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Conservancy Has Big Plans For San Diego's Overlooked River

It's easy to overlook the San Diego River, especially as it reaches the final stretch of its 52-mile journey from the inland mountains to San Diego's Mission Bay. The river is not a focal point of Mission Valley, as it winds past the parking lots of hotels, shopping centers and Qualcomm Stadium. Much of its water has been diverted into aquifers farther upstream. Its water quality is considered impaired under federal pollution standards. Homeless encampments are found at the river's estuary near the bay. But as dammed, narrowed and channeled as the river is in places, it also provides a home to many endangered or threatened species, and a sanctuary from urban life. The state-financed San Diego River Conservancy, which recently adopted a five-year plan for preserving the river, hopes to turn the river into a showplace for the city and the region, while preserving a key part of the environment. The five-year plan calls for spending $164.5 million to acquire land, restore habitat, improve water quality and study the river's hydrology. Money to implement the plan, however, is short. "When you look at the environmental challenges (facing the river), they really are quite different depending on where you are," said Jack Minan, vice chair of the San Diego River Conservancy. In its first 15 miles, the river is more pristine, and its water quality is good. At its source in the Cleveland National Forest near Julian, the river and its tributaries include magnificent waterfalls, such as Mildred and Cedar Creek falls. In recent years, environmentalists have tried to get this upper stretch declared a wild and scenic river by Congress. The free flow of water ends at the El Capitan and San Vicente reservoirs, built during the 1930s and 1940s to prevent flooding in the City of Santee and San Diego's Mission Valley. A seven-mile stretch of the river after the El Capitan Reservoir is still used for agriculture, followed by the remaining urbanized stretch through San Diego, where water polluted from freeways and streets enters as runoff. Although most urban rivers are similarly polluted, the San Diego River is by no means an urban horror story. Scattered throughout the river's path are a number of parks. They include the 5,800-acre Mission Trails Regional Park, which runs from Santee to San Diego, and is one of the largest urban parks in the country. Some of the parks are kept in a natural state; others contain athletic fields and urban park amenities. River supporters want to create more parks and a 52-mile trail to make the river, they are fond of saying, "like a string of pearls." Supporters envision saving wildlife while opening up the river to more recreational activities by humans. Currently there are only 8.5 miles of trail along the river. "We intend to link a bunch of parks into a continuous chain," said Deborah Jayne, executive officer of the conservancy. San Diego County has one of the highest concentrations of threatened and endangered species in the nation, and the river is home to at least 25 protected plants and animals. Endangered or threatened species found along the river include birds, such as the least bell's vireo and California gnatcatcher, the arroyo southwestern toad and plants such as the San Diego thornmint. Fish in its waters are non-native species, such as carp and bass. "We should have steelhead trout," said Rob Hutsel, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego River Park Foundation, one of several organizations that works with the conservancy to renew the river. "Most of the land on the river is or will be included within the regional natural communities conservation plans and multi-species conservation programs" being set up in the county to preserve endangered and threatened species, said Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League (see CP&DR Environment Watch, February 2003). Beck is also chair of the San Diego River Park Foundation and Lakeside's River Park Conservancy. Lakeside is an unincorporated community of 50,000 on the river. Its River Park Conservancy recently acquired 100 acres of land along the river. Counting donated land, the Lakeside conservancy has raised more than $20 million in only a few years, he said. It is a model of what the larger river conservancy hopes to achieve, he said. "It's typical conservation," he said. "It comes from hard work." The recently adopted five-year plan calls for purchasing 1,450 acres along the river at a cost of $73 million, and also spending more than $25 million to remove non-native species and restore wetlands. But sources of money are few at this point. The conservancy currently has $5 million in funds from Proposition 40 that were designated for the river. Future funding may have to come from state bond measures and possibly from programs that carry out local habitat conservation plans. "There are a lot of overlap activities," Beck explained. For example, he said, "a very significant part of the San Diego River in El Monte Valley will be included in the Helix Water District's NCCP." Many of the same agencies involved in local habitat plans also have been involved in planning river restoration. Jayne said the conservancy also hopes to receive future donations of land, such as 104 acres bequeathed to it recently near the river's headwaters. In addition, the river conservancy is applying for federal and state money, as well as private funding, she said. The conservancy intends to prepare a complete hydrologic study of the river to understand how the cumulative impact of land use decisions made by individual jurisdictions impact the waterway, Jayne said. In some parts of the river, heavy sand and gravel mining has changed the river, as gigantic holes have been gouged out. The river is one of the most heavily mined in the state, according to Jayne. Besides being an environmental resource for the region, the San Diego River is also considered an important part of San Diego's history. The state's first mission relied on it for water, and the city's presidio and first settlements were built nearby. Archeological finds indicate humans have lived on its banks for 8,000 to 10,000 years. The San Diego River Conservancy was created in 2002, and is one of the state's eight conservancies. The San Diego River Conservancy is scheduled to sunset in 2010. Jayne said she hopes the conservancy's track record before that deadline convinces the Legislature to keep the conservancy operating. Contacts: Rob Hutsel, executive director, San Diego River Park Foundation, (619) 297-7380. Jack Minan, vice chair of San Diego River Conservancy; professor, University of San Diego School of Law (619) 260-4607. Michael Beck, San Diego director, Endangered Habitats League, (619) 846-3003. Deborah Jayne, executive officer, San Diego River Conservancy, (858) 467-2972. San Diego River Conservancy: http://sdrc.ca.gov
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