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Restoring A Neglected Canyon And Creek, With Some Help From The Neighbors

Aired 2/21/12 on KPBS News.

The Chollas Creek watershed has been neglected and polluted for decades. A nonprofit is working to restore it into a natural park for the working class communities that surround it.

— John Stewart’s house is perched at the edge of Radio Canyon. From his backyard he looks out over a lush, gaping chasm that separates his southeastern San Diego neighborhood of Emerald Hills from the Encanto neighborhood.

He’s lived there since 1961, so he’s watched the canyon evolve.

“A lot of people used to walk in that canyon every day, with their wives or husbands. And some used to jog in the canyon,” he said.

In the early 1980s, a nearby landfill closed down, and Stewart recalls that as being the biggest blow to the canyon.

People unable or unwilling to drive old furniture, mattresses, or tires to the next nearest landfill drove into the canyon and dumped them there instead.

Stewart and neighbors worked to stem the illegal dumping, but over the years, people stopped using the canyon. It became a haven for illicit activity.

San Diego is a city of canyons and, in wealthier areas, living near one is a point of pride. Neighborhoods form private groups to keep them clean. Until recently, that wasn’t the case in southeastern San Diego.

But on a recent Saturday, a couple hundred shovel-wielding volunteers fanned out like ants to plant shrubs on the Radio Canyon’s slopes.

The canyon is a tributary of the Chollas Creek watershed, a nearby waterway that winds through San Diego’s poorest neighborhoods and carries floodwater out to sea.

Much of what ends up in the canyon makes its way into the creek, which during storms looks less like a creek and more like a lazy river of debris—an ecological nightmare flowing right into San Diego Bay.

That’s why Groundwork San Diego stepped in.

“The opportunities for transformation are so incredibly great here,” said Leslie Reynolds, the nonprofit’s director.

The group is working to clean up the creek, but has plans to do more than that.

It’s slowly, painstakingly trying to transform the 32 square miles of the watershed into a river park, complete with the kinds of trails and bike paths that make watersheds in other areas of the region assets rather than eyesores.

It’s a huge task, and immensely complicated. There’s the pure ecology of it: the runoff and trash that make the waterway one of the region’s most polluted. Native plants that should act as natural filters of chemical pollution are instead strangled by invasive weeds. Clearing them out can seem like a Sisyphean task because weed runoff from the backyards that line the creek only serves to re-pollute it.

The creek also winds through both public and private property, making much of it off limits even to the well-intentioned.

And that presents perhaps the biggest but most important challenge: involving the thousands of working-class neighbors who often have more pressing worries, like feeding their families.

“Frankly, a lot of the community residents have turned their backs on the creek,” Reynolds said. “That’s what our work is. To reengage them in a resource they once really valued.”

The nonprofit’s goal is to get neighbors to buy into the idea that the creek is worth protecting. To keep their eyes on it and watch for illegal dumping, and when they see it to report it.

The nonprofit is asking residents to pull invasive plants from their own yards so they won’t wash into the creek when it rains. And it’s working on an easement program to get homeowners to allow volunteers or workers onto their properties to maintain the portions of the watershed on private land.

Those goals were the driving force behind the recent canyon planting. The nonprofit wanted to show neighbors what they had in their own backyards to convince them it was worth protecting.

Menuhati Kemma’atah, 21, who started volunteering and now works with Groundwork, was one of the early converts.

“My entire life I’ve never been inside this canyon. I drove past it, I walked past it,” he said during a break from the planting on the recent Saturday. “And that’s the same for a lot of residents. A lot of residents grew up here, born and raised, and never been back here.”

It was the canyon’s bad reputation, he said.

That was true for Shearrie Rawls, who showed up with her granddaughter.

“I told them, ‘Where has this place been hiding from?’ They told me it’s been here forever! So now, if we want to get away, and just do something like a picnic, I know where to go because it’s peaceful.”

She said she plans to come to future cleanups.

“It looks like it needed a lot of tough love out here,” she said with a laugh. “And I’m willing to help grow some plants out here.”

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