By Rob Hutsel
We have all heard it: El Niño is coming! Time for everyone to get ready and clear out storm drains, buy flood insurance and batten down the hatches!
Recent rains have gotten those of us who maybe weren’t paying attention to indeed believe the forecasts may very well come true. If you have lived in San Diego during previous large storms associated with El Niño, you know that precautions are in order for Mission Valley and other flood-prone areas.
Sections of Fashion Valley Road, Camino de la Reina, Mission Center Road, Ward Road and other streets are very likely to be closed due to flooding from the San Diego River. Areas like the parking structure on the river side of Fashion Valley are likely to be flooded for extended periods of time. (Did you know it was designed to do that?) Some of these areas may be damaged and take weeks, if not months, to repair. So, preventative actions and sound planning are in order.
I would like to present another perspective. Perhaps you might call it the “river perspective.”
Please don’t curse the river when it rains. It may be tempting — when the water rises and roads start to close — to say a few choice words. Or maybe you don’t see the barricades and decide to walk, drive or ride across the moving waters.
After many rain events we hear calls to “clear out the river” and “let’s dredge it.” We hear “can’t we capture all that water and use it.” And perhaps the worst of all, “can’t we build a flood control channel?” For the river’s sake and for the health of our community, please don’t say that. And here’s why.
The San Diego River is an incredible natural resource waiting to be incorporated into the very heart of Mission Valley, and the other communities that it flows through. During the year, and especially before winter rains, there is work to be done to remove overgrown vegetation, especially the floating plant with the yellow flower known as water primrose. Culverts under roads should be checked for debris and to see if they are at risk of failure. Yes, there is work that can be done. But please do not curse the river.
Flood flows can play a critical role in the overall health of the river, as well as the large aquifer, which is under much of Mission Valley. Floods can scour accumulated sediment and decaying debris. It can also wash away growing non-native invasive aquatic plants as well as other organisms that contribute to the strange sulfur-like odors that can be emitted from the river during the warm and dry summer months. The flood flows, if they reach permeable areas like the golf course, can help recharge the aquifer. Many of the beautiful cottonwood and willow trees along the river have roots that reach into the aquifer for water throughout the year.
So a balance needs to be found that protects the natural system while minimizing property and economic damage. If roads wash out or a river-fronting property is damaged by floodwaters, that is also a terrible thing.
The greenbelt that is part of the river is also home to many people who have created encampments. No matter how you feel about this population of people, the reality is that these people are in harm’s way as are their pets and personal property.
In October, we completed our semi-annual river survey documenting the health of 20 miles of the river, the incorporated area of the city of Santee and San Diego. More than 100 volunteers spent many hours not only documenting trash and other things but they also counted the number of encampments they found. Of the 37 encampments found, 23 were in Mission Valley.
It has been estimated that at any time, 10 percent to 20 percent of San Diego’s unsheltered homeless population lives along the San Diego River. According to the 2015 We All Count (also known as the Point in Time Count), there are 2,765 unsheltered homeless people in the city. That would mean there are up to 553 homeless people along the river. Each year for We All Count, we lead the count of the encampments and individuals. When it rains and when the floodwaters rise, please think of these people.
If you want to learn more or participate in the January count, please contact us. Hopefully, by participating in this important effort when combined with our twice-a-year river surveys, additional resources will become available so that one day, no one will find a need to live in harm’s way along the San Diego River, or any other river system.
So when the water starts to rise, we hope you won’t curse the river but that you will consider joining with us to create a better future for the river and for all the communities along it, including Mission Valley.
—Rob Hutsel is the executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit San Diego River Park Foundation. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-297-7380, ext. 108.