Famosa Slough has some Friends ...

Slough: a place of deep mud or mire; swamp; an inlet from a river; a wetland in a marsh or tide flat.

by Carolyn Chase

amosa Slough is a 30-acre wetland in the Loma Portal area of San Diego, It is bisected by West Pt. Loma Blvd. and bordered by Famosa Blvd. on the west. The slough is flushed with salt water from the San Diego River Channel and also collects rainwater and urban runoff from the surrounding neighborhood.

The Slough was originally part of he Mission Bay wetland complex. It was gradually isolated from the bay by the Ocean Beach trolley track, land fill for temporary construction related to World War II, the channelization of the San Diego River and illegal dumping. In the 1980s, almost 2 acres were filled without permits for the convenience of nearby construction projects.

The slough is a functioning wetland with abundant wetland and upland vegetation, small fish, crabs and mollusks. The bird life is very impressive with a year round population of avocets, stilts, egrets, terns and herons and with extended migratory visits from a large variety of ducks, shorebirds and land birds.

The Slough is managed by the San Diego Parks and Recreation Department with the help of Friends of Famosa Slough. The Friends is a group of concerned citizens whose goal is to restore the slough.

A view of the slough

Jim Peugh, a retired physicist and ocean engineer, has a view of the slough from his house. But he knew very little about it until he starting going on bird walks. Now he is Chairman of Friends of Famosa Slough.

ET: How did you get involved in saving the Slough?

Jim: First I got involved by enjoying the slough. There were two women who led bird walks in the slough every Saturday. A few of us got together to enjoy and learn about the wildlife at the slough. I had done a lot of sailing and wandering about, but the wildlife was just there. The bird walks helped me realize that there was something sensitive there. I finally went to meetings of different groups who were working at the time to save the slough.

I went to a couple of meetings and they were really fun. I learned so much about environmental laws and their weaknesses, and that when you mix in politicians it gets weird and arcane. After a point, I decided to join the Board of Directors. My rationale was that there was no way this was going to be saved, but if I didn't contribute to it, I would have to look back and know that I did nothing. So I had to try. But at the time I did think that it was futile. I thought it was almost a religious exercise. But I had learned so much from the slough that I didn't have a choice; I had to try and pay something back.

The head of the group worked very closely with the Sierra Club and made good progress in working with the politicians. I pushed for a revival of bird walks and clean ups. Eventually I was elected President [of the Friends]. I was terrified.

Then came the time to interview District 2 candidates. At that time, Ron Roberts was running and he suggested a solution for the slough: to buy it. Until then, the controversy was about how it was going to be developed. It was also a very contentious City Council and I thought that saving the slough would be something they could agree on. With a lot of help from the Sierra Club and others, we were able to have the Council change the argument to who would be able to save the slough. It was a tremendous change a positive and exciting thing. Phone calls started to be returned and it was finally purchased in September 1990.

After that, the city created the Famosa Slough Enhancement Plan with funding from the California Coastal Conservancy. This was exciting. We had a lot of strong feelings about what we wanted in the slough, and the city consultant was very helpful in contributing to the process. The plan includes a trail system, increased tidal flushing, replacement of invasive plants with native plants and interpretive signs.

The plan also includes treatment wetlands. There are 19 places where urban runoff drains into the slough. Each one of those will have its own holding pond. The largest will have its own treatment pond to help settle out sediments, nutrients and, hopefully, toxins. A lot of plants are really good at trapping toxins and using them. Last year we applied for an EPA grant to design and construct the biggest treatment pond.

We will recruit volunteers and provide labor for native plant revegetation and bank stabilization, monitoring and management. The management will be worthwhile if we can get it to work. We will be measuring water quality in the runoff treatment ponds and in the slough itself. The Regional Water Quality Control Board was very helpful in the grant process to help find novel solutions to urban runoff.

Also in the next year, the City will be replacing 1950s era "flop gates" to allow for better tidal flow and flushing into and out of the slough.

But the Slough hasn't been saved - we are still saving it. Our previous enemy was the bulldozer. Now, it's sedimentation and invasive plants and people just really loving it to death. I like this a lot better, but it's happening right at this minute. From my window, I can see a family of two parents with their kids walking in the worst possible places... and right now they are moving the barriers we've put up to keep people off of bad trails.

People have the idea that they have to walk down to the edge of the water. This leads to the trampling of the intertidal soil where some of the most delicate plants are trying to survive. They need to learn the best way to enjoy the slough is from the trails and benches. You can really see the place well from there. There are three benches along Famosa Blvd - these are the best places to sit and watch. There are no better places, and from there you are not disturbing wildlife or hurting plants.

The Friends do regular field trips and classroom presentations to junior high and elementary school classes near the school. Vandalism at the slough has decreased phenomenally. Now, as kids walk by the slough they look for stuff and know why it's important. It's now a source of neighborhood pride. Before 1990, it was a dump. Tons of stuff has been pulled out: furniture, fire extinguishers, construction rubble. Thirty truck loads of rubble were pulled out by the National Civilian Community Corps, and Park and Rec helped dispose of it. With the help of the NCCC we turned an area from undermining a street into a wheelchair-accommodating trail with native plants.

Right now over the last couple of days we have found sewage in the slough and we don't know yet where it's coming from. I've called the Regional Board, Metro Wastewater, the storm water people. The next call will be to the Health Department to try and find out where it's from and how to stop it. Nobody is admitting to having spilled sewage. But this has happened several times before. Even though things have improved, people do have to be involved and vigilant in areas where there's such high use and impact.

Lessons learned

ET: Looking back, what lessons would you offer to people trying to save their special places?

Jim: Involve the people in the neighborhood. Involve the schools. Lead walks in the area. Know what's there and know the value of it. Then you'll discover, oddly enough, that people can be interested in what's there and why its important.

Yes, it's about wildlife. But it's also about a refuge for the human spirit as well. I go to the slough after every nasty meeting I attend. The slough reenergizes and connects you. Several other people do this too... it provides a real refuge for nature and people. The problems of wildlife are life or death and you can see that happen right there before you in the slough, see the meaning of our impacts on the natural world.

Wildlife lives in a very complex system. That's why it's so awful when we make changes and assume it won't have any impacts, because it does and they are often life-or-death changes for wildlife. We don't even know what we don't know. When you're at the slough, the complexities come into focus in just one place. Restoring coastal wetlands can make you think that putting a man on the moon is a trivial exercise.

The Slough hasn't been saved; it's being saved and you can be part of it. Friends of Famosa Slough leads regular nature and bird walks and clean-ups every month. Call 224-4591 for more info. Membership in the Friends is only $10/year. Mail to: PO Box 87280, San Diego CA 92138-7280