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Saturday, August 13, 2005 | The $80 million war waged in San Diego County each year to manage and prevent storm water pollution in its bays and beaches could be fought more effectively by restoring soil and vegetation in eroded canyons, environmentalists said Friday.

Led by the 32nd Street Canyon Taskforce, a coalition of environmentally-minded San Diegans met on location in Golden Hill to promote a canyon stream restoration project which could help mitigate pollution from urban runoff.

“Putting Back the Sponge” will use a $158,000 state grant, $25,000 from the San Diego Foundation and $29,000 from other contributors to restore soil and deep-rooted vegetation for the severely eroded 32nd Street Canyon, one of San Diego’s 60 or so canyons through which storm water travels on its way to the sea.

If successful, the restored canyon will act like a sponge, soaking up urban runoff contaminated by pesticides, herbicides and copper, filtering out the pollutants, and sending the clean water on its way.

“It is the first time this innovative medley of technology for water filtration and water conservation has been used,” said taskforce leader Tershia d’Elgin, who secured a Proposition 40 grant from the California Department of Water Resources to fund the project.

California Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, and representatives from the San Diego Audubon, Sierra Club, San Diego Bay Council and California’s Regional Water Quality Control Board were on hand to support the project.

“I grew up playing in the canyons, learning about the native habitat there,” said Saldana. “What we all need to learn is that canyons do a job that we can’t do ourselves, by preventing pollution before it enters the bay.”

The project will utilize a combination of specially designed, highly-porous substrate and deep-rooted perennials to produce a much higher water storage capacity than is achieved with the non-native weeds that currently carpet the floor, according to Wayne Tyson, a restoration specialist who designed technology for the taskforce.

The canyon is an apt testing ground for restoration technology, acting as a tributary to Chollas Creek, a body of water so polluted that it currently violates the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for water safety, according to d’Elgin.

But the canyon is also a point of contention between the taskforce and the San Diego Unified School District, which is in the midst of constructing an elementary school on the edge of the canyon that is slated to open in 2006.

The 32nd Street Canyon Taskforce opposed plans for the school outright in 2000, arguing that populations of school-age children in the area were declining and that the delicate nature of nearby ecosystems warranted their protection.

The school’s current site is revised from its original planned location to avoid impacting the canyon as much as possible, partly in response to early concerns levied by the taskforce, according to Erika Wilgenburg, a school district spokeswoman.

But the latest flare-up results from the district’s plan to use a 0.7-acre piece of land that it owns on the far side of the canyon to create a playground, which Wilgenburg says is necessary to satisfy the California Department of Education’s requirements for adequate space for recreation at schools.

The school district is in the process of seeking a joint-use agreement with the city to use a 2-acre strip of canyon land for access to the playground on the opposite side, an idea which has met with opposition from the taskforce and other groups involved in the stream restoration project.

“They will force the stream underground to fill 2 acres of unique habitat, of which there is only 3 percent left in the world,” said d’Elgin. “We plan to stop them.”

Wilgenburg says that regardless of the success of the joint-use agreement, plans for the playground will go forward with an eye to their ecological impact. “The architect is putting together some schematic designs. We are trying to be sensitive to … the community’s concerns, blending it with existing canyon … and how this can be designed not to impact the stream,” she said.

Eric Bowlby, Canyon Campaign Coordinator for the Sierra Club, expressed his own vision for how canyons can exist in harmony with elementary education.

“They can provide nature classrooms for our students,” said Bowlby. “Like the canyons, our students are distributed throughout San Diego. They provide an opportunity to bring our kids into nature and educate them about biodiversity.”

Please contact Jessica L. Horton directly at

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