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On a Sunday, I went out to see what all the fuss is about. There were few golfers playing the course, but the club’s facilities, including a lodge for players wanting to stay overnight, look to be in fine condition. What glimpses I could get of the river, without trespassing to cross the fairways, revealed a narrow passage of water whose banks are infested with the invasive Arundo donax, a species of giant cane. The conservancy has already received over $900,000 in state and local funds for a habitat restoration project adjacent to the golf course on the east.

This section of water has been crucial in the plans of the San Diego River Park Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to give the river its own voice.” Those are the words of Rob Hutsel, the foundation’s executive director. During an interview at Hutsel’s office on Pacific Highway slightly north of the river, he elaborates. The foundation establishes green belts and trail systems all along the 52-mile-long river, from its headwaters near Santa Ysabel to its entrance into the sea at Ocean Beach’s Dog Beach.

Carlton Oaks Golf Course lies between Santee’s Mast Park on the east and Mission Trails Regional Park to the west. The San Diego River Park Foundation wants to build a trail system that connects the two parks. Where exactly to place the trail on or along the golf course still awaits decision. Hutsel believes that his organization, the golf course, the San Diego River Conservancy, and the cities of Santee and San Diego should all participate in deciding the best route. Some participants in the discussion so far have assumed the trail will run on top of a berm along the river that reduces its overflows. But that’s squarely in the riparian environment and would affect its ecology. “The trail needs to be placed a ways away from the river so that doesn’t happen,” Hutsel tells me. “But how would that affect the golf course? Would it need to be redesigned? Would fences need to be built to protect trail users from being hit with golf balls? And who would pay for these things? All these are questions that still need to be decided.”

Hutsel seems to wish San Diego’s Real Estate Assets Department had not moved so quickly to sell the crucial parcel of land to the golf course owners. He believes the City should now take another six months to get the trail planning right ahead of finalizing the sale. “The City of San Diego has a unique responsibility to the river. The U.S. Supreme Court gave them its water rights [in 1930]. Since they were given the water rights, we believe they need to be stewards of the river and its environment.

“There’s no other place except next to the Carlton Oaks Golf Course to have the river park trail connection we need. And once you sell that City property to a private owner, there’ll be no more public leverage over the trails. Sure, the golf course operator says, ‘Hey, we’ll work with you on trails,’ but we don’t know where the trail needs to be, so until that’s decided, this sort of loose language that says we’ll work with you isn’t satisfactory.”

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