By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
If the water department does not fund the $254,000 cut from the city's budget for San Dieguito River Park, area residents could soon see less trail maintenance and lose access, said the park's director.
In December, the City Council approved the city's 18-month budget, designed to close a $179 million shortfall. Cuts to all departments included eliminating $254,000 for the river park.
It is 36 percent of the park's annual budget, said SDRP Executive Director Dick Bobertz. Combined with the previous year's 14 percent cut (about $111,000), the park "will lose more than one-third of its staff and most of its capacity to continue the progress of the last 20 years," Bobertz recently wrote in an e-mail to park users.
The 80,000-acre regional park is partially located in northern Rancho Bernardo. It includes open space near Rancho Bernardo Community Park (two of its 12 trails — Piedras Pintadas and Highland Valley are in Rancho Bernardo), the David Kreitzer Lake Hodges Bicycle Pedestrian Bridge and Sikes Adobe Historic Farmstead.
San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority oversees it. JPA members are the county and cities of San Diego, Poway, Escondido, Del Mar and Solana Beach. Board members include San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio and Poway City Councilman Jim Cunningham.
Bobertz said when the cut was made, the City Council also directed the water department to see if funding could be legally transferred to its budget "on the basis that the river park accomplished watershed protection activities necessary for the protection of water quality and quantity of city water resources."
He said the park land surrounding Lake Hodges and San Pasqual watersheds are key to ensuring water supplies, so adding the park to the water department's budget is an obvious fit.
It is not so obvious to city officials, who have yet to issue a ruling in the almost three months that have passed.
Bobertz is now asking park users to contact Mayor Jerry Sanders, urging him to approve the transfer.
But it is not Sanders' decision to make, said Alex Roth, the mayor's spokesman. Roth said the hold up is due to the City Attorney's office, which has to determine the transfer's legality and has not indicated how long it will take to issue an opinion.
Roth said the mayor did not want to cut the park's funding, however, "every single city department has been impacted by budget cuts. The pain is being felt across the board. .... They were very tough cuts and painful."
The pain of uncertainty and funding shortfalls is being felt amongst the park's 10 staff members. Starting Feb. 1, they were furloughed one day a month, which might increase to two days monthly before the fiscal year ends on June 30.
If additional funds are not found by July 1, Bobertz said three of the park's administrative staff would be laid off. Their loss means the park will lose most of its ability to apply for grants.
Grants helped fund the $10.5 million Lake Hodges bridge and are funding the 2,800-foot-long path under construction between the bridge's south end and entrance to Rancho Bernardo Community Park.
The $1.5 million path — set to open in mid-April — will make it safer for locals to reach the bridge. Since last spring, they have had to walk along West Bernardo Drive. The path will include an overhang over the edge, separating pedestrians and bicyclists from traffic, Bobertz said.
Funding shortfalls also mean the park's rangers are required to do more. To keep its five rangers on staff, three are paid with private funds. But this restricts their work area, so two rangers remain to patrol and do maintenance previously done by five rangers, Bobertz said.
Without rangers taking corrective measures when erosion begins (often caused by hikers and bicyclists leaving established trails), Bobertz said within a decade the trails would deteriorate, become unsafe and "disappear in some areas."
Further destruction will occur if invasive plants take over native plant areas needed as habitat for some threatened bird species, he said. While volunteers can help rangers with trail maintenance, with rare exceptions they cannot do the work without ranger supervision.
For more on the river park, go to www.sdrp.org.