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A watershed moment in bioregionalism

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
May 15, 2003


"The long fight to save wild beauty represents democracy at it's best. It requires citizens to practice the hardest of virtues…self restraint." — Edwin Way Teale

Some of you might want to sit down while reading the following commentary. In a fit of unchecked optimism it seems I have some happy news to report. Maybe happy is premature. It's hard to be happy about the struggle to protect biodiversity in San Diego County. Let's just say I have good news about ongoing environmental stewardship efforts.

Hopefully any lapse into Pollyanna idealism will be forgiven.

On Cinco de Mayo…I attended the first meeting of the Escondido Creek-San Elijo Estuary watershed Protection Cooperative Agreement. Held at the Encinitas City Hall, and attended by 3rd District Supervisor Pam Slater, representatives from the cities of Encinitas, Solana Beach, and Escondido, as well as members and staff of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy and the Escondido Creek Conservancy (ECC). This gathering was the long overdue first step towards sound ecological planning. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

For decades as North San Diego County experienced runaway sprawl destroyed every remaining wildlife habitat and open space, protecting the San Elijo Estuary and the watershed that replenishes the ecosystem, was a matter of triage with concerned citizens trying to stay one step ahead of the bulldozers and developers. Nothing was safe; from ridges to wetlands conservation activists were fighting a lonely battle against the unrelenting tide of overpopulation. Unfortunately none of these conservation groups were working together.

The operative word being ‘were.'

As a confirmed bioregionalist, I went to the meeting with a sense of dread. Was this going to be just another call for studies, and delay tactics, regarding the restoration and preservation of one of the few remaining viable coastal wetlands left in California? Precedent suggested it would. Will ladies and gentleman, precedent was wrong. Not only did everyone at the meting see a need for immediate action, there were players around the table that could make things happen.

Although chaired by Encinitas City Council woman Maggie Houlihan, the clear and concise Doug Gibson, Executive Director of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, led the meeting. Also lending considerable clout to the proceedings was County Supervisor Pam Slater. For those not keeping score Supervisor Slater has worked tirelessly to promote environmental preservation and the expansion of protected lands buffering the fragile coastal estuary. Listening to Ms Slater connect the biological dots regarding the importance of maintaining the ecological well being of the 84.6 square mile watershed that stretches from the headwaters of Escondido Creek to the earthen berm that is Highway 101, made me believe that such an monumental undertaking was possible.

Key to the success of this long-term vision is the cooperation of the three cities that bookend the watershed. Which by the comradery that was evidenced by the first meeting told me this was not going to be a problem. Staff was on board and ready to go, as were representatives of County and State parks. The only group missing was Fish and Wildlife, but they are usually a buzz kill. There absence was noted, but no one seemed concerned, Something tells me they'll want their piece of the action soon enough.

Also present was the formidable team representing the Escondido Creek Conservancy, Jerry Harmon, June Rady, and Deborah LeLevier. Again for those of you not keeping score, the ECC is a conservation powerhouse working to protect the Escondido Creek watershed from backcountry sprawl. I am also happy to report Alan Thum, a scientist with the Wetlands Recovery Project, was another active member in the conversation.

This gathering only marked the beginning. By the end of the two hours of time allotted an outline of intention was defined. To protect the 77+ sensitive species inhabiting the watershed more than talk was needed. Key projects discussed were property acquisition, the removal of non-native species, enhanced water quality, habitat restoration, and environmental education and outreach. Individually, this would be a daunting if not impossible task. This is the glory of bioregionalism. By working together the 3 cities, two county districts, state, federal, and non-governmental organizations can have the ability to protect one of the few remaining wetlands in state.

Yes, there is a lot of work to be done, and not a lot of time to do it. And yes there are many people who would like to see these efforts fail. What else is new? All I know is I walked out of that meeting feeling like hope was still possible, and that maybe, just maybe the tide was beginning to turn.

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