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Maybe that was because the writing was already on the wall: Intensive commercial development for Mission Valley had long since trumped the river’s health and flooding concerns. When the city allowed the Town and Country Hotel to come in, they knew they were opening a Pandora’s box.

“[By 1983] Mission Valley was the geographic center of metropolitan San Diego,” Pete says. “Development came in faster than they expected, and that’s been sort of typical of the City of San Diego. They are always having to react, rather than plan ahead. They say, ‘Oh, gee, we have this developer who’s coming in with this beautiful project. What should we do?’ In most cases they say, ‘Okay. We’ll give them the rubber stamp’ because they don’t have any advance planning to know whether that project is a good project or not. That has historically been a problem for the City of San Diego, in the Planning Department.”

Since 1983, he says, not much has happened. “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. Santee has done some work, but nothing extensive, utilizing river bottomland. As far as I know, [since] this plan died on the shelf, there have been no efforts to acquire land or set aside land or zone it for open space or anything like that. In the lower San Diego River, they have. But not in the upper San Diego River. [In the lower San Diego River area] they have the City of San Diego behind them. Its planning department is [aiming] for walkways, some greenbelts, green space, but it’s virtually minimal. Adjacent property owners do not want to give up that land. I mean, it’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre. And so they look at it from that pragmatic point of view. They don’t look at it from the aesthetics at all.

“For instance, there are big-mouth bass there, bluegills. They live for the floods, so to speak, and they take advantage of the ponds around there. There are portions of the San Diego River, like around Grantville, that are fairly deep, and they hunker down and wait for the rains to come. But that would be the only area that would have any fish, the Grantville area.”

How do we rate against other river towns?

Cuthbert says most towns just want to squeeze their rivers down as tight as they can. “You’ve got Los Angeles: all concrete channels. Phoenix, Arizona, has tried to change. They have a pretty good river/flood-control project. Phoenix is the most forbidding area to try to have a park, in a river bottom. But they have worked at it. And San Antonio, Sacramento, and Seattle have some river projects, restoring the natural ecology and making them available for the public. San Diego is very far behind all these people. The property owners here control the situation, unfortunately. The gravel and sand people were the ones, initially. Over the past 30 years, they did not want any parks or anything. They’re also the ones who were dumping construction spoil in the barrow pits where they had mined the sand and gravel. And they’re probably getting paid to allow [people] to dump in these barrow pits. So they become little ponds. Well, to utilize that land, the sand and gravel companies would rather have these ponds in-filled and covered over because eventually, maybe 20, 30, 40 years from now, they can build on them. So they have their own priority. And it’s not recreation, and it’s not aesthetics.”

Restricting Humans So the River Can Have Life

It’s morning in La Jolla. Here at UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College, Jim Bell holds forth to undergrads, mostly engineering students. He has a PowerPoint presentation on the blackboard screen. It shows an artist’s rendering of a verdant valley, seen from above. A river winds down among woodland and meadow, with some fields cultivated, and some houses — but only peeking down from the valley rim.

“When I ran for mayor of San Diego in 2004, against Murphy and Roberts and Peter Q. Davis,” says Bell, a big, fervent, self-styled eco-designer from O.B., “the final debate was on Channel 10. It turned out I was the last one to speak, and I’d written this little poem: ‘These guys are the old, I’m the new, I’ve got a plan, They haven’t a clue.’ ”

He looks up at the painting. “This,” he says, “is Mission Valley [as it could be in], say, 2060. It has the best soil. It has a river that needs its 100-year floodplain. You can either constrict the river or restrict humans. That’s what we’re doing here. Restricting humans so the river can have life. Remember, every year, pretty much, Mission Valley floods in winter. The chronic and the catastrophic costs add up. It’s common sense.”

He goes on to explain the logic behind depopulating and “re-naturing” the San Diego River’s 100-year floodplain. “If you add all the tax revenue being generated by the properties down there [in Mission Valley], that’s the income. And then you say, ‘Well, what are the chronic costs every year? What are the 10-year flood-frequency costs? What are the 25-year frequency costs? Hundred-year flood costs?’ We can’t prove it yet because we haven’t done the work, but I think it would turn out that it would be a net loss.

“And it’s like the developers would get in, and they make money, and then they’re out of it. And then when the disaster happens, it’s the public who’ll be on the hook.

“So, let’s say I’m elected mayor: I put forward an ordinance to prohibit any further development in the historic 100-year floodplain. People can still be there, but they won’t be able to add on to whatever they have. They can repair, but eventually buildings wear out and aren’t worthy of repairing anymore. So then you take them out of there [or] move them someplace else. And, of course, as soon as you pass a law that says you can’t develop the floodplain, it’s going to make the land in the floodplain less valuable. So people could legitimately scream, ‘Hey! What are you doing? You’re changing the rules.’ Assuming they were playing by an old set of rules, and playing correctly, they shouldn’t be penalized. So the way you work it is that the land in the floodplains goes down in value — but what’s going to happen to the land just outside the floodplain? That’s going to go up in value. Because eventually you’re going to be overlooking this beautiful park area, agrarian, horseback riding, tourists coming from all over the world… And so what happens is, somebody who already owns land outside of the floodplain (in that same local area) decides to sell their land. And let’s say that before you prohibited floodplain development, the land was worth a million dollars. OK, after you prohibit it, [that land] is worth $2 million. But that second million is unearned. Because they didn’t do any improvement. So you let them have 20 percent of that. They get the million, they get 20 percent more, then you use the other $800,000 that’s left to compensate the people whose land got devalued. So everybody gets out whole. No taxes [have been] involved.”

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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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