay canal from flooding during storm events. However, until further environmental studies are completed, the canal connecting San Diego and Mission Bays cannot be constructed.

Canal Dimensions

The bay-to-bay canal is envisioned as a waterway navigable by small hand-powered watercraft (e.g., kayaks, canoes, outriggers) and by small motor craft (water taxis, trailer-able boats).

Wind-powered boats could traverse the canal only with sailing masts retracted. This design feature will lower the costs of canal construction (water depth can be reduced) and of bridge construction (clearance can be reduced). The depth of the canal need not exceed ten feet at low tide, and the bridge clearance need not exceed ten feet at high tide.

The conceptual canal design calls for a 200-foot-wide canal and associated open space throughout its alignment, although variations in width are expected.

These dimensions include a 75 to 100-foot-wide waterway, zero to 75 feet for canal sides, which may be either sloped back and lined with rip-rap or straight-sided concrete, and 25 to 50 feet of sidewalk, bike path, and landscaping on one or both sides. Reductions in the width of the canal should be considered when existing development precludes a wider canal; when finger canals or offshoots bring water elements into adjacent areas; and for small parcels where the full right-of-way would preclude reasonable development. The width of the canal will also be re-evaluated following more detailed engineering studies.

Canal Design

The bay-to-bay canal would be designed as a tidal canal connecting two tidal bodies of water. It is anticipated that the canal would ebb and flow with the daily tides. The canal would be designed as a 200-foot-wide facility because a narrow canal would have ditch-like appearance at low tide. However, a detailed engineering study is needed to analyze currents, sediment transport and amplitude differences between the two water bodies.

What happened to all these earlier plans to revitalize the Midway District?

Is the dream still on?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kirk Mather October 1, 2022 at 2:25 pm

I thought it was odd Garrick mentioned Bay to Bay (B2B). If it had any backing from the city the post office reuse and Sports Arena reuse plans would have had at least a linear park as a possible route.

I worked for Golding during reuse planning and Byron Wear during NTC specific use planning. B2B never, as best I can recall, pencilled as something worth it’s cost. Maybe Garrick could name anyone still considering the idea.


Geoff Page October 2, 2022 at 2:41 pm

I could never get over the image of Susan Golding’s “canal.”


Kirk Mather October 2, 2022 at 5:24 pm

Ron Burgundy is disappointed in youb


Geoff Page October 3, 2022 at 11:02 am

But why? I’m staying classy.


kh October 3, 2022 at 1:19 pm

Sounds more like a river-to-harbor connection. I like the concept, but not sure exactly how you connect to Mission Bay. Isn’t the entire point of rerouting the river and directing it out with jetties was to keep the run off and sediment from that massive watershed out of Mission Bay?


Gravitas October 4, 2022 at 9:34 am

Just in time to take advantage of the possible elimination of the 30 foot height limit!!!
Imagine that. A nightmare. Not a dream!


Brian Thomas October 6, 2022 at 12:17 pm

I think the Bay to Bay Canal is a wonderful idea. I heard stories of my great grandfather canoeing and duck hunting using the marshes of east Mission Bay, the San Diego River and marshes where the airport is now to transit by canoe from Bay to Bay. The canal could be a connection of small lakes. It should be a tidal canal and would need dredging at TBD intervals to keep it open. It should have more park land and less commercial use. It could be a beautiful addition to our city.
Brian Thomas, Staff Commodore SDYC 619-997-5220


virginiamae October 29, 2022 at 6:13 am

Let’s keep this dream alive! Such a waterway with linear parks along its banks could be a tremendous asset for the Midway district, and for all of San Diego. This would reduce the local deficit of parkland, and be a magnet for kayakers, SUPs, walkers, and birdwatchers. I imagine we have already spent a small fortune on consulting fees and preliminary design, and wonder if sea level rise was factored in at the time. Could it be engineered to reduce the future risk of flooding in the surrounding area?


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