San Diego River? “There is no San Diego River,” says Pete Cuthbert. “What you’re dangling your toes in is the Colorado River, the Sacramento River, the Feather River — but not the San Diego River.”
“Not the San Diego River…?”
“No. This San Diego river water is basically runoff from the lawns and cisterns and radiators and factories and gas stations of San Diego, via polluted tributaries like Forester Creek in El Cajon. And we get most of that water from Northern California. Without runoff there would be no river, period. Not at this time of year.”
Pete and I are sitting at an idyllic pond above the Old Mission Dam. It’s a June morning. The day is just warming up. Around us the trees and scrub grow wild and messy, pretty much as they did in Kumeyaay times, I’m guessing. Ten yards to our left, a blue heron stands statue-still on a spit of sand, looking for fish movement. Wouldn’t mind tossing in a line myself. This fresh morning, you feel a bit like Huck Finn heading out for an adventure up the river.
And, actually, that’s what we’re having. We’re setting out to see if this 52-mile-long ribbon of life still has life in it. Or if it has been dammed and developed and poisoned to death by us — the three million people who’ve come here to a semi-desert and expect water whenever we turn the taps on.
Because, come on: mentality-wise, San Diego is a beach town, right? Not a river town. We’re not talking Paris and the Seine (accordions, please), London and the Thames, Baghdad and the Euphrates, Cairo and the Nile. Why worry about this little local “upside-down river,” as the Kumeyaay called it in summer when the water disappeared and flowed underground? We have water from the north. The mighty Colorado is just a couple of hundred miles east. This local river has no spectacular rapids. It’s no Moon River, “wider than a mile.” It’s just something that floods Fashion Valley every winter, a wasteland where you toss your old mattress when nobody’s looking. Yard fences back onto it. Heck, it only gives us five percent of the water we need. It takes up valuable shopping space in beautiful Mission Valley, and it could be piped or sluiced through unseen concrete pipes to get out to sea. Especially if Pete’s right — that it’s kind of like the Salton Sea, just a collection point for pesticide/fertilizer/oil-laden runoff that you wouldn’t push your mother-in-law into. After all, L.A.’s done it, TJ’s done it: laid a concrete bed, got rid of the messy riverbank ecology with its bushes where homeless hide out and West Nile virus mosquitoes breed, and just turned it into a pragmatic ditch. Why should you have to deal with the gritty water, the flooding, the bridges…
Guess the problem with that is, well, think Twain: Huck Finn. Think Grahame: The Wind in the Willows; or Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party; or Andy Williams crooning “Moon River”… River culture is so damned seductive. The feeling that life is born here. This moment. Sitting by a pool of brownish but clear water, tossing Pooh sticks to see which will drift to the little waterfall first (you have read your Winnie the Pooh — A.A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner — haven’t you?), as if we were kids, dragonflies darting, unknown birds squeaking — least Bell’s vireos? — unseen in the trees, and the rustle of…snakes? No. Cheeky lizards. This is the other Diego. In the culture of beach, desert, and freeways, this green, cool, slow, secret world has been left out of the picture.
But now I’m in it, it’s growing on me.
It’s an eerie feeling, here among the trees, contemplating the river. Europeans have been here, what? Two hundred years. The Kumeyaay, 2000 years. The river, 2,000,000 years. This is not “our” river. We’re temporary shapers of its way. But it will have its way in the end.
Which is what Mr. Cuthbert is trying to show me too. He has been fighting to save San Diego’s modest river (its watershed — the area it draws its real waters from — is 400 square miles — compare that with the Tijuana River’s 1700 square miles) for half a century. He has walked most of its length. He’s compiling a book on the “Native Plants of the San Diego River Basin.” The man’s a walking watercourse encyclopedia. He wants to show me why this is worth saving from its abusers, from gravel-pit diggers, garbage dumpers, recklessly near-the-bank condo developers, levee builders, from a general attitude of disrespect and neglect. Twenty-five years ago, Cuthbert was the City’s park planner and project manager for a comprehensive “Preliminary Master Plan” for what was then called the “San Diego River Project.” The plan took years to work up. It went into all the problems and ended up, of course, on a dusty shelf. Cuthbert has what is probably the sole remaining copy.
Today, he’s going to show me what went into that report.
The River’s Upside-Down Today
“This is what I wanted to show you first,” Pete says. We’re at the Old 1815 Mission Dam, the earliest-known big dam in San Diego. “It was the first irrigation/flood-control project on the Pacific Coast,” Pete says. This was the place where the padres and the Kumeyaay worked together to provide the Mission with water. So the padres could plant their corn and raise their cattle, using the converted Indians as convenient labor, of course. Working in the fields for the Lord. Their work, our Lord.
But the dam certainly did get the Mission and the Spanish colonists going agriculturally.
I’m looking at this great, thick, brick and rock and cement wall that stands over 10 feet high, 10 feet thick, and runs about 245 feet across the river, like a Roman bridge. The water spills through a 12-foot center section where you can see slots for planks to complete the damming process. We’re about six miles upriver from the San Diego Mission. The padres needed constant water for their fields and for themselves, and, then as now, the San Diego River was a stop-start affair. Either flood or drought, it seemed. So in 1813, 195 years ago, right on this spot, which is now part of the City’s underappreciated Mission Trails Regional Park, their Kumeyaay converts recommended a place for a dam with a flume to run the water down to the Mission. They used kilns here to make a mortar of lime and seashells to cement rocks together, a method brought directly from Rome. Then they built the six-mile cobblestone flume lined with ceramic tile (also shaped and baked here), placed like upside-down roof tiles.