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Restoring A Natural Connection In Chula Vista

KPBS - By Erik Anderson, December 16, 2013

CHULA VISTA — A San Diego County habitat restoration project is aiming a doing more than just reviving a wildlife area that's been robbed of its natural beauty. Plants and animals are getting the immediate attention, but there's hope for even more.

A California environmental group is investing three years and nearly $2 million to revive the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve east of Chula Vista. The river habitat lost most of it native plants during the 2003 Harris Fire. This is part of a larger effort to restore 300 acres of the Otay River watershed.

Martha Martinez walked recently across a revamped spit of land just south of San Diego Bay. The 20-year-old California Conservation Corps team leader scoured the area. She was looking for plants that should not be there.

"So basically non-native plants, rip out the roots," Martinez said as she wrapped her gloved hand around a plant stem and pulled. Martinez leads a crew managing the day-to-day work required for the restoration of this riverbed habitat. On this day, that work was weeding and repairing irrigation lines.

"Oh this is easy," Martinez said as she pulled up an irrigation tube gushing water. "I just have to connect it."

The drip-line was fixed in about a minute. It was put in place to help nourish the fledgling native plants. But animals know there's water here too. Sometimes they bite through the lines for a drink. Martinez makes sure the lines are fixed and feeding the restoration and not interlopers.

"Today we're doing this side," Martinez said as she pointed to the western edge of the reserve. "Tomorrow we're going to do the other most likely. And we come back tomorrow and this is going to be done. It is going to feel like I accomplished something."

Two years ago, Chrysanthemums and other non-native weeds ruled here.

"This area was farmed until about the 1970s. And then it just laid barren and nobody did anything with it so it was a big weed patch," Heyo Tjarks, River Partner's southern region project manager, said. "The overgrown land was nothing but non-native plants that aren't beneficial to the environment or to wildlife."

He helped design the habitat recovery plan for this area. His company, Chico-based River Partners, planned and then planted more than 18,000 trees, shrubs and grasses. The idea is to create a natural habitat for plants and animals, according to Tjarks.

This project is well into its second year, but another component of the watershed restoration is just underway.

Tjarks is spending time doing the first round of planting at the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve at the other end of this watershed. Both parts of the watershed project focus on getting the right plants into the regions.

"We try to collect all of our own seed or cuttings from as close to the property as we can so we know they're adapted to this specific site," Tjarks said.

Young mulefat, arroyo willow, and cottonwood seedlings are planted in rows. Milk cartons protect the plants' stems. The plants will eventually create thickets that are rich with food and cover. That's perfect for a tiny endangered songbird, the Least Bell's Vireo. Habitat loss is the main reason for the fist-sized bird's problems.

The restoration efforts aim to transform a property quickly.

"We try and marry modern agriculture with cutting edge science," Tjarks said. "So we can kind of create a plant design or a site design of what we want and the habitat we want and then use all current agriculture techniques."

"As you saw, they were fixing drip-line irrigation system, they were doing some hand weeding, but we also mow use other measures. We can do a large scale project pretty economically and pretty quick."

Next year, all the irrigation lines will be pulled from the Otay Delta Riparian Restoration Project. The regular maintenance will stop, and the area will become what it is designed to be, a fully functioning, sustainable habitat.

The same thing will happen upstream at the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve site. Most of the project money comes from the California Wildlife Conservation Fund. But the watershed project also brought several groups together: River Partners, the San Diego Public Utilities Department and The San Diego Foundation.

"This project is very special because we're working with local partners on the ground to raise public awareness about the beauty of our region and really work to increase access to nature," Arisa Aurora Quiros of the San Diego Foundation Center for Civic Engagement said.

The watershed snakes through heavily populated southern Chula Vista. It provides a habitat corridor and it connects the city's residents with the region's natural wonders.

"You see the growth, you see what's possible with groups like River Partners coming in and partnering to restore an area like this. And because of the connection to the bikeway, it's really a beautiful place for San Diegans to come and recreate," Quiros said.

The restoration partners are creating an ecological foundation for the return of a vibrant natural habitat. Those aren't the only seeds being planted, according to the The California Conservation Corps' Martha Martinez.

"This is actually my first real job, that I've been committed to," said Martinez.

Working hard and seeing that hard work make a difference, carries its own reward.