Editorial: It Took an Army

The Wetlands Restoration Story

Recently, Del Mar has enjoyed a front row seat to watch a major wetlands restoration taking place by the San Dieguito River and Lagoon in the Fairgrounds’ South Lot. The story of how we got here is worth telling, because without some remarkably persistent efforts by an army of committed individuals, organizations and government agencies, we might still be enduring the parking lot that despoiled these wetlands over many years.


For decades, without permits or approvals, the 22nd Ag District Association (22nd DAA) degraded acres of San Dieguito wetlands—one of the most important and endangered habitats in California—in order to park cars. Big bulldozers, dump trucks and other machinery graded the land, pushed fill into the river, and scraped away native vegetation, to maintain and expand the parking lot.


This drew the attention and outrage of local environmentalists, who persistently sought recourse from the federal Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), whose interest is rooted in the federal Clean Water Act. In time, this campaign, backed up by strong photographic evidence by former mayor John Gillies, resulted in a remarkable step forward: in 1993, ACOE issued a cease and desist and remediation order which required the 22nd DAA to restore four acres of the South Lot to wetlands, including restoring nesting sites of the endangered least tern.


It took the 22nd DAA some 20 years to get that four-acre restoration underway.


Meanwhile during the years following the ACOE order, illegal, non-permitted grading continued in other parts of the South Lot, and in 2011, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) served the 22nd DAA with notice of its intent to pursue enforcement action, with CCC Executive Director Peter Douglas describing the DAA as “an arrogant agency above the law.” This CCC action resulted in a 2012 Consent Cease and Desist Order and Restoration Order, requiring additional wetlands restoration, 100-foot buffers in some areas, and other corrective actions.


Other legal actions at play included a Sierra Club lawsuit challenging a CCC decision on whether the East Lot is wetlands, and suits by the cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach, the River Park JPA, and the Sierra Club challenging aspects of the 22nd DAA Master Plan. From these challenges came additional protections, including a limited 10-year permit for use of the East Lot, allowing that issue to be revisited in 2023; a 100-ft. setback from the river when the Fair’s Exhibit Halls are rebuilt; traffic studies and management; and noise restrictions that Del Mar has since used to address noise problems, such as those from Kaaboo.


The full story is complex, but at its heart is a simple truth: one agency looked at the sensitive wetlands adjacent to the river and saw a parking lot. Many others—from the Army Corps of Engineers to an army of citizen activists (too many to name, but we’ll call out Jacqueline Winterer, Nancy Weare, Alice Goodkind, Dawn Rawls and John Gillies as exemplars) and political leaders from Del Mar, Solana Beach, the CCC, the Conservancy and the JPA—looked at that same land and saw degraded wetlands that could and should be restored to their rightful ecological role in our fragile environment. The 22nd DAA seems to be acknowledging its environmental role more so than in the past. Years of dilatory and destructive behavior teach us that continued vigilance is essential. Thanks to decades of continued vigilance, the South Lot wetlands are finally winning.