"Mother Nature" is unhappy with San Diego River Valley Preserve

by Robert LaRosa

ow that the state's Water Resources Board is punishing city polluters' pocketbooks, there is no shortage of suggestions to fix the environmental mess created by political power brokers whose idea of green is something to be banked. Despite protests from City Hall that pollution problems are overblown, the serious environmental neglect ruining our waterways is everywhere. That is, if we bother to look.

Instead of grousing when stalled in traffic along the San Diego River, glance at the greenery. Look past the invasive mass of bamboo-like giant reed. Notice the flotilla of consumer trash tangled in a sea of brownish soup -- a waterway that used to be salvation for millennia of humankind. Later, as tires hum the rush hour mantra, imagine what might be overheard in conversation between ghosts who long ago championed a vision for Mission Valley as "Central Park West": a place of field and forest teeming with fish and wildlife a green centerpiece on a blue-bejeweled coastline.

Let the imagined voices include that of Mother Nature, resonating like rustling leaves and running water. Mentally conjure a chorus of marsh song, adding rhythm to the river valley's twilight concert, as Ma Nature commiserates about what's been going on near San Diego's newly dedicated Mission Valley Preserve.

"Millions spent channeling the San Diego River with huge boulders under the guise of restoration, so that property tax-generating development could squeeze the waterway was bad enough," she scoffs. "Letting the waterfowl loafing islands become brushy tangles in weed-choked ponds shows what park rangers know about wildlife management." With a low growl for emphasis, she launches on how the city's premier watercourse had become contaminated goop, now made sluggish by roadway culverts that back up the river, causing an overgrowth of oxygen-robbing algae that smothers aquatic life.

With a tinge of well-justified cynicism, the den mother of all critters that work to make clean air and water and fertile soil, berates the "neo-environmentalists," whose condominium townhomes, office buildings, high-rise hotels and car dealerships line the riverbanks. "It's the opposite of NIMBYism," her voice rising to harmonize with the cry of a night heron. "I remember public-minded people as recently as 1993 trying to wake up the public about perils facing my river valley. But that was before the convoy of bulldozers evicted the last covey of valley quail and chased deer into the dry hills."

Sadness clutches her voice as she recounts how humans simply haven't made an effort to learn how Nature works. "A couple of kids' field trips to the marsh are not enough." For every student who ventures into the muck for serious science study, tens of thousands think "yuck" when they see how trashed my world has become.

"And now the same people who are clueless about Nature are talking trails. Walkways for pets and running paths for jogging. Concrete speedways for bicycles. More excuses for park and recreation empire-building that ignores the needs of fish and wildlife," she adds.

Raising a sinewy arm, Mother Nature jabbs a long finger toward the hilltop headquarters of universities and business conglomerates that speak eloquently, but have yet to get down and dirty with those citizens who care to make a difference for the natural world.

"Drowned in sewage," she stammers, looking east toward Alvarado Creek. Montezuma Mesa's SDSU is erecting a multimillion dollar science complex overlooking a creek that ought to be an outdoor ecology laboratory, but is buried by pollution as it flows behind huge medical facilities and practically through the university's campus. She shakes her head in despair, gesturing with her outstretched arms to show the length of the silvery giants, which use to spawn in Alvarado creek during its spring rush into the San Diego River.

It was during the 60s, she remembers, that the lush river valley that bore the city's name no longer welcomed wintering flocks of ducks and geese. Deer mice took over where once coastal black tails raised their fawns each year. Her eyes close as she recalls the invasion of homeless who competed with nesting mallards for places to hide.

Mother Nature remembers the visionaries whose voices rose above the rush of clean water, now sullied in a swamp of urban litter. It was only forty years ago that these bright, optimistic men and woman begged their politically ambitious bosses to look beyond the river valley's farms; to resist building on its flat fertile soil.

And after recent Mission Valley Preserve dedication festivities, the hard issues of how to deal with daily urban runoff and stormwater pollution will be sidelined by dreams of buying river valley land for trails, kiosks and concrete runways.

Mother Nature shruggs. Her mind replays the 1960's folksong; its melodic chorus said it all. Those few, simple words stood for all who have tried to reason with those bent on brokering deals for a "greater San Diego." The haunting refrain returns, as it has each fall season for forty years: "When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn."

Robert LaRosa, cofounder of The Nature School, a nonprofit environmental education academy, is project manager of the Rose Creek Restoration & Nature Education Preserve near Mission Bay in Pacific Beach.