Southern California, Where Rivers Go to Die


Michelle Mairesse

Long ago, they came down from the mountains, surging across broad plains, swirling around bends, rushing down hillsides, oozing through marshes in their ceaseless journey to the open sea. The rivers. The life-giving rivers. The rivers California poisons and kills.

With the widest range of climate, landforms, and rivers in the United States, California has only recently enacted laws to protect its precious wetlands. In Northern California, the abuse began with the Gold Rush boom. After the forty-niners abandoned their exhausted claims, hydraulic mining debris so accumulated in rivers and streams that the great floods of the 1880s devastated the land. Concerned only with short-term effects, the federal government sponsored artificial channels and dams as flood control measures. Still, the booms and boomlets continued. Logging, irrigated farming, and urbanization flourished, inflicting more damage on the watersheds--erosion, pollution, groundwater contamination, depleted estuaries, and denuded beaches.

Southern California, where rivers often run dry in the hot season, reeled headlong into the boom fever. Thirsty Los Angeles drained the Owens Valley and channeled the Colorado River so that every housing tract in this semi-desert could have indoor plumbing and irrigated green lawns. The Army Corps of Engineers obligingly encased the Los Angeles River in concrete channels to make way for commercial developments, freeways, and parking lots.

In southernmost Southern California, San Diego County, some rare rivers and streams have been damaged beyond repair. The Santa Margarita is the only remaining free-flowing river in coastal Southern California. All the others have been dammed, diverted, undergrounded, or mined.

Most of the coastal cities from Oceanside to Solana Beach are struggling to save their beaches from erosion. Only the Santa Margarita deposits its replenishing sand on the beach, but even that sand is lost to southerly beaches. The Camp Pendleton boat basin and the Oceanside harbor both act as a barrier, forcing Oceanside into an expensive dredging and pumping program that creates an artificial beach.

We have learned the hard way that every alteration in rivers, creeks and, indeed, all wetlands affects near and distant watersheds, floodplains, habitats, and coastlines. Sometimes the effects are insidious, as when beaches slowly turn rocky. Other times, the effects are dramatic, as when underground springs erupt.

For decades, while biologists were bringing up startling and valuable information from the ocean depths, the most productive ecosystems on the planet were being destroyed all over America, the complex, self-sustaining, life-giving wetlands.

The creeks and rivers of San Diego County, vital links between the upper watersheds and the ocean, are still being ravaged. A half-dozen sand-mining companies operate today along the San Luis Rey River. The urbanized sections of Escondido Creek, Loma Alta Creek, Buena Vista Creek, and Agua Hedionda Creek flow in concrete channels, sometimes underground.

In city after city, creeks have been diverted, culverted, and paved to provide parking for commercial developments.

Carolyn Chase of the Sierra Club, says that "the fact that flooding in the floodplain merits headlines in all media outlets just exposes how disconnected we have become from our sense of place. 'Fashion Valley ought to be renamed Fashion Valley River,' declared one local TV-news reporter. Excuse me! He was standing next to road closure signs in their usual positions across Mission Valley roads built without bridges through the San Diego River. Regardless of what the city calls it now, it has been a river bed for thousands of years, and will remain so."

Residents of San Diego County have been profligate with the riches that lie within the borders of this unique area, where there is greater biodiversity in its twenty climatic zones than in any other county or state. (Neither tourists nor schoolchildren visit the botanical gardens in Kansas.)

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that more than ninety-two percent of California wetlands have been lost. Vernal pools, occurring only in San Diego County and Mexico, and providing a habitat for rare organisms like the fairy shrimp, are almost extinct here. Wildlife agencies say less than two percent remain.

Creeks and rivers are still being shunted into concrete channels. The Army Corps of Engineers is having another look at concrete channels. Not only are they expensive to install and maintain, but what is worse, they cause unpaved sections to erode, they are eyesores, and they destroy habitats above and below ground.

That's right, below ground.

Scientists who have turned their attention to riparian research were astonished by their own findings. There is more to a river system than meets the eye.

Think of the river as a mushroom clump. Whenever you see a tiny ring of mushrooms, you can be certain that as much as a mile of spores grows underground. So it is with a river. Beneath the streambed is a dense substructure of life, of organisms. They feed on the river, and the river feeds on them. Destroy these organisms, and you destroy the underground water supply.

Biologists no longer speak of a food chain, but of a food web. Industrial pollution and pesticide contamination can quickly turn teeming fisheries, bird sanctuaries, fields and orchards into lifeless wastelands. The interdependence of all life is borne in upon us each day.

The world's rivers, both great and small, have played vital roles in the destiny of cities and nations. They are deeply embedded in our collective psyche as a symbol of life itself. When there is a choice to be made between a parking lot and a river, choose life.