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Coastal issue #637: Where shopping carts go to die

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
January 6, 1999


Last week I was asked to accompany a few members of the Escondido Creek Conservancy on a walking tour of the creek from which the Conservancy takes its name. Hardly an idyllic afternoon walk, this was a sobering look at damage being done to Escondido Creek, its biotic community and the San Elijo Lagoon, not to mention human residents downstream.

Knowing he had a sympathetic ear, the conservancy's director spent two hours venting frustration over the City of Escondido's complete lack of environmental stewardship in regards to the creek that unfortunately bears it's name. As the Escondido creek passes through the city not an inch has been spared the injustice of cement. Question? When is a creek not a creek. Answer: when it is in Escondido, then it's a huge storm drain. On the day of our tour, it was also doubling as a sewer.

At Escondido's North-Western boundary, where Harmony Grove Rd. crosses over the creek, I was able to look east and see nothing but cement. Looking west I was able to see a riparian wetland, seriously disturbed and littered to the point of offense, yet still recognized as habitat. Looking down I saw an, all to familiar, contamination sign that had been posted that morning. To my left, just beyond the trees was the Hale Avenue Resource Recovery Facility, aka HARRF.

Operated by the City of Escondido's Utilities Division, the resource being recovered at HARRF is waste water flowing from that cities toilets. Yards from the Escondido Creek, the city has been conducting treatment and reclamation operations. I was brought to this tragic location because the city of Escondido wants to expand the treatment facility into the Escondido Creek floodplain.

The problem is, the City of Escondido wants the federal government to pay for the expansion of the Hale Avenue Resource Recovery Facility, but federal funds are not available for projects built in flood plains. To get around such environmental considerations, a "mitigation" has been planned that will move the flood plain north into an area currently being used for dumping gravel, cement slabs, and shopping carts. Once moved, the creek will be placed between vegetated earthen berms. Then, in theory, federal funds become available for expanding the sewage treatment facility. Question? When is a creek not a creek?

Meanwhile, the residents of Elfin Forest, Olivenhain, Rancho Sante Fe, Encinitas, and Solana Beach sit unsuspecting. We started the December 28th creek tour at the Elfin Forest Forest Recreation Reserve, no contamination signs were posted here, although there was visible patches of that dirty fecal foam resting in the eddies of the creek. It was to this backdrop I listened to how the Escondido Creek Conservancy was formed 1989 to combat the abuse of this riparian corridor. Unfortunately the damage had already be done in Escondido.

The one thing I got from my tour was Escondido's and the permitting agencies that oversees public works, complete disregard for environmental sustainability is only shifting impacts of over population to communities downstream. Over population is at the foundation of Escondido's need to expand it's sewage treatment operations. And instead of doing so in biologically responsible way, they are continuing that's city's historical relationship to the environment.

Needing help from of other cities, I was approached by the Escondido Creek Conservancy because "Escondido only listens when properly agitated." Leonard Wittwer, the director of the conservancy, believes that if other municipalities were made aware of what their neighbor to the east was doing, responding to their own self interests, coastal cities would force Escondido to clean up it's act.

It seems ironic that even as the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy continues to restore and preserve San Elijo Lagoon and the ecosystems surrounding it, upstream the watershed that supports it is constantly being undermined by the city of Escondido. When a creek is encased in cement entire habitats are erased. No longer serving a biological function, this natural occurring water resource serves only the task of processing human waste. Thereby robbing the rest of us of something irreplaceable. A century from now will there be any creek remaining? At the rate things are going I seriously doubt it.

The theme for the next 100 years should be one of regional vision, because without limitations, regulation, and most importantly cooperation, Escondido will continue to degrade coastal quality of life with every flush of the toilet. With that in mind I invite everyone to add creek restoration to their New Year resolutions. The Escondido Creek Conservancy can be reached at (760)471-9354.

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