Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

What Are The Unique Challenges Faced By A River That Runs Through A City?

What Are The Unique Challenges Faced By A River That Runs Through A City?
It might surprise you to learn that the San Diego River spans 52 miles from the mountains of Julian to the Pacific Ocean. We'll speak to San Diego River Park Foundation Executive Director Rob Hutsel about what the organization is doing to preserve the ecosystem of the San Diego River.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. If there's one thing locals know about the San Diego River it's that it can flood Mission Valley. But there's a whole world of information about this urban river that most people don't know, such as how long it is, what the quality of the water is like, and who takes care of it. There's a river clean-up coming up this weekend in preparation for an even larger clean-up scheduled early next month. Here with more about San Diego’s namesake river and the efforts to keep it clean and healthy is my guest, Rob Hutsel. He’s executive director of the San Diego River Park Foundation. And, Rob, welcome to These Days.

ROB HUTSEL (Executive Director, San Diego River Park Foundation): Thank you, Maureen, and good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. We invite our listeners to join the conversation. How do you enjoy the San Diego River? Are you even aware that a sizeable river actually runs across San Diego? Do you have any stories about the river that you’d like to share with us? Join us with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. What are the unique challenges, Rob, for a river that runs through a city?

HUTSEL: Well, first and foremost, is actually knowing that it’s there.


HUTSEL: You know, it’s a 52-mile long river and most people don’t even know that it exists, and so that’s the biggest challenge. And then public access. A lot of the river, believe it or not, is actually privately owned, and most people don’t realize that, and there’s no way to get to it. So how can you get people to care for something? And then after you start looking at it, you realize that, you know, for decades it’s been abandoned and abused and there’s trash and different things have accumulated over all those years. There’s lots of challenges, though, of course, but the biggest one is development in the area as well as homeless population. People have lived along the river for a long period of time.

CAVANAUGH: If you could, Rob, can you give us sort of a brief, nutshell audio tour of this river. Where does it start and how does it run?

HUTSEL: Oh, sure. I could be very long, too, but I’ll be brief. The top of the river is actually very, very beautiful. It’s a rugged, deep gorge. It’s over 1,000 feet. Imagine, just a 1,000 feet deep gorge with waterfalls in the spring that are maybe 300 feet tall. It’s a spectacular area, green and lush. You might think it’s like Hawaii almost. Hard to believe that in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Where is that?

HUTSEL: And it starts up near Julian. The very tip-top of the river is up in the community of Santa Ysabel, up by Wynola a couple miles from Julian. And you can follow the river down and it’s a straight shot all the way down until you get to El Capitan Reservoir, our region’s largest reservoir by far. And it’s a beautiful area, big boating area, you know, and people really enjoy that.

CAVANAUGH: And that’s El Cajon.

HUTSEL: Well it’s, you know, it’s one of those areas that’s so large…


HUTSEL: …it doesn’t have a name. It’s below Alpine.


HUTSEL: And it’s below El Cap, El Cajon Mountain, where the fire was…


HUTSEL: …just the other day. And then below that then you drop into Lakeside. And in Lakeside, you have an agricultural area, believe it or not, still. There’s still cows out there and there’s still crops being raised. And then you drop into the community of more proper Lakeside when you think of it, where there’s homes and people live there. And then all of a sudden the river becomes this different animal. It’s an area that’s been sand mined over the years, so you’ll see these deep ponds that are full of water year round. And then you continue on into Santee, and Santee’s done a great job. And they actually have trails all along the river and parks along the river. It’s a pretty area as well. And then you come into Mission Trails Regional Park, one of the largest urban, open space parks in the entire country and I think it’s over 10,000 acres now, just a rugged area again. So you’ve gone from this rugged upper river into kind of an emerging community and established community like Santee and then you get this large open space area again. Then the river’s kind of lost for a while and it comes into Mission Valley.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. That’s where we…

HUTSEL: You know, and you might see it.

CAVANAUGH: …we – most of us, I think, are familiar with it when – in Mission Valley. And, of course, it is the essence of an urban river in Mission Valley because there’s built up highways and condos and shopping malls all over the place.

HUTSEL: That’s right. That’s right. And most people see it when you can’t cross one of those roads to get to a shopping center. And so that’s probably the most popular place whenever it rains. Every news reporter in town knows they can go to Fashion Valley and see the river flood.


