San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy reaches a watershed moment


Back home in Escondido, 11-year-old Jazmyne proudly maintains a garden flush with tomato, squash, lemon and watermelon, to name a few — and especially the red bell peppers her best friend Leslie, 10, loves so much.

But on this day last summer, busily working behind the mesh netting of a native-plant nursery on the southern bank of San Elijo Lagoon, the two friends dote over monkeyflower, black sage, Indian paintbrush — species that are far less delectable but far more important to the health of the watershed in which the girls live.

Joe DeWolfe, a biologist with the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy (SELC), coaches Jazmyne, Leslie and a dozen other students from the Escondido Union School District on the delicate technique needed to give each plant the best shot at sprouting: place three or four seeds into each pot, cover lightly with soil, then tamp firmly — but not too firmly — down.

“Planting seeds is an art,” the scientist says.

By hour’s end, the flurry of tiny fingers have seeded 400 small pots that will a few months later take root at a restoration site near the Santa Carina trailhead a few hundred yards away, each plant attempting to play its infinitesimal but indispensable part in bringing the ecosystem’s interplay of flora, habitat and fauna into better balance.

For four days, SELC has taken the students all across the watershed, from its headwaters at Lake Wuhlford down Escondido Creek’s southwesterly route to the Pacific Ocean. They hiked through Elfin Forest and learned about wildlife corridors and invasive species. They ventured into Annie’s Canyon, where SELC and a fleet of volunteers turned the graffiti-plagued canyon into an outdoorsman’s dream.

The camp’s fourth day began at the county-run nature center with lessons about the wily wildlife that sometimes make Elijo their home, capped off by meeting Hamilton the tortoise, the nature center’s unofficial mascot. After a short walk to a pedestrian bridge that spans a narrow channel of the lagoon, the students lower buckets over the railing to test the water for temperature, turbidity and pH — their findings added to the data SELC scientists compile each day. Peering down at the muddy banks below, the children marvel at the veritable army of fiddler crabs waving their outsized claws in the air for ritualized attention. A much larger commotion erupts when the group spots a nearly luminescent blob billowing ghostlike in the shallows.

“That’s a pokemon!” one child calls out, to which their guide responds that the apparition was, in fact, a sea hare.

Taken together, the camp is a confluence of the wide-ranging initiatives the conservancy undertakes as steward of the 979-acre San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and the more than 1,000 species of plants and animals that make it their home. The reserve is bordered by Solana Beach, Encinitas and Rancho Santa Fe.

A half-century ago, a loose coalition of naturalists and activists rallied together against plans to turn the lagoon — at the time known more as a dumping ground than a natural resource — into a marina with 750 homes. That impassioned impulse coalesced in 1987 into a nonprofit land trust that, 30 years later, puts its 15 employees, 1,000 volunteers and $5 million operating budget toward engaging the lagoon’s surrounding communities to safeguard the watershed for generations to come.

Recent milestones include the 2015 launch of the native-plants nursery in a 1,000-square-foot tent on a state easement where construction crews are widening the bridge that carries Interstate 5 over the lagoon. In its two growing seasons, the nursery has produced some 1,500 plants for the handful of restoration sites SELC has established around the lagoon. Summer 2016 brought the long-awaited reopening of Annie’s Canyon, which had for years been shut off to the public because of rampant vandalism and abuse that required painstaking rehabilitation.

Now, that 30-year journey has led to the most momentous endeavor yet. On Dec. 1, the conservancy, a nonprofit land trust, will take the lead in a three-year, $80 million restoration that will dredge more than 900,000 cubic yards of sand from the lagoon, close gaps in the reserve’s seven miles of trails, expand efforts to purge invasive species, and add several parcels into the reserve that will bolster buffers and transition areas needed to brace the watershed for sea-level rise.

“This year has been all about where we’re going,” said Jennifer Bright, SELC’s director of development. “It’s a world where everybody cares about nature, where everybody does something to protect it, where they realize that having this resource is what makes us all healthier people.”

While the restoration is underway, SELC will also in the next few years carry out its designs for the walking paths, viewing deck and monument that will be built at Harbaugh Seaside Trails, the 3-acre parcel where Highway 101 heads north out of Solana Beach. Also on the near horizon: a new headquarters on the banks of the lagoon.

One of the most increasingly fruitful efforts will come by using the watershed as a living classroom for thousands of students from Del Mar to Cardiff to Escondido. Plans are already underway to expand the conservancy’s educational programs into middle schools and high schools in hopes of keeping students engaged into their teenage years and nurture the environmental leaders of tomorrow.

The four days Jazmyne and Leslie spent exploring the watershed this summer had the best friends brimming with ideas for doing just that. Jazmyne, who wants to be a veterinarian, and Leslie, whose passion is art, build off each other’s excitement while describing how that would work.

“I told Leslie if we were ever to be scientists, I could be the finder and she could be the sketcher,” Jazmyne says.

“Yeah! She could be like the researcher and I could draw what she finds,” Leslie says.

“So we could learn about it together,” says Jazmyne.

“And so we could be part of nature,” Leslie says.

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