A bigger pollution problem than sewage spills?

by Gloria J. Carrillo & Robert LaRosa, PhD, The Nature School co-founders

n insidious monster is devouring the natural beauty that makes San Diego special. Evidence of its violence is visible in backyard canyons and at construction sites, where giant earth movers make way for homes, office parks and roadways. Its serpentine, braided tracks are conspicuous in wet earth gouged from gullied hillsides.

While we rail against wet weather, this monster rampages in the rain. It prefers disturbed slopes, although any water overflow will satisfy its craving to carve landscape. Without protection from roots of trees and shrubs and layers of leaves, the beast's rivulets turn topsoil into mud - suffocating sensitive wetlands and polluting coastal waterways.

Erosion has its place in the natural world. Rock, cobbles and gravel cascading from collapsing cliffs give rivers their meandering character. Rushing water uses boulders to scour silt, depositing it within streamside vegetation that armors embankments and provides habitat. Spawning trout make shallow nests in gravel streambeds. Many species of insects, vital to sustaining fish and wildlife, depend on rocks (and a variety of organic debris) for early development. Mineral-rich floodwaters nourish fertile river valleys, home to unimaginable numbers of wild creatures - large and small. Beach sand is the final product of landslides washed to the seashore.

Humans use rivers and their materials far differently. Dams that serve our insatiable thirst deprive fish and wildlife their share of water, while denying beaches needed sand grains that garner tourist dollars and protect seaside homes from storm-driven surf. But earthen material, used to make cement, brick and mortar, is essential in building cities and roads that keep us connected. Sand and gravel mining (along with water extraction) may feed economic growth, but altering the geomorphology of rivers and estuaries starves plant and animal communities - diverse ecosystems which biologically treat organic pollutants, toxic bacteria and petrochemical contaminants.

Soils scientists believe the Earth's fertility is being eroded so fast that in 50 more years what's left won't be able to grow enough food for the hungry billions being added to the planet. (By then, perhaps, genetically modified crops won't need traditional farming methods; oil mined from Alaska's Arctic Refuge will make synthetic fertilizer for plants grown in reclaimed waste water.)

And don't feel sorry for native fish and wildlife. That's what zoos and animal parks are for. Our friend, the internet, will help us share digitized photos reminiscent of nature treks we enjoyed in the 20th century.

Instead, be concerned about tax dollars diverted from public works and social services to pay for repeated violation of laws intended to protect coastal environments, human health and the beneficial use of water resources.

It's in our best interests to protect water quality; there's a limit to what can be done to make Colorado River water drinkable. Moreover, the dollar drain for sports-related faux pas pale in comparison to the mega-millions in fines being levied for violating state and federal clean water legislation. Stopping the pollution beast in its muddy tracks will take some doing.

First, let's give City Hall's newly organized Environmental Services and storm water personnel our cooperation. Watch what is put into curbside gutters. The stuff that does a good job on our car, lawn, carpet or swimming pool may be disastrous downstream. Promptly report illegal dumping, clogged storm drains and sewage spills. Make an effort to shore up landscaped slopes. Slow runoff with revetments - leaves, mulch or other materials that let rainwater replenish the soil, nurturing vegetation that helps protect air and water quality.

Pollution usually happens without our awareness, making prevention difficult. But as trash piles grow higher, bacteria and viruses grow deadlier and fish and wildlife stop growing, we'll find that costs for not conserving natural resources grow wildly. (As are gas and electric bills.)

Combating erosion's muddy ways means taking personal initiative to protect San Diego's quality of life. That's right, we have to become stewards of the land, guardians of the environment that belongs to all of us. Whenever a weedy marsh is traded for resort recreation or a creek is buried for commercial development, natural wetland bio-filtration that purifies polluted runoff is lost forever.

The Nature School is working to help improve water quality with public-minded volunteers, known as "Clean Water Ambassadors." Students and adult leaders, sporting embroidered shirts and caps and riding bicycles, will patrol their communities to build awareness of pollution's hazards. Trained in ecology and erosion control technology, Clean Water Ambassadors reach out to neighbors, business operators and construction crews with helpful alternatives that serve environmental justice and enhance community quality of life.

Obeying the Clean Water Act has long-range benefit. By preventing eroded soil from polluting neighborhood canyons, creeks and wetlands we help nature protect human health and provide public recreation. Besides, what's good for water quality is good for San Diego's economy, especially our budget at City Hall.

The Nature School is San Diego's first environmental education and restoration ecology academy. 5173-10 Brighton Avenue, San Diego, CA 92107; 619-224-2003; www.natureschool.com