HUTSEL: So it’s a great area. And then you continue on and there’s a golf course and then you go a little bit farther and all of a sudden you’re in Mission Bay Park. And the river empties into Ocean Beach and Dog Beach. It’s a beautiful area though. The estuary, where the river meets the ocean, is over 300 acres, and it’s all within a city park, Mission Bay.

CAVANAUGH: And it’s actually 52 miles long?

HUTSEL: That’s right. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. Now, you – tell us more about the areas that are privately owned because I didn’t know that.

HUTSEL: Yeah, surprisingly enough, you know, you think about Mission Valley, you know some city-owned land like the stadium, of course, but much of the rest of it is all privately owned. So the Fashion Valley, Town and Country Hotel, the homes along there, the condos, those sort of things, all privately owned. And much of the river, all the way from the stadium down to almost Morena Boulevard is privately owned.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Rob Hutsel. And he is executive director of the San Diego River Park Foundation. We’re talking about the San Diego River, what you don’t know about it, and perhaps what you should know about it. And we’re also taking your calls if you’d like to share any stories about the river, or if you have any questions about it. 1-888-895-5727. Now let me ask you how you got involved in monitoring the San Diego River and kind of taking care of it.

HUTSEL: Well, I was one of those like many people in San Diego that on my weekends, I would volunteer. And my passion was to help care for open space areas and parks in San Diego, in particular Penasquitos Canyon, was my love. And I was working for the City at the time and I would come escape there and volunteer. And then in 2000, you might recall, there was a mad massive sewer spill. 34 million gallons of raw sewage ran into the river, just by San Diego State here on Alvarado Creek, into the river. And nobody seemed to care about it. And I was one of those volunteers that had been working on the river, doing some restoration work, and a couple of us got together and said, you know, this is crazy. How come nobody’s responding? And from that kind of came this love of trying to figure out what was going on and learning who else was interested, and there was a whole effort up in Lakeside to try to care for the river up there. And soon, you know, it grew into this what are we going to do about it kind of thought, and let’s create an organization to be at the table and to give the river a voice. And that became the San Diego River Park Foundation.

CAVANAUGH: What has the San Diego River Park Foundation completed? What kind of projects have you done to make the route of the river, the whole 52-mile long route of the river, more welcoming for residents to enjoy?

HUTSEL: Well, there’s a couple things. The first thing we did was we talked to a lot of people and they said you need a plan. And so we partnered with the San Diego Foundation and the Cultural Conservancy with some students from Cal Poly Pomona—they have a wonderful graduate landscape architecture program—and we created a 52-mile long river park vision concept plan, working with a lot of community groups to do that. So that was a big part of it, and that continues to be our marching orders, if you will, of what we do. In addition to that, we said, you know, what’s the biggest issue here? How can we get people involved? Let’s start cleaning up the river. And so, literally, we’ve removed over a million pounds of trash from the river, our volunteers have done that. So we organize that on a regular basis, and it’s a big part of what we do. In addition to that, we’re doing a lot of land acquisitions up near the top of the river because if the river’s not healthy and it starts in the source, you know, then you really don’t have a future. And so we’ve really put a lot of effort, conserved over a thousand acres of land in the upper part of the river. And then working to advance this vision of a river park with a lot of partners on different specific projects like trails and we’re working on an education center in Mission Valley, for instance.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls about the San Diego River, 1-888-895-5727, if you’d like to ask questions or share stories. And Kurt is on the line from Carlsbad. Good morning, Kurt, and welcome to These Days.

KURT (Caller, Carlsbad): Good morning. Thank you. And my question is what kind of canoe opportunities exist on the river?

HUTSEL: You know, that’s probably one of the most popular questions because people think of a river from probably wherever they’re from and they canoe and kayak on it, or boat on it.


HUTSEL: It’s a little different on the San Diego River. There’s really no places to properly canoe and kayak. I used to do a lot of that up in Maine in my past. And really the only place you can do it is on the reservoir, El Capitan Reservoir. Now there are times throughout the year when the water’s a little higher and you can get on the river and try to canoe or kayak but then the issue is that access because it’s privately owned. And some sections of the river are actually set aside for wildlife like the area, if you can think of Mission Bay Park from downstream of Interstate 5 pretty much to the river mouth is a protected area for wildlife so you can’t go in there at all.


HUTSEL: So it’s pretty tough.

