November 2011 home page



The story of the San Dieguito Lagoon and River Park is an amazing example of environmental protection against incredible odds. We bring you that story in three installments through the words of the leaders themselves.

Nancy Weare, Brooke Eisenberg, Jan Fuchs, Alice Goodkind
and Reggie Phillips. 1990s. Photo courtesy Nancy Weare


Nancy Weare | Ocean View Avenue

The Role of the Del Mar San Dieguito Lagoon Committee in Preserving and Restoring the Lagoon: Early History

Phase 1 Getting Organized and Shaping the Vision

Coastal lagoons, including San Dieguito, are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world. Their special attributes include: high biological productivity, flood absorption and water filtering capacities, aesthetic and recreational opportunities, open space, and the ability to act as fire breaks. Rapid growth has lead to the destruction of more than 90% of California’s historic wetlands and the extinction of many species of plants and animals.

The San Dieguito Lagoon was once the largest of the six San Diego County coastal lagoons according to the 1889 Coast and Geodetic map, which depicts several miles of tidal channels and marshes extending inland well beyond I-5. The river to the lagoon carried water from the full San Dieguito watershed so river channels were periodically flushed, allowing sand transport to beaches and tidal water circulation throughout the lagoon ecosystem. But by the early 1970’s development in the river valley had reduced the San Dieguito Lagoon to about 200 acres west of I-5 and its watershed to about 46 square miles west of Lake Hodges. This led to frequent closing of the river mouth, poor water circulation and extreme variations in salinity. The effect was to minimize habitats, decrease the diversity of wildlife, and to limit the ability to get rid of pollutants.

In 1972, a group of concerned residents (including Dave Keeling, Joe Lang, Margaret Porter, Rachel Reed, Stuart Resor, Walta Ross, Nancy Weare,) discussed how to reverse this trend. Their vision of a restored lagoon was recognized by the City of Del Mar, making them a standing city committee in 1974.

Their charge was to prepare a plan for protecting, revitalizing and managing the lagoon ecosystem for the upcoming Coastal Act. Other committee members were added: Jack Bradshaw, Allan Carson, Don Coordt, Ed Coughran, Jeannie O’Toole, Margaret Porter, Herb Turner, Gill Williamson and Jerry Winterer. In 1974 the California Department of Fish and Game and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service recommended the San Dieguito lagoon for top priority acquisition. In 1976 the California Coastal Act was enacted and the lagoon was defined by the California Coastal Commission as a sensitive resource area worthy of special protection under this Act.

In 1977, the Cal Poly Design Group translated the San Dieguito Lagoon Committee’s vision for a restored lagoon into a comprehensive report which convinced the California State Coastal Conservancy to grant the City of Del Mar funds to prepare an official Enhancement Program for the San Dieguito Lagoon west of I-5. Del Mar Planner William Healy was instrumental in guiding the Lagoon Committee to this goal. In 1979, the San Dieguito Lagoon Resource Enhancement Program was completed and adopted as an official planning tool by the City of Del Mar. The program received many national and local awards, including an Orchid for environmental design by the American Institute of Architects Association (1987). Presentations by the Lagoon Committee helped to generate strong broad-based local and statewide support for the program objectives. The Enhancement Program received the endorsement of many state agencies, local jurisdictions and community groups (e.g., the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Torrey Pines Community Planning Group, the Del Mar Rotary and Optimist Clubs and the Del Mar Chamber of Commerce). In 1986 the Lagoon Committee was invited to give a presentation at the first and only joint meeting of the Del Mar and San Diego City Councils (held at UCSD). In 1988 the Coastal Commission invited the committee to give a presentation, a first for small local community environmental groups.

A key issue in the Enhancement Program was how to keep the river mouth open because the health of the lagoon depended on good water circulation. With the cooperation of local government and state government agencies initial enhancement projects were carried out in 1980-83. Channels were dredged and a new 70-acre water basin, which included a Least Tern island, was constructed on land bought by California Fish and Game just west of I-5 near Crest Canyon. These initial projects allowed the river mouth to stay open for several years. The consequent revitalization of the lagoon ecosystem clearly demonstrated the excellent restoration potential of the San Dieguito Lagoon.

However, increasing frequencies of lagoon closures indicated that the tidal prism needed to be considerably expanded to maintain a healthy, well circulated lagoon. In 1986, a report of the Department of Fish and Game stressed the importance of preserving floodplain habitat areas and adjacent grasslands east of I-5. The report warned that it was doubtful if existing wetland values in the San Dieguito Lagoon could be maintained without these lands mostly in private ownership. Restaurants, hotels and housing developments were being proposed for large pieces of property in the floodplain both east and west of I-5. Clearly Mission Valley style development was still possible. The Lagoon Committee with additional members Pat Bone, Janice Carl, Gloria Gobar, Alice Goodkind, Lee Haydu, Joyce Mattson, Lynn Mohns, Freda Reid, and Wade Walker turned its attention to extending restoration plans east of I-5.
The Lagoon Committee and other environmentalists formed two organizations in 1986: San Dieguito River Valley Land Conservancy, and the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley to accomplish a far reaching goal…that of preserving open space and habitat areas and creating a trail system along the entire 55-mile long San Dieguito River Valley. The Conservancy would focus on acquiring river valley land through grants, donations and mitigation. The Friends would focus on education and political action. These groups, along with the Del Mar San Dieguito Lagoon Committee, encouraged the formation in 1987 of a multijurisdictional Task Force under SANDAG that would have the sole purpose of creating the San Dieguito River Valley Park. In 1989, this Task Force became a separate Joint Powers Authority. One of the important objectives adopted by the JPA was that: “The San Dieguito lagoon/wetlands ecosystem shall be enlarged and restored east and west of I-5.”

(Next month we will continue to recount how this vision began to be implemented.)



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