Sunday, May 31, 2009 | Along the banks of the San Luis Rey River north of Escondido, on a plot of land once mined for sand, weeds are taking over.

There, behind a dilapidated chain link fence and graffitied boulders, woodpeckers flitter and endangered least Bell’s vireos warble in the cottonwoods and willows. Endangered arroyo toads come out at night. But tamarisk — an invasive, water-thirsty bush with purple flowers — has moved in. So have other weeds: Arundo, a thick reed. Mustard, a thin-stemmed plant with yellow flowers. Brown, desiccated annual grasses, perfect for spreading wildfire, blanket the sandy terrain.

The river’s banks are a perfect site for preserving and restoring wetlands, the reason why the San Diego Association of Governments spent $4.7 million for the site’s 130 acres. Sandag plans to use the land to mitigate impacts of widening the nearby Highway 76 from two lanes to four, a project that will destroy wetlands to build a bridge over the San Luis Rey River. To offset the damage, Sandag and CalTrans will remove weeds on the mitigation site and plant native species that provide better habitat and serve as a more robust food source. In all, 83 acres will be restored.

While the property is ideal — it’s unused, rundown and situated along a river — there aren’t many more sites like it. Not with willing sellers.

Sandag and CalTrans officials say that finding freshwater wetlands in San Diego County is growing increasingly difficult, particularly in a region where the rich soils along rivers have attracted golf courses and agriculture. “The problem,” said Keith Greer, senior regional planner at Sandag, “is that we live in a desert. The opportunities that exist now are very scarce.”

Standing near the river bank on a recent afternoon, Bruce April traced his finger along a satellite map of the San Luis Rey watershed, past horse tracks, farms, a golf course. He pointed to the lush fairways sitting on the river’s edge. “That’d be great to restore,” said April, a senior environmental planner with CalTrans. “But it’s not for sale. I don’t think the community’d like it too much.”

Upriver, April said, has more of the same — development, the proposed Gregory Canyon landfill and the Pala reservation. Plenty of opportunity for freshwater wetlands restoration, but no landowners who want to sell.

“It’s not about cost,” April said. “It’s about what people want to do with their land.”

With $14 billion in transportation projects funded over the next 40 years, Sandag and CalTrans estimate they’ll have to find another 412 acres in freshwater wetlands for mitigation — that’s about a quarter the size of downtown San Diego. They’ll be destroyed from widening Interstate 5 to add carpool lanes; widening Highway 76; extending Interstate 905 from the Otay Mesa border crossing; and from other projects.

Wetlands mitigation is a serious business. Federal and state regulations require that construction projects ensure “no net loss” of wetlands, a vital part of the ecosystem that filter pollutants and provide habitat for endangered species. Destroy an acre of wetlands one place, and you have to create another acre somewhere else — preferably in the same watershed. You can’t just preserve an acre, you have to make one.

Because of the no net loss rule, road-building agencies have to create 165 acres of freshwater wetlands from scratch. The work will have to be done along the county’s creeks and rivers — not the tidally influenced saltwater lagoons. The agencies aren’t yet sure where most of the work will be done.

Letters have been sent to possible sellers and a consultant has been hired to map potential mitigation sites. The road-building agencies are in touch with landowners throughout the area. April said he was hopeful that the economic crash might present opportunities for sales. One nearby mitigation site, being used to offset Highway 76’s impact to dry land, had an approved housing subdivision planned before being purchased for conservation.

Therese O’Rourke, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers’ San Diego section, the federal agency that oversees local wetlands mitigation, said she believes opportunities for wetlands creation do exist. “There’s still land out there, and it’s getting cheaper every day,” she said. “If you’re looking for something quick and cheap, it’ll be difficult to find. We just need to be looking throughout the county.”

O’Rourke said mitigating the road projects’ impacts would likely require pulling some development back from rivers. Those steps could include moving roads or buying parking lots, farms and parks, she said, and converting them into wetlands. She emphasized that using eminent domain wouldn’t be acceptable nor would moving homes.

“I don’t have anything in mind,” she said. “Don’t freak everybody out.”

Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League, said he’d like to see regulatory agencies consider whether money spent on wetlands mitigation could be better routed to other habitat types that could help complete the region’s habitat preserves.

The lack of wetlands “is going to force us — I hope — to reexamine our objectives to ensure these species have a reserve system that meet their needs,” he said. “It’s not just counting acres of mitigation.”

Such changes couldn’t happen without changes in regulatory requirements designed to protect wetlands. While impacts to differing types of habitat on dry land have flexibility — impact an acre of chaparral, and you can mitigate by preserving the rarer coastal sage scrub — wetlands don’t have that flexibility. There’s a reason for that, said David Lawhead, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

“Part of the ecosystem is maintaining diversity of habitat types,” Lawhead said. “If you’re sacrificing one for the sake of another, you’re losing habitat diversity. It’s important to have that diversity. That’s the crude regulatory way of doing it — wetlands for wetlands.”

Along the San Luis Rey, design work is underway and permits are coming in. April, the CalTrans planner, spread out maps showing the locations of the tamarisk, arundo and other weeds. They’ll all be removed. So will litter. Cottonwoods and ambrosia, an endangered plant, will be put in their place. And the search for more sites like it will continue.

“That,” April said, “is going to be my career.”

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