CAVANAUGH: Are there sections of the river that are like more of a problem than others for your foundation?

HUTSEL: Yeah, there’s really two different problems we deal with. And it’s really an eye-opener for me because when I got into this, I was about restoring the river and creating recreation and parks. And one of the biggest issues we’ve really learned about is the homeless population that live along the river. It’s a significant challenge for us. And if you think about it, we’re not in the business of trying to figure out how to solve social issues, we’re trying to care for our river but we have to bring people together. So the challenge with that is safety, perception of safety, the amount of trash that’s generated, and the human waste that’s generated. And, most importantly to me, quite frankly, is the people that have lost their lives that are homeless when a flood comes in and they lose their life because they got – they drowned. It’s a real problem. And then the other part is this – literally, this access issue. How can you get people to care about something if they can’t touch it and see it and feel it? And so we gotta build trails. And so that’s what we’re working on quite a bit is trying to find room for trails where it’s already a built area. It’s pretty tough.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you more about both of those issues but we have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue talking about the San Diego River, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Rob Hutsel. He’s executive director of the San Diego River Park Foundation. We’re talking about the San Diego River and keeping it clean and healthy, San Diego’s urban river. We’re taking your calls as well if you have questions about the river or you’d like to share a story, 1-888-895-5727. Rob, I’d like to go back to those two major problem areas you were talking about because they seem almost like a contradiction. How will you build more access to the river if, indeed, there are so many homeless people there? Won’t that turn people off from going down and walking by the river and really adopting it as part of their community and their recreation?

HUTSEL: It’s a great concern and a great question as well. And the reality is, homeless people are just people.


HUTSEL: They in themselves are not, you know, any other thing than you or me walking down that, so that’s where we always start from. But people do have perceptions and the reality, though, is a lot of folks that are homeless and or have drug issues or other things and so you find hypodermic needles and you find other things and so you got to keep it clean. The – What we have found is that if we can bring in resources and work with partners because, again, we’re not experts on this, but raise the question, we can get attention. And I’ll give you an example. That a couple years ago we were working with the City to clean up some trash, found a lot of homeless folks there, and we said how can we bring resources in? They had a little bit of money to help with the cleanup, and we actually got them to hire the Alpha Project. Now, the Alpha Project works with homeless. At that time, they were operating the city’s winter shelter program and so they had beds. So they were able to come in, some of them formerly had people – been people that had lived on the river, talked with some of the homeless people, and we actually got some of them out of the river into the shelter and being cared for. And so by being a little bit different, a little bit creative, we can come up with the solutions. But the reality is, there are real issues. In Mission Valley, for instance, been a couple people attacked. People then see homeless folks and so they immediately associate the two together.


HUTSEL: And so public access is a big part of that. If we have more people using the trail, feeling safer, then the reality is they will be safer. And part of it’s the design issue as well. Having more space for the trail so it’s not just this linear trail with a whole bunch of vegetation around you but actually it’s more open and more enjoyable and you feel safer.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Daniel’s calling from Clairemont. Good morning, Daniel. Welcome to These Days.

DANIEL (Caller, Clairemont): Yes, thank you very much, Maureen, for this great conversation. Sorry, Rob, I won’t be able to be there this weekend. I’m going to Yosemite. But I do have some concerns and I would like you to illustrate a little bit what the flora, the fauna, the animals and the birds are from the beginning to the end and the changes, and then what the SDG&E Sunrise Powerlink, how that might be affecting what’s happening over there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, Daniel.

HUTSEL: Sure, well, you know, if you think about the upper part of the river, the elevation’s maybe 4,000 feet so the vegetation, of course, is different. There’s tall trees up there and there’s wildlife that depend upon that. And you’ll see mountain lion and deer and turkeys now. You see them everywhere. And wild pigs, which is a whole ‘nother issue that we could talk about. And then as you continue down the river, then you start to see things that are a little bit drier. Coastal sage scrub, it’s called, habitat or chaparral. You just have some very special birds like the gnatcatcher that live in that habitat. And then later on, as you come down farther, we have a very special bird called the Least Bell’s Vireo, which is recovering slowly but it was down to a few hundred in number, and it’s doing much better now. But it depends upon rivers. But in Mission Valley, for instance, surprisingly enough, you’ll see some of the same things. I remember a few years ago there was a traffic report, I’m sure it was on this station…


HUTSEL: …and they – everybody was slowing down on Interstate 15 and the reason was there was a deer along the freeway. And deer actually wandered in. And we have mountain lions, believe it or not, in Mission Trails Regional Park.


