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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.

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DeVerna Rogers Oct. 23, 2008 @ 10:23 a.m.

The San Diego River has actually been serving the people San Diego for over 8,000 years, not 2,000 years. What other feature in our lovely region could lay claim to that? Without our river we would not have had the San Diego that we love today. Our county is named after the river and Old Town grew up along it's banks. Unfortunately it has become one of the more polluted waterways in the U.S. and it runs right along our schools, playing fields, homes, churches etc. How can we continue to let that happen? You can't have a healthy community without a healthy river. It's truly appalling, we are a first world city with a 3rd world river running right through the middle of it. The San Diego River is historically, culturally and ecologically significant. It's referred to as California's first river as dicovered by Europeans. San Diego itself, including the San Diego River is home to more bio-diversity than any other county on the U.S. mainland. There are more unique species of flora and fauna here than anywhere else. As such, our region is prone to more extinction than any other county. That extinction is real and is hapening right now in Mission Valley, in Santee, right by your house or your favorite shopping center. Fortunately, there are like minded people out there who are no longer going to sit down and let our river be abused and neglected. I am thrilled that people are giving a voice to our river and working to make it healthy again. I urge you to do an internet search on the San Diego River and see how you can get involved. How exciting that we will soon have a river park and trail where you can walk or ride your bike from OB to Julian, going through Mission Valley, through Mission Trails Regional Park up to our beautiful mountains. The river park will be a world class destination and will be a great tourist draw on par with Balboa Park, the Zoo and other local attractions on which so much of our economy depends. Parts of the trail and river park exist right now and are waiting for you to explore and discover parts of our county you may not know exist. It's time to take back our river and return the love it has given to us.


cindyriverpark Oct. 23, 2008 @ 2:02 p.m.

Dear Manson,

Nice article on the San Diego River.

I was really suprised to see Mr. Cuthbert quoted as saying "There was a little activity in the Lakeside area. People there borrowed my reports and exerted a little bit of pressure. They have done some work in developing park space.", ...because that is not the case and a lot of work is going on out here, about $17+ million dollars in river restoration!

I work for Lakeside's River Park Conservancy and would like to invite you and Mr. Cuthbert out for a tour of our project and show you that we are saving the San Diego River out here in Lakeside!

I've sent a longer note to the editor regarding this because I went over the 3,000 charactor limit.

Give me a call for that tour, 619-443-4770, feel free to visit our website at www.lakesideriverpark.org, or join our 165+ volunteers that help to make it all happen!

Cindy Collins


DeVerna Rogers Oct. 23, 2008 @ 7:08 p.m.

I've taken the Lakeside River Park Conservancy tour and have witnessed, first hand, the amazing transformation that has occurred there. People can make a difference for their river and community. The people in Lakeside have proved it.


xidongxi Oct. 24, 2008 @ 11:43 a.m.

its such a touching and sweet article abou the river, good job Reader!:=)

when i first heard about the San Diego River at the beginning of this year, my reaction was exactly the same as most other people, "There is a San Diego River???Where?"..

Then I looked into it on the internet, and I was like "Wow,wow, wow",eyes wide open. The river is actually very long and lovely. And on one of the weekends, I decided to hike along the river bank in Mission Valley Regional Park--it turned out to be such a wonderful experience that I will never forget.

It's really heart-warming to read this article here, thanks again for bringing up people's attention on the river !


buchanancanyon Oct. 27, 2008 @ 5:22 p.m.

Thanks for such an interesting article about the San Diego River. It's a pleasure to read how, despite the shopping centers, freeways, quarries, and condos, San Diego hasn't confined the river to a floor and two walls of concrete. And the plans to bring the river back to something that it resembled in the recent past are also encouraging.

The San Diego River is only one of the many natural wonders that we have here. Please publish more features on the rivers, mountains, and critters that make San Diego such a marvelous place to live.


rcf Oct. 28, 2008 @ 11:12 a.m.

Before I retired, I was the County's planner for the Upper San Diego River Improvement Project (USDRIP) between 1998 and 2002. In that capacity I was the County's lead in permitting the Lakeside River Park Conservancy's restoration of 100 acres of the river and can attest to everything Cindy states about what the Conservancy has done. They bought land that was used as a construction/demolition landfill, barren in many areas and overrun with exotic plants in others, including the river, and have done a wonderful job restoring it. I would urge anyone who is interested to take Cindy up on her tour offer and see what can be accomplished when people are determined to heal a river.

Bob Forsythe


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