Santa Margarita River:
refuge in an urbanizing land

One of Southern California's last free-flowing river refuges at our own back door

by Steve Evans
ormed by the confluence of Temecula and Murrieta creeks in southwestern Riverside County, the Santa Margarita River immediately flows into spectacular Temecula Gorge and crosses the San Diego County line just north of the town of Fallbrook. From there, the river flows through the U.S. Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton and thence to the Pacific Ocean.
One of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California, the Santa Margarita River is widely recognized by various local, state, and federal agencies as an irreplaceable scenic and ecological treasure. The river's 27 miles of lush riparian vegetation is a singular natural resource in this rapidly urbanizing region. Its diverse vegetative and aquatic habitats are home to numerous plants and animals, including 500 plant species, 236 bird species, 52 mammal species, 43 reptile species, 26 fish species, and 24 species of aquatic invertebrates.

For the birds

The riparian corridor contains the highest density and overall diversity of bird species of any natural area in the south coastal river basin. The Santa Margarita's lush riparian growth supports a substantial percentage of the nation's entire population of the endangered least bell's vireo. This small migratory song bird has been extirpated from 95 percent of its historic breeding range, but has found a home in the Santa Margarita River canyon. The lower portion of the river supports extensive coastal wetlands which provide important habitat for other sensitive and endangered bird species, including the lightfooted clapper rail, Belding's savannah sparrow and California least tern.
The Santa Margarita River also supports the largest remaining native population of arroyo chub, a small fish that was formerly abundant throughout Southern California. Large runs of coastal steelhead trout have been extirpated from the Santa Margarita, but the river remains one of the few nearly pristine coastal watersheds in which to reintroduce this biologically unique species.

Saving the river

In recognition of the river's outstanding ecological values, the Bureau of Land Management has determined that a small segment of the river flowing through scattered public lands is eligible for national Wild & Scenic River status. Connecting the BLM parcels is the 4,000-acre Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve which encompasses state land administered by San Diego State University. In addition, the Nature Conservancy has recently purchased river frontage just downstream of Temecula and is considering further acquisitions along the river. Altogether, nearly six miles of the river downstream of Temecula to the Riverside and San Diego county line is publicly owned. The remainder is largely owned by the Fallbrook Public Utilities District and the Marine Corps.
The Santa Margarita has been targeted by dam builders since 1945, but no viable project has surfaced due to prohibitive costs, egregious environmental impacts and widespread public opposition. Despite its free flowing nature, the river already provides an important water supply by restoring groundwater aquifers utilized by local residents and the Marine Corps. Water quality and flood control are emerging issues as the watershed becomes increasingly urbanized. These issues are being addressed in a multi-agency Coordinated Resource Management Plan being developed by local, state and federal agencies to protect the outstanding resources of the river.
Friends of the River, the Friends of the Santa Margarita River and the San Diego State University Ecological Reserve are proposing national Wild & Scenic River designation for six miles of the Santa Margarita River downstream of Temecula to the Riverside-San Diego county line. The proposal also includes Wild & Scenic River study of an additional live miles of the river from the county line to the Camp Pendleton boundary. Rep. George Miller and Sen. Barbara Boxer have been asked to include these river segments in their proposed omnibus California Wild & Scenic Rivers bill, which may be introduced as early as March.

Reprinted with permission of Steve Evans, from Headwaters, published by Friends of the River.

Take part in National River Clean Up Week

ationwide, more than 60,000 trash bags were filled at 440 clean up events around the country. Locally, four bags were contributed by participants organized by Outback Adventures in conjunction with Earth Day. Last year's Colorado River Clean-up was so successful they are doing it again! Up to forty participants will canoe and help clean up forty-five tranquil miles of the Colorado River as it passes through the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Blythe, California. The trip departs from San Diego at 6:00PM on Friday May 20th and and returns 10:00 PM Sunday evening, May 22. This special weekend river clean-up/canoe trip includes: Round-trip motor coach transportation with refreshments; Five delicious meals; Saturday breakfast through Sunday lunch; Camping and canoeing equipment & waterproof bag for your personal gear; and Canoe paddling instructions. $179.00 Contact: Outback Adventures (619) 696-5282 or see them at EarthFair '94!