It was one of those miracles that made the padres realize they could stay and make a go of it here after all. The water backing up behind the dam formed Kumeyaay (formerly Collins) Lake, 300 yards of potable (at least then), fishable, irrigation-capable water. In the years following, during the early 19th Century, the padres were said to have accumulated 20,000 sheep, 10,000 cattle, and 1,200 horses on their lands. All because back in 1774, they had elbowed aside the Kumeyaay village of Nipaguay and moved their Mission from Old Town’s Presidio up to near today’s Qualcomm Stadium. It proved a good site: Above the waters (the 1916 superflood came up to the fifth step of the Mission’s front staircase), yet accessible to fresh water, thanks to the flume.
Pete and I walk through flat areas that he says were occupied, back in 1774, by a Kumeyaay village. We look for some of the tiles that lined the flume. We find evidence of sleeping circles, circles of stone where Kumeyaay men, or women, slept. “Watch for those gopher holes,” Pete says. “Snakes often use them.” He hadn’t wanted to do this earlier in the day because rattlesnakes and their young often emerge from dens early to warm up. By now, they’re seeking shade under rocks. But we come around one bend to see a red-and-cream snake, maybe five feet long, sunning itself on the gravel road. It sees us and sidewinds off into the bushes. “Red racer,” says Pete. “Not poisonous. But when I was climbing this riverbed on my own, I brought a snake kit with me, just in case I surprised a rattler.”
What strikes me, as we drive up through Mission Trails Park, is how healthy and pristine the river looks. “Appearances can be deceiving,” Pete says. “The only reason fish survive in many of these patches of river is that the fertilizers from lawns promote plant growth, and even though that strangles the river, it provides oxygen for the fish to breathe in what would otherwise be dead water.” He drives me past admirable floodplain parks such as El Monte, a green, treed oasis among piles of sand and gravel, then onto a dirt road and through a valley busy with horse ranchettes. We’re headed for El Capitan, the dam that stops the San Diego River, and its fish, in their tracks. Finally, we turn right to cross the river — and drive over dry dirt.
“That was the river?” I ask.
“That was the river. Underground today.”
I think of the old Kumeyaay phrase, “upside-down river.” This is what they were talking about.
Rivers Need to Have a Life
And yet, farther up, near the river’s exit from El Capitan Reservoir, here it is gurgling again. We stop beside a gang of orange-jumpsuited female prisoners hauling beds and mattresses and lamps and garbage up from the side of the river and onto a truck’s flatbed.
“Would you drink this river water here?” I ask Pete.
He shakes his head.
“Look, the health of the river is directly proportional to the amount of water that flows down it,” he says. “Today, what we have in the San Diego River below this dam is largely what it gets from Forester Creek, which drains the El Cajon Valley, meaning runoff from people watering their front yards, draining their radiators, cleaning their roof gutters, and so on. The quality of Forester Creek is not good at all. And then we have other little creeks that come into the San Diego River, and they all contribute to its unhealthy state. And the groundwater is very poor quality. San Diego still has wells in Santee; they have wells in the Grantville area, but they don’t use them. The quality is bad. Very bad. It’s definitely polluted. If we have a good rainy season, that helps reduce the salinity in the underground water. It also helps clean up the rivers. But I would say today that the river’s not very healthy. There are a few reasons why: the bulrushes, the Arundo donax, cattails, nonnatives. The river can’t sluice them out. The dams are holding back the normal flow of water. You’d probably have a year-round flow if it wasn’t for the dams. The dams help our water supply. We’re taking more than half of the river’s water above El Capitan and San Vicente dams. But that’s only five to ten percent of the water San Diego needs.”
With dams, he says, natural processes grind to a halt. The fish can’t swim up to spawn, the floodwaters are held back so the river can’t clean itself out, then when there’s a really big flood, the dams spill, and it becomes very damaging.
“Rivers need to have a life,” he says.
And people get a false sense of security downstream. The sand and gravel companies dig big holes, which change the dynamics and temperature of the river flow. Developers build nearer to the river bottom (land right next to the bank). Cities build levees to stop flood waters spreading out. Result? Water, river denizens, and good fertile silt race out to sea.
So what happened to Cuthbert’s grand 1983 plan for the river…
…which he and the consulting company, Wirth Associates, submitted to the county?
“I prepared [a report] for the approval of the Board of Supervisors,” Cuthbert says. “We were going to hire a consultant to come up with a plan. A $300,000 plan. What to do with the river, recreationally and [financially, etc]. It was going to be a river-park plan. So then I came up with a large plan that I presented to the Board of Supervisors.”
Cuthbert and the consultants advocated habitat restoration and the transformation of much river bottomland into parks, aiming for riverside walkways “from the ocean to the mountains.”
“I garnered the best talent I could find,” he says. “And we had a pretty good relationship with the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, because they’re already acquainted with the project. It can be a juggling act, especially with 300 property owners, some of whom were irate. We had to convince them that we were not trying to take their property away, and in reality, we’re probably going to help improve their property values. I also tried to get funding for lower Mission Valley, and state funding, but it lost by one vote of a particular committee.”