A long-planned 115-acre lagoon restoration project in Del Mar is on track after an appellate court rejected neighboring property owner's lawsuit over the restoration. Two to three years worth of work to restore San Dieguito lagoon could begin as soon as 2005.
The project at the mouth of the San Dieguito River is one of half a dozen lagoon restoration projects in central and northern San Diego County. Some projects remain in the planning stages, while several others — including the Batiquitos Lagoon restoration in Carlsbad — are complete and in the monitoring stages.
"The lagoons in north San Diego County are pretty degraded," said Ellen Lirley, a coastal planner for the California Coastal Commission. "A lot of it is due to sedimentation from upstream. A lot of development has occurred in close proximity, so the species stay away."
All of the projects are similar. Dredges or other heavy equipment remove sand to open the mouth of the river, ensuring tidal action flushes the lagoon. Non-native plants are replaced. And scientists monitor the situation to determine when further intervention is necessary to keep the wetlands healthy.
Advocates say the projects are important because they return some of the few remaining Southern California coastal wetlands to a more natural state, which is beneficial to fish, birds and other wildlife. And the projects are important to public health because they prevent the accumulation of stagnant water that lets mosquitoes breed and causes fish to die. Many of the creeks and rivers actually carry more dry-season water nowadays because of urban and agricultural runoff, Lirley explained. But because beach sand can naturally close off river mouths, the non-natural summertime trickles accumulate at the end of rivers, exacerbating stagnant water problems. And with West Nile Virus moving into California, mosquitoes are a bigger concern than they have been for decades.
"It's definitely much healthier to have a healthy water body next to you than one with stagnant water and dead fish," said Doug Gibson, executive director of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy. "It's definitely a necessity to keep these [river mouths] open."
But while the projects along the San Diego County coast are similar, public reaction has not been. Volunteers and contractors have been actively restoring the San Elijo Lagoon in Encinitas — including opening the river mouth — since 1994 and have earned widespread support. An even older project at Penasquitos Lagoon also has been well-received. Yet the project at San Dieguito Lagoon, which has been 10 years in the planning stages, has had to overcome strong local opposition.
Gibson and San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority (JPA) Executive Director Dick Bobertz said the difference is that wealthy homeowners live next to the San Dieguito Lagoon and the beach, while the San Elijo and Penasquitos projects are at state beaches.
"We worked on getting support from everybody — the residents, the businesses, the cities," Gibson said. "They did it at San Dieguito, too, but they couldn't get the residents on board."
Different but related groups of Del Mar's beachfront homeowners have fought the San Dieguito JPA and the City of Del Mar's river mouth opening projects, which have been ongoing since 1999. Some of the residents' houses are in the surf zone (some structures have tenuous legal status) so residents are very concerned about anything that could affect the beach. They also are concerned about the impacts of increased public access that would come with new trails at a restored lagoon.
Residents argue that opening the San Dieguito River mouth might decrease the amount of sand on the beach south of the river. They further contend that because Southern California river mouths close off naturally, the lagoons should be freshwater wetlands.
"There are reasonable and rational alternatives that don't require this huge expenditure of funds" and don't allow plumes of pollution to be flushed onto the beach, said Ronald Zumbrun, an attorney for a group called Citizens United to Save the Beach, which includes beachfront homeowners.
In July, an appellate court allowed to proceed a lawsuit filed by that organization over the city's efforts to keep the river mouth open. Despite that lawsuit, the city has continued its project, which can cease once the JPA's more extensive project begins.
In a lawsuit against the JPA, a group called the Del Mar Sandy Lane Association argued that the EIR for the project was based on speculative modeling. The owners won that argument and others against the EIR at the trial court level. But in an unpublished ruling issued in August, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the EIR, including the modeling.
Bobertz and other lagoon restoration advocates — as well as the scientists who did the modeling for the EIR — say that opening up the river will allow more sand to naturally replenish the beach. And sand dredged from the river mouth opening will be used to preserve beaches, according to the lagoon restoration plan.
A number of developers and cities are interested in the various lagoon restoration projects as mitigation for development, the Coastal Commission's Lirley said. Generally, volunteers or entities without much money have written the lagoon restoration plans, so developers can play an important role by funding the restoration work. In fact, Southern California Edison will fund the San Dieguito Lagoon restoration project — estimated to cost $50 million to $100 million — as mitigation for continued operation of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. The utility is responsible not only for initial capital costs, but for ongoing maintenance of the lagoon as long as San Onofre remains open. Edison also must fund an endowment for perpetual maintenance.
Bobertz said the JPA would start working in earnest on getting permits for the project now that the Sandy Lane litigation is finished. The JPA needs permits from about 14 different agencies — everyone from the cities of Del Mar and San Diego to Caltrans to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"There is a lot of room for more arguing," Bobertz said. "but we're hoping it won't be too bad because all of these agencies commented on the environmental document."
Barring additional litigation, construction could commence in 2005.
Dick Bobertz, San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, (858) 674-2275.
Ellen Lirley, California Coastal Commission, (619) 767-2370.
Doug Gibson, San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, (760) 436-3944.
Ronald Zumbrun, attorney for Citizens United to Save the Beach, (916) 486-5900.
San Dieguito JPA website: www.sdrp.org