More than 150 bicyclists, hikers, and equestrians heard less than good news Tuesday night, December 3, as the general manager of the Sweetwater Authority explained that a popular trail may be closed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
3218 Summit Meadow Road, Bonita
"Sweetwater must follow the law, so I have to prepare you for trail closure," said general manager Jim Smyth, his voice cracking as he said it.
The South Side trail wraps along the southeast edge of the reservoir. Though it's on water authority-owned land, the county has an agreement that allows the park to use the trails around the Sweetwater Reservoir.
Fish & Wildlife recently notified the water authority that fairy shrimp, an endangered species, have made a home in mud puddles caused by tire ruts along the trail. Though Fish & Wildlife noted the tiny creatures are dormant now, they will become active during the rainy season and trail-users will have to avoid the mud puddles for four to six months of the year.
The fairy shrimp apparently migrated from vernal ponds that Fish & Wildlife protects nearby, according to Smyth. A Fish & Wildlife entry in the 2007 Federal Register notes that the Sweetwater River area is the only place where two unrelated groups of the fairy shrimp reside. It also notes that more than 3000 acres of land throughout San Diego County have been designated as critical habitat for fairy shrimp.
It isn't clear what Fish & Wildlife wants the park and the water authority to do, and they won't know until after a meeting later this week, Smyth said. But park-users are upset, and past experience tells them they may lose a trail. The Bonita Horsemen's Association has already proposed fixes, including rerouting the trail and building a floating bridge over the mud puddles.
"The message being sent to us is that conservation equals the loss of recreational facilities," said Jason Showalter, a committee chairman with the San Diego Mountain Biking Association. "Conservation means keeping people out of recreation areas — conservation is becoming a dirty word."
The mud puddles were caused by trucks driven by contractors mitigating for fairy shrimp in other areas, one local resident pointed out. The locals say Fish & Wildlife constructed ponds for fairy shrimp in a protected area some years ago.
"The vernal pools [here] were created by your trucks. The mitigation contractors are the ones who tore up the trails," said Dwayne Severn, who rides the trails often. "They told us when the work was done, we'd never have a problem with fairy shrimp again."
County supervisor Greg Cox attended the Tuesday-night meeting and asked people for their patience. He pointed out his ongoing commitment and efforts to get approval and funding for trails, including those in the Otay and Tijuana River Valleys. But it will take time, he said.
"Fish & Wildlife carries big clout. They can literally shut us down," Cox said.
Diane Carter, the president of the Bonita Valley Horsemen, said that she had tried to get Fish & Wildlife to attend the meeting but they refused.
"I begged. I pleaded. They don't care what the public thinks. They said they don't want to see the public," she said.
About a third of the people at the meeting also volunteer in the park, which is the most popular destination county park in the U.S., according to Bonita resident Liz Stonehouse.
"People come here to enjoy the network of trails," she said. "There's something inherently wrong with taking away something this intrinsic to the area."