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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007 | The San Diego region has no shortage of environmental challenges. The county is home to more endangered species than any other in the country. Global warming has contributed to a 7-inch rise in sea levels since 1900, only the beginning of the local manifestations scientists expect from climate change. Each winter, millions of gallons of sewage-contaminated runoff sweep down Tijuana’s hillsides and get dumped in the Pacific Ocean.

With those issues in mind, we turned to researchers, politicians, environmentalists and bureaucrats and posed one question: What’s the greatest environmental challenge facing the region?

The answers were as diverse as the respondents. They pointed to water, climate change, growth — and us, the very people populating this biologically rich landscape.

Here’s what they had to say.

Rick Van Schoik, director, North American Center for Transborder Studies, Arizona State University and a former San Diego State professor: “There are too few people who understand the way energy is generated or arrives in San Diego. And too few people who understand how water arrives in San Diego. And precious few who get the nexus of that energy and water arriving. If we were rich in either one, it would be a little bit easier to understand the laissez faire attitude. But we need to be so serious about that connection. We’re at the end (of the pipeline for both.)”

Mike White, San Diego director, Conservation Biology Institute: “It is defining our patterns of growth. As people spread across the landscape, they change it. It’s not just San Diego. It’s every county in California. There’s no stopping that movement of growth into these rural areas. And it just has so many implications for natural resources at every level. You have to change your fire protection, water, wastewater, transportation, air quality. But it’s a runaway train. I don’t know how you get your arms around it, with our property rights philosophy.”

Rick Halsey, executive director, California Chaparral Institute: “It’s the need to help people reconnect with the natural landscape. Every problem we have environmentally is connected to that particular issue. People don’t know how to mitigate for fire risk because they don’t understand the environment and the fire it’s modified by. They don’t save water because the water doesn’t come from here and it’s seen as an endless resource. … People will say: Who cares? I’m not going to say that the loss of the Hermes copper butterfly is going to cause anybody’s life to become devastated. That’s not the point. But as we lose more of the natural environment, we increase the alienation. And it degrades our quality of life.”

David Bainbridge, associate professor of sustainable management, Alliant International University: “Water. It’s something that is just not going to go away as an issue. We’re just living as if there is water in San Diego, and there isn’t. We import about 90 percent of our water most years. And you never want to be dependent for so much of your sustenance on someplace else.”

David Hogan, conservation manager, Center for Biological Diversity: “The No. 1 environmental challenge for San Diego is to consume less. To consume less water, less land, less wildlife, less gasoline and electricity, which results in one of the biggest threats to our existence in San Diego: Global warming. On a planetary scale, San Diegans probably consume some of the highest levels of these things when compared to people around the planet.”

Jim Peugh, conservation chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society: “Habitat. Wherever I go, I see places that had important value as habitat and movement for wildlife and I just see them getting cut back. Everything we do seems to go in that direction.”

Michael Meacham, director of conservation and environmental services, city of Chula Vista: “The one planetary connecting thing, if you had to pick a resource, is water. With climate change … if we don’t have the snow pack and the watersheds and the flora to sequester and mitigate carbon — water dependent things — if we don’t have water, people and those plants can’t survive.”

Scott Anders, director, Energy Policy Initiatives Center, University of San Diego: “Climate change and water. I think that may be the issue of the century for the globe. And we are a particularly vulnerable area. When I think about our future as an energy guy, it’s a whole lot easier to generate electrons than to create drinkable water from recycling plants or desalination. It’s climate change. How is that going to affect our region in the long run?”

Donna Frye, San Diego City Council: “Water supply. We die if we don’t have water. To me it’s one of the most basic. Global warming, it’s all related to that. Without water, the immediate effect would be really serious.”

Oscar Romo, coastal training program coordinator, Tijuana National Estuarine Research Reserve: “Cooperation would be the main challenge. As the wet season advances, pollution is again crossing the border at many points throughout the region. There’s a number of new authorities in Mexico perhaps willing to help us make a change. Within that cooperation, we can talk about the exchange of hazardous materials crossing the border, about air pollution, wastewater flows, pathogens, heavy metals. We have our coasts polluted with trash coming from both communities, San Diego and Tijuana. It doesn’t recognize where it originated from when it ends up on the beaches of either country.”

Jim Waring, chairman, CleanTech San Diego: “There isn’t a single pressing issue. What you really have regionally is the pressure to accommodate a growing population in what’s in essence a desert. That has all kinds of consequences. I don’t think it’s air, water, habitat destruction. It’s all the consequences of the population.”

Tim Barnett, marine physicist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: “Us. It’s us. We are the problem. For a long time, the developers have run this city and developed everything almost beyond what’s sustainable. That’s a real issue. When people face up to it, they’re not going to have much choice.”

Carolyn Chase, founder, San Diego EarthWorks: “Some people might say water, but that’s not an environmental challenge. It’s a human demand challenge. Fires have solutions too. The most difficult environmental challenge is fundamentally infrastructure to support the growth. We don’t have a well-performing infrastructure plan for transportation. It’s just utterly challenging because of the way the various agencies make decisions.”

Mary Sessom, chairwoman, San Diego Association of Governments and Lemon Grove’s mayor: “Water. Managing our watersheds. The thing we’re most short of here in San Diego County is water. The thing we’re most dependent on is imported water. The little bit we do have can be subject to misuse, pollution, poor management. If we do it better, can we assure some portion of our water independence?”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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