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Protecting the Lagoons

April 07, 1985

Living as we do at land's end, where a rich variety of nature's gifts has created beauty and climate that is the envy of nearly all who know it, the friction between those who want to build and those who want to preserve is inevitable.

Typically, the battle line between the developers and the environmentalists is drawn along the undeveloped side of a mountain, an urban canyon or a bluff overlooking the beach--the attributes that combine to create San Diego County's signature topography. Although it's easy to whip up support to protect these places of beauty, development often does, and should, win out.

The threat to another, less sexy, environmental resource was recently detailed by Times writer Jenifer Warren in her series on North County's six relatively undisturbed coastal lagoons. Because they are sometimes dried-up and smelly, or contain stagnant water that breeds mosquitoes, the lagoons don't have the apple pie-and-motherhood appeal of the mountains, canyons, beach or desert. But they are treasures nonetheless.

The biologist looks at these lagoons and sees highly productive ecosystems, teeming with plants, animals and microscopic organisms.

To the commercial or sport fisherman, they are important spawning grounds for many species of fish.

For the bird watcher, they are the resting place for migratory birds. All six North County lagoons have been host to the endangered California least tern.

And to the resident, or the driver who merely passes by them, they provide visual relief from the shopping centers, condos, service stations and restaurants that are nudging San Diego County closer to becoming the southern tip of a sun-baked megalopolis.

Developers today are generally not insensitive to the needs of the fragile wetlands, but they often disagree with environmentalists over what is best for them. For example, local developer Donald Sammis and the Hunt brothers of Dallas want to improve the attractiveness of Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad for the benefit of two developments around it. But, says a state wildlife biologist, if the developers are allowed to "turn (Batiquitos) into a lake, we're forcing those birds that depend on it to go elsewhere. And there aren't many places left for them to go."

Development near the lagoons obviously will continue. But state and local officials should not shrink from requiring the necessary safeguards to protect them. The lagoons are worth saving, if for no other reason than we should know more about what we're doing before we remove from the earth something that has been here so long.

Saving them won't be easy, but it must be done. It will require the cooperative action of public and private sectors.

For starters, Gov. George Deukmejian should stop talking about abolishing the California Coastal Commission. It needs not only to continue on the job but also to be given an adequate staff to aggressively protect all the natural resources within its purview.

The Legislature--particularly those legislators representing San Diego County's coastal region--should become more involved. A report for an Assembly subcommittee points out that without a unified plan for acquisition, protection and economic incentive, "California's remaining wetlands will continue to dwindle, acre by acre."

Inland communities should adopt ordinances to prevent construction miles away from the lagoons from creating silt run-off.

Perhaps as important as any of these measures is the continued citizen involvement by those who care about preserving the few remaining coastal wetlands in Southern California. Many of the decisions that will determine the fates of the lagoons are now being made by city councils and local planning boards, where public opinion can play a key role. And even if the Coastal Commission continues to function, it is unlikely to ever have the staff to monitor every development that potentially endangers these special resources.

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