What began as a small group of concerned citizens gathered around a kitchen table in Del Mar and Solana Beach in 1986 discussing how they might protect the San Dieguito Lagoon from impending development, grew into a vision for a San Dieguito River Park. Two volunteer organizations sprouted from that small group – the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley and the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy – dedicated to preserving the lagoon and eventually the river corridor. Recognizing the pastoral river valley as a treasure and an opportunity to preserve it, these community activists and politicians convinced local officials and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to develop a plan for the western San Dieguito River Valley, which evolved into a vision for an open space river corridor – a 55-mile long open space park along the entire river valley from Del Mar to Volcan Mountain near Julian. Using that momentum, a progressive move established a special purpose agency, the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority (JPA), to plan and implement the vision for the San Dieguito River Park. The San Dieguito River Park’s 94,000-acre Focused Planning Area (FPA), the viewshed from the river, became the basis for that vision – to preserve, protect and interpret the natural and cultural resources of the San Dieguito River Valley.
The San Dieguito River Park JPA was formed in 1989 and continues today to implement the vision. The JPA Board of Directors consists of members from the governmental jurisdictions that represent the River Park – the cities of Del Mar, Solana Beach, San Diego, Escondido, and Poway and the County of San Diego. Under the JPA agreement, each member agency is to contribute a proportional share of the operating budget for the JPA. Park projects are funded with public grants and private donations. The JPA is advised by a standing committee, known as the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), which is composed of 36 members. The members include community planning groups, homeowners associations, county wide planning and environmental organizations, recreational user groups and property owners. Once the JPA was established, it developed and adopted the San Dieguito River Park Concept Plan (1994) as a framework for park planning. A major goal of the Concept Plan is to establish a Coast to Crest Trail – a multi-use trail for hikers, cyclists and equestrians along the entire river corridor from coast to crest.
Armed with formal representation and an operational structure, the JPA and Conservancy began to acquire key land parcels from willing sellers in the early1990s especially in the San Dieguito Lagoon area where large residential land developments and hotels had been proposed. Hard-fought battles for wetland preservation continued during this period and San Dieguito River Valley supporters successfully stopped development from filling the western river valley and negotiated land swaps to move development projects out of the valley. Today, over 600 acres in the San Dieguito Lagoon and surrounding hillsides are preserved.
The first San Dieguito River Park trail opened in 1993 – the Highland Valley Trail in San Pasqual Valley. In 1999, the JPA staff moved their office from downtown San Diego to a converted 1920s bungalow in San Pasqual Valley along Sycamore Creek where the JPA purchased over 80 acres of land.
In 1992 the JPA, with the help of their partners, secured a key mitigation project by Southern California Edison to restore and create new wetlands at the San Dieguito Lagoon as mitigation for fish impacts at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. It took over ten years to plan and permit this mitigation project. Construction finally started in 2005 and was completed in 2011 with over 150 acres of new wetland habitat at the lagoon along with four new least tern nesting sites and a 2-mile long public trail along the restored wetlands. Edison will maintain the inlet channel for a 40-year period and the San Dieguito River Park received an endowment to manage the habitat areas and trails.
The JPA and the Conservancy have also been active in other land acquisitions, notably at Volcan Mountain, Lake Sutherland area, Bernardo Mountain (adjacent to I-15), and strategic areas in other parts of the river valley. Today over 65 percent of the FPA is in protected public ownership.
The Coast to Crest Trail currently extends 37 miles along the river, 23 miles of which is contiguous from Santa Fe Valley to Bandy Canyon and Highway 78 in San Pasqual Valley. Work continues on this regional trail, with 2 more miles of trail planned to open in the next two years. A feasibility study to extend the trail along the Del Mar Fairgrounds to the beach in Del Mar (a short, but challenging one mile) was recently completed and is a high priority to “reach the beach”.
Other San Dieguito River Park trails that are not part of the Coast to Crest Trail total over 25 additional miles. Finished in 2009, the award-winning Lake Hodges Bicycle/Pedestrian Bridge crosses Lake Hodges west of the I-15 and provides a non-vehicular link between trail systems and an alternative to the freeway for bicycle commuters. Opened in 2011, the first trail linking two regional trail systems, the Coast to Crest Trail and the Trans-County Trail in Poway, was completed in San Pasqual Valley.
Along with trails, the JPA and Conservancy have restored hundreds of acres of habitat within the River Park. As a land manager, the JPA receives land dedications and mitigation property with associated habitat management plans, which has created the need to increase its ranger staff to manage these lands. Invasive species management has also been a priority in the past decade and grants totaling over $1.6 million have been secured to remove species such as lipidium (perennial pepperweed), tamarisk, arundo, pampas grass, and eucalyptus that threaten the health of the watershed. The JPA also partners with its member jurisdictions to accomplish these goals.
Devastation touched the San Dieguito River Park in October 2007 when the Witch Creek fire blazed through 60 percent of the Park scorching hundreds of acres from Lake Sutherland to Rancho Santa Fe, destroying the River Park office headquarters in San Pasqual Valley and the recently-restored circa 1880 Sikes Adobe Historic Farmhouse. Recovery has been remarkably fast considering the extensive damage. In October 2010, the JPA moved into its new award-winning park offices in the same exact location. The JPA also obtained FEMA funding to repair many damaged facilities in the River Park and focused heavily on erosion control and habitat restoration.
Much work is left to do including completing the Coast to Crest Trail, constructing a lagoon nature center, restoring additional historic sites in the Park, and continued habitat restoration and invasive species removal.
The success of the San Dieguito River Park is due in no small part to an ever-increasing network of supporters, partners, volunteers, elected officials, and a formal government structure that has allowed the JPA and Conservancy to establish a track record of success and a positive reputation that builds on itself. Since its inception in 1989, the JPA has generated over $163 million in federal, state and local grants and donations for the San Diego region with cumulative assessments from its member agencies of $10 million, which represents a cumulative return on public investment of 1600 percent or an annual return of 11.7 percent for almost 25 years.
Not bad for what started as a simple idea to protect a lagoon.
Support the San Dieguito River Park today! Contact Leana Bulay, Interpretive Ranger at 858-674-2270 for volunteer opportunities or check out our website at: www.sdrp.org