HUTSEL: And not too long ago, we were down in Mission Valley Preserve, which is a city park by Interstate 5, so all the way almost down to the ocean, and there was a bobcat down there. And so we don’t think about it but it’s a living, breathing, healthy—well, maybe not so healthy—but thing where people depend upon, and animals depend upon it. And it’s globally significant. It’s considered one of those areas in San Diego that’s very precious for its habitat because of the wildlife values.

CAVANAUGH: And to Daniel’s other point, are you concerned about the route of the Sunrise Powerlink?

HUTSEL: Oh, sure. There’s no way that you could build any major power infrastructure line across the San Diego River, through the community of El Monte and Lakeside, and not have an impact. I’m not smart enough to figure out whether it’s the right thing to do or not but I think anybody can agree that there will be impacts. And so the question is, when they build it, if they build it, what can we do to ensure that the river has a voice in that process and that we do what we can to minimize the impact of that project.

CAVANAUGH: So that’s another concern for your foundation.

HUTSEL: Absolutely. And what we do is, we try to bring parties together. There are a lot of wonderful people that take on positions to oppose or support a project and that’s really, really important. The foundation kind of set out as why did we have problems in the past? And it’s because people didn’t talk to each other.

CAVANAUGH: Before we take another phone call, I just want to ask you because you mentioned this, how healthy is the water?

HUTSEL: You know, it’s interesting. There’s something called a bio assessment that’s done and you can record the health of the river by looking at the little bugs and critter – you know, the little tiny bugs that live in the water. And you count the diversity of the bugs and the number of bugs. We have a lot of bugs but we don’t have a lot of diversity. So what does that mean? That means it’s not really healthy. It means that it’s at its minimum tolerance for bugs because only certain types can live there. So it’s really not healthy but there’s not a lot of chemicals in it. It really has to do more with the fact that we have a lot of stuff running off the streets and the gutters into the river and it also has to do with the fact that we’ve reengineered the river and redesigned it and we have these open ponds and things that historically would never have been there.

CAVANAUGH: They’re stagnant, those ponds.

HUTSEL: That’s right and…


HUTSEL: …that’s the problem. And when the water becomes stagnant and it gets hot over the summer, algae grows and all of a sudden you start to lose oxygen in those waters and then fish die. And so that’s not natural. Usually, those would dry up during the summer.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Mark is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Mark, and welcome to These Days.

MARK (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. I have a question as far as how are they going to acquire all of this land to create this linear park where there are homes and businesses? Would you be taking the land from them?

HUTSEL: Quick answer, Mark, is no. We actually work very quickly – or not very quickly, but very well with a lot of the landowners along the river. Some are willing sellers, and in those cases we work with them to see if we can find funds to acquire their property or work for a shared vision. Some are people like the Grant family, who own 17 acres in Mission Valley and they saw the value of the vision of the river park and they actually agreed to donate those 17 acres for a shared vision of a river education center and a community park. For those other areas, what is going for it is the City of San Diego, in particular, is moving forward with a river park master plan and so they’re working to look and see how they would design it and work with the landowners and the community planning group to actually implement that through a river park master plan. But nobody will be buying the land specifically for the river park unless there’s a willing seller.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you for that call. Let’s hear from Steve in Bankers Hill. Good morning, Steve. Welcome to These Days.

STEVE (Caller, Bankers Hill): Good morning. I have a question, again about land ownership and the private ownership of the land surrounding the river. Can you speak to that and, in general, the California laws that govern private ownership of waterways?

HUTSEL: It’s a great question. I’m not an attorney so I can’t give legal advice but what I have heard—if that’s a safe way to say it—is in California water – the water people have rights to the water. There’s a lot of legal history about that. The question is how do you access that water? And an attorney would have to advise you about those issues but in California, we have certain rights to fish the water and get in the water and do the boating…

CAVANAUGH: It’s just getting there, getting to the water through private property is what you’re talking about.

