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River Partners in San Diego

By David Neubert, River Partners

San Diego County is one of the most biologically diverse parts of our country. It contains more threatened and endangered species than any other county in the U.S.

(Above) The DFW Hollenbeck Wildlife Area at the Rancho Jamul Project.

January 2008, River Partners staff made their first exploratory trip to San Diego to look at habitat restoration opportunities. Before we departed Chico, we cold-called Mr. John Willett, Chair of the Otay Valley Regional Park Citizen Advisory Committee, whose name kept popping up on Google whenever we looked up the Otay River. We pitched him on River Partners’ capabilities and asked him if he thought there were any opportunities to do riparian habitat restoration work in San Diego County. John enthusiastically suggested that we come to his house for a meeting with other stakeholders to discuss opportunities. Further, he offered to organize the entire event and assured us that people in the South Bay area of San Diego were interested.

The Otay Delta Project at the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Arriving at his tidy house in Chula Vista on a sunny winter day, we were ushered into his garage, which was set up as a make-shift war room for Otay River restoration and clean-up projects. Maps hung on the walls with arrows and dots pasted on them. Flip-charts and tables were set up and chairs were in place for the upcoming meeting. As people began arriving at the appointed time, our 85 + year old host enthusiastically greeted them and graciously introduced River Partners staff. It was obvious to all that John Willett had great passion for habitat restoration, a love of his community and possessed boundless energy.

As the meeting broke up a few hours later River Partners left with the support of a wide variety of local, state and federal stakeholders - all of who were, to one degree or another, infected with John’s passion for the Otay River.

Returning to Chico, River Partners was soon able to secure $25,000 in funding from the Resources Legacy Fund to undertake a pre-restoration plan for the Otay River. Later that year, the pre-restoration plan evolved into grant proposals for Caltrans, the San Diego Foundation and later to the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB). These grants helped fund approximately 50 acres of habitat restoration at the point where the Otay River flows into the San Diego Bay, on U.S. Fish and Wildlife property, which we called the Otay Delta project.

Just as our projects in San Diego began to gain momentum, the U.S. economy went into a tailspin after the credit and housing bubble burst in the fall of 2008. We were able to secure funding for the Otay Delta project, but other projects we had lined up were frozen as the State’s financial machinery ground to a halt. Like the rest of the economy, it took several years for the State grant machinery to begin operating again.

The challenges we faced were not just limited to securing financial support for our Otay projects. In San Diego, buying municipal tap water for large-scale restoration projects is cost-prohibitive. To control costs in Southern California, we needed to identify alternative irrigation water sources. At Otay Delta, we found a nearby agricultural well that had been developed more than 60 years earlier. The challenge was that the well was located on the east side of the I-5 freeway and our project was located ¼ mile away on the west side of I-5.

A Few of River Partners’ Favorite Customers in San Diego

Cactus wren

Cactus wren

Quino Checkered-spot butterfly

Quino Checkered-spot butterfly

California Gnatcatcher

California Gnatcatcher

Least Bell’s Vireo

Least Bell’s Vireo

In searching for a solution on how to move the water, our field foreman took a simple and practical approach – he found the old irrigation main line and hooked it up to a 1,000 gallon water tank, pressurized it and looked for leaks. Luckily, the leak was on the opposite side of the freeway so we knew there was an existing pipe we could tap into.

The next challenge was getting the irrigation pipe across the Otay River. To lay a new pipe would involve years of complex permitting and hundreds of hours of staff time. We again pressurized the pipe with water, looking for the point where it crossed under the river, but this time we found no leaks. After considering our options we ran a radio transmitter down the pipe and found the point where it crossed the river.

These are just a few of the typical challenges our team faces in Southern California where our restoration sites may lie next to freeways, industrial parks and mile after mile of urban sprawl. Although the field operations and partnerships in San Diego are complex, we have full backing of the community, elected officials and local institutions.

As the economic thaw began, in 2011, River Partners received WCB funding for the 178-acre Rancho Jamul project. This project was located on the Department of Fish and Wildlife Rancho Jamul Ecological Preserve and the Hollenbeck Wildlife Area. Dulzura Creek, which flows through the project area, is used by the San Diego City Water Department to transfer drinking water from the Barrett Reservoir to the Lower Otay Reservoir. When transfers occur, the creek provides an important groundwater recharge source for our wells that irrigate the Rancho Jamul project.

In 2012, the Upper Otay project was approved for funding by the Department of Water Resources. Soon after receiving the award letter for the 71-acre Upper Otay project, River Partners applied for and received additional Caltrans funding for 25 acres adjacent to the Upper Otay at Proctor Valley. With only twelve inches of rainfall per year, water is always a limiting factor in our San Diego projects. In this case, River Partners negotiated an agreement with the City of San Diego Water Department allowing us to draw water directly out of the Upper Otay Reservoir to irrigate our restoration site. The reservoir is partially recharged by landscaping runoff that escapes from the neighboring subdivisions that were built in the 1990’s. Ironically, some of this water originates from as far away as Lake Oroville near Chico and is shipped to Southern California via the California Aqueduct.

Our next project, at the San Dieguito River, received funding approval in September 2013. The 100-acre site contains a number of abandoned agricultural wells that River Partners will rehabilitate for irrigating the restored riparian habitat. After the restoration site is irrigated for three years, the native plant roots will be tapped into groundwater and will be self-sufficient. At that point, we will turn off the pumps and return management to Mother Nature.

As River Partners enters its 15th year, our San Diego office is working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the WCB to design and fund the 128-acre Rancho Jamul Phase II project. This project will fill in a gap and link together earlier projects to form a continuous five mile riparian corridor on Dulzura Creek.

San Diego County is one of the most biologically diverse parts of our country. It contains more threatened and endangered species than any other county in the U.S. River Partners’ projects are specifically designed to create habitat for these listed species. In the coming years, we will be monitoring for a diverse mix of critters including the Quino Checkered-spot butterfly, Arroyo toad, San Diego Horned lizard, California Gnatcatcher, Cactus wren and Least Bell’s Vireo to name a few. Success of our 500+ acres of restoration in San Diego will be measured by our ability to provide habitat to these rare and endangered species as will enrich the lives of people throughout the County.

We all owe a debt gratitude to John Willett and the many other people in San Diego who have supported our work and welcomed River Partners into their community.

The above article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of the River Partners Journal.