Volunteers expand coastal dunes for endangered species at San Elijo Lagoon


While some San Diegans built sandcastles at the beach this past sunny Saturday, dozens of local volunteers spent hours building “sandcastles” for wildlife. About 40 people helped dig and dump sand June 18 to expand coastal dune habitat for endangered species at San Elijo Lagoon.

“We’re really lucky in where this lagoon is — siting in between two communities that, I think, actually get it,” said Doug Gibson, executive director and principal scientist for San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, the nonprofit land trust for San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve. “For them to give up part of their weekend shows that they don’t just understand what we’re doing, they want to be a part of it.”

The San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy aims to protect and restore the resources of the lagoon, its watershed and related ecosystems for current and future generations. For the past decade, the conservancy has worked to restore natural dunes by removing invasive plants and enhancing the habitat for the avian, reptile and plant species that rely on them.

“The amazing thing is how resilient these areas are,” said Gibson, who has been with the conservancy for 20 years.

Ice plants, he said, had covered some of the area for decades. Once the invasive plants were removed, however, native plants began to pop up.

“The seedbank underneath there is viable. They’re able to hibernate for a long time and remain viable,” Gibson explained.

Located on the east side of Coast Highway 101, between Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Solana Beach, the approximately 6-acre dune site is home to a variety of plant and animal species, including the threatened western snowy plover and endangered California least tern.

The conservancy organized the volunteer event in an effort to expand the coastal dunes, providing nesting and roosting habitat away from the stressors of the surrounding populated beaches. Once the sand is sculpted and seeds are eventually planted, the space would extend the dunes by almost an acre.

“We revised our coastal permits and decided that this was the angle we were going to go,” Gibson said. “Already, to me, this looks amazing.”

Volunteers helped haul and spread sand, 25-pound bucket by bucket, to expand the coastal dune site in the lagoon’s west basin.

The excess sand came from the conservancy’s annual inlet excavation. Completed last week, the inlet excavation improves tidal flow and coastal water quality. Approximately 1800-cubic yards of sand were onsite at the dunes for the event.

Kelly Sawyer and her son, Jack, were among the dozens of volunteers supporting the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy. The mother-son team were volunteering with Teen Volunteers in Action, a nonprofit that develops young males into community leaders through a structured program of volunteerism, philanthropy and personal development.

“It’s good to help your community,” said Jack, an entering nine grader at Santa Fe Christian Schools.

“And it’s a great organization,” Sawyer said.

Brian Heid, and his son Trevor, were also on hand, getting an early start to their Father’s Day weekend by volunteering with the conservancy. Trevor, an entering ninth grader and football player at La Costa Canyon High School, was one of a few members of the school’s football team helping out.

“This was kind of our front yard for many years as a kid,” said Heid, who grew up in Solana Beach.

“I feel like I’m doing a little bit,” he added. “If I do a little bit more each year and everybody does a little bit more each year, we’ll keep areas like this preserved.”

Although hauling and spreading the sand was tiring, especially during a hot day, Gibson helped encourage the volunteers, explaining the importance of their efforts.

“They’re going to be able to drive by this area 50 years from now and it’s going to be this vibrant, functioning dune habitat that they helped to create,” he said.

“We need to make these connections that when you come out and help our events, these are areas that you can come back and visit over your lifetime and see how it progresses,” he added. “That’s a connection we’re trying to make, and maybe if we make that connection, the actions and the behaviors that people have towards the environment will change as well.”

For more about the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, or to donate or volunteer, visit www.sanelijo.org.