HUTSEL: That’s right. That’s right. And in certain cases, the State of California and other regulatory agencies have determined that the highest and best public value of that is to eliminate people from that but set it aside for wildlife. And so that’s one of the challenges. For instance, in Mission Valley, in the area around Fashion Valley up to Qualcomm Way, if you can envision that, there’s no boating allowed there. You can fish from the roads but you can’t fish from the sides of the river and that was because that area was set aside for wildlife. So I’m sure that would be a great topic for another conversation, is water rights and what people have the right to do in a river such as the San Diego River.

CAVANAUGH: And what kinds of fish are in the San Diego River?

HUTSEL: You know, it’s a great question. We – There is a lot of fishing that happens on the river. And it’s remarkable, there is everything. Large, large carp, which people don’t think of eating but there’s a whole association dedicated fishing for carp. There’s bass and there’s perch and there’s mullet and there’s catfish, and there’s just a whole range of fish. And one of the things people don’t really realize, what I’ve been told again, is that the San Diego River, and San Diego County generally, had played a really important role in the evolution of what we call the steelhead today. And the trout came up from the south and evolved into what they are now. Now we don’t see trout too much in San Diego County anymore, the steelhead, but actually the San Diego River probably once had trout in it as well.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Michael is calling from Santa Ysabel. Good morning, Michael. Welcome to These Days.

MICHAEL (Caller, Santa Ysabel): Oh, good morning. First of all, I want to thank your guest for his powerful proactive effort there. Teddy Roosevelt-esque, it seems. What I’m interested in, how are you interfacing with the San Dieguito River Park and Joint Powers Authority and their effort to bring that trail from Del Mar to the Laguna del Mar to Vulcan Mountain?

HUTSEL: Another wonderful question. You have great callers. The San Dieguito River Park was actually – been around for maybe 20 years or so now. And so the first thing we did was we went to them, and we know many of them very well, and said, how do we do this? What are the lessons learned? And so we worked together very well. It’s a different river. It’s not as urban as the lower part of the San Diego River. But the tip top of the San Diego River actually starts in the Santa Ysabel open space preserve, which is part of the San Dieguito River Park, and so we work together very closely.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s try to squeeze in one more call. David is calling from Julian. Good morning, David. Welcome to These Days.

DAVID (Caller, Julian): Thank you for taking my call. My quick question is do the tamarask (sic) trees, are they an asset or a detriment to the San Diego River?

HUTSEL: I believe that they’re a detriment. The tamarisk, saltcedar as it’s known, is a plant that is a nonnative to San Diego. It has some wildlife values where some of the endangered birds actually will nest in it but it also consumes a lot of water. And it will take over an area and displace the native vegetation. For those reasons, we are actively removing tamarisk along the San Diego River.

CAVANAUGH: I want to give you the opportunity, Rob, to tell us a little bit about these cleanups that are coming up. I know that there’s one rather normal cleanup coming up just this Saturday but there’s a big one on September 11th.

HUTSEL: Yeah, absolutely. In October of 2008, we – our volunteers went out and surveyed about 30 miles of the river in detailed studies, and they found 397 different locations that were trash dumps and piles and that sort of thing, not individual pieces of paper but large amounts of trash. And since then, you know, we’ve removed over a half a million pounds of trash. On September 11th in, you know, remembrance of that day, which is so significant and has become a day of service, we’re organizing a huge river cleanup in a new area because of the successes that we’ve had in other places. And we’re going to be tackling the last 20 or 18 sites along the river that were found in that original October survey. And we’re very, very excited about that. Now, we went out and we did another survey, because new trash comes in, back in April of this year, and we were down to about 35,000 pounds of trash we need to remove. Now on a typical year, we remove about 100,000 pounds of trash.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing.

HUTSEL: So we’re very excited that we can probably get to all of the trash that we found in April of this year by April of next year. So we encourage everybody to come down.

CAVANAUGH: And do you have to sign up first or…?

HUTSEL: If you’re going to come in groups. We actually have a couple groups that are coming down with like 100 students from an academy and we have fraternities and sororities as part of Rush Week for San Diego State coming down. If it’s less than 10 people, just come on down. If it’s a large group, you know, give us a call and/or visit our website and there’s information about that.

CAVANAUGH: And what is your website?


CAVANAUGH: That’s easy enough. Bob, thank – Rob, thank you so much.

HUTSEL: My pleasure, and it was a pleasure being here.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Rob Hutsel. He’s executive director of the San Diego River Park Foundation. If you would like to comment, please go online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.