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Leslie Reynolds stood at the edge and looked down into Chollas Creek. She frowned as she took stock of what she saw: construction material, Styrofoam cups, an old radio and plastic bags. Down the way she saw a couch and an old bicycle.
It was earlier this week, a day after San Diego was hit by some of its steadiest rain of the year, a welcome dousing for many San Diegans during impending fire season. But for Reynolds, the director of a southeastern San Diego nonprofit called Groundwork, it also meant something else. The tons of debris that accumulate along one of San Diego’s most neglected watersheds were making their way closer to San Diego Bay.
Chollas Creek is the natural watershed that carries storm water from Lemon Grove and La Mesa, where its four branches begin, through many of San Diego’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and into Barrio Logan, where the creek empties into the bay. For decades, it’s been plagued by pollution, illegal dumping and the destruction of natural habitats.
In 2007, Groundwork formed with this mission: improve Chollas Creek and involve residents of the neighborhoods it runs through.
On Wednesday, I met up with Reynolds to talk about the creek, how her group is trying to tackle its problems, and some of the progress it’s made. We met up at one of the more unsightly sections of Chollas Creek, at the end of a cul de sac in Mountain View.
Why is there so much debris down there?
Largely because of illegal dumping, and also because neighbors have kind of despaired of the creek and turned their backs on it. So we’re trying to encourage them to turn their eyes back on it and work with us and the city to stop the dumping.
Who’s responsible for cleaning it up?
The city. But the city is strapped and they don’t have the capacity to get to all the things that are reported. So the first thing we’re doing is map where the problems are and collect data, then beginning to report, follow up on cleanups, and get residents involved to report immediately and take license plates of illegal dumpers.
Why is there so much illegal dumping?
In San Diego there is not large trash pickup offered to residents. The landfills are far away, and a lot of the residents along Chollas Creek struggle economically. So it’s very difficult for them to transport all of these things to the landfill. We’re working to come up with a solution where residents will have an opportunity to contribute their large trash items to us, and we can transport them.
So a lot of this ends up here because people can’t afford to rent a truck or pay the landfill fees?
Yes, and also because people come from outside this community and dump here because the creek is largely unattended. The fences are broken, there are no signs about criminal penalties for dumping, and residents don’t keep an eye on it because they’re discouraged.
Do they dump here because they know they’re less likely to be reported here than if they were dumping, say…
North of the 8. There are more eyes on the creek and better developed watersheds that are better attended up there.
Which watersheds are those?
San Dieguito and the San Diego River. They’ve done amazing things with their watershed. Residents have embraced them and funding has gone into restoration and improvement. There are pocket parks and trails and all kinds of amenities that attract people to enjoy it. We aren’t that far along at Chollas Creek yet.
Is living along the watershed along the San Diego River, is that a —
That’s a benefit. That improves your property value. And here it undermines your property value. But ultimately it will improve property values here too.
Because it’s going to be beautiful. It’s going to be an asset and an amenity. We are going to put a stop to the illegal dumping, we’re going to de-channelize it, bring in trails, bring back native vegetation that will bring back native animal species and put in signs and resting places and benches where people can sit and understand the incredible biodiversity that exists here.
The section we’re standing by is channelized. Is all of it?
No. Some was not channelized and some has been de-channelized. In the 1950s these concrete walls were the answer to protecting the area from flood and getting the water to the bay. It destroyed the eco-system. We don’t have any wetlands left or any of the native plants and animals.
Why is natural vegetation so important?
One of the reasons is it acts as a natural filtration system. But Chollas Creek is full of toxins which come largely from urban runoff and make their way into the bay.
Most of Chollas Creek runs through economically disadvantaged neighborhoods where residents are primarily concerned with making a day-to-day living. One of the challenges for Groundwork, I assume, is getting them to realize this resource they’re near is important.
I think that’s true, although I think historically that’s never been asked. We’re finding that people really do care about it. We’ve started to go door-to-door and there’s been a lot of positive response.
How do you get them involved?
We set up events and create incentives for people to come out. We provide all the supplies needed to clean the creek and environmental education opportunities for children. Historically there’s been a lot of good nonprofit work from outside here, but we haven’t done a good job of asking neighbors to participate. We need to do a better job of that.
Can you show me a part of the creek where you’ve made progress?
Reynolds drove me to a section of Chollas Creek a few hundred yards from the intersection of Interstates 5 and 15 in the Southcrest neighborhood. It runs behind a stretch of weathered houses. A sandy trail runs along a lush natural park that seems to grow out of the creek. The scent of native sage and artemisia plants hangs in the air.
We received funding through the State Department of Water Resources to do a lot of non-native removal here and a lot of native planting. You can see just the incredible growth of natural vegetation. These are oak and willow trees. There are red-winged blackbirds and a lot of native wildlife here. There’s a monarch butterfly, see it?
A lot of the kids from Chavez Elementary School planted these and brought back a lot of the natural habitat.
There are benches. We put in this wood fence. It’s graffiti proof. Before we put the fence in, trucks were driving up and going straight up to the creek and dumping. Something as simple as an attractive fence has pretty much saved this part of the creek from illegal dumping.
Is it possible for trails like this to run all along the creek?
That’s the vision. Getting there is a decades-long project. But yeah, It’s going to get there. The city started this one in 2004, and we came in in 2007 and did the work. You can see how beautiful it can be.
It’s really impressive, but what’s the greatest challenge to getting this done all along the creek?
The 32 square miles of the watershed. The enormity of the task.
— Interview conducted and edited by ADRIAN FLORIDO. He can be reached at twitter.com/adrianflorido.