Fine day for sewage

— In the time of Junipero Serra, Adobe Falls, at the east end of Mission Valley, was a year-round source of water for the padres and Indians at the Mission San Diego. Until the 1920s, it was a spot on the edge of town where city dwellers could picnic, hike, and swim in the clear pools at the base of the falls that spilled down in stages from the mesa above.

As the city spread eastward, the falls, nestled in a canyon next to Interstate 8 between Waring Road and College Avenue, survived the move of San Diego State to Montezuma Mesa, the construction of the freeway, and the development of the surrounding hills. But, over the years, neglect, an invasion of exotic reed, and an encroaching housing development robbed the falls of some of their former glory, and most San Diegans forgot about them. It took 34 million gallons of raw sewage, which, in February of this year, issued from a broken sewer line upstream, spilled over Adobe Falls, flowed into the San Diego River and down to the ocean, to remind us of their existence.

The sewage spill, though an environmental disaster, may turn out to be a boon for Adobe Falls. Pat Teaze, Del Cerro resident and the leader of a group of area residents called the Friends of Adobe Falls, says, "We were jumping up and down when it happened. We were saying, 'Finally, we're going to get some action.' And when our council person [Judy McCarty] came to visit, she said to me quietly, on the side, 'This may be a blessing in disguise.' "

Teaze, 71, wears her auburn hair shoulder-length and speaks with an English accent softened by some 40-odd years in the United States, almost all of them in San Diego. A small, energetic woman, she's spent close to 30 years working to improve and preserve Adobe Falls. She and I are standing in the mid-day September sun next to her car parked in the cul-de-sac at the south end of Adobe Falls Road. This is the only entrance to the falls, a few hundred yards upstream to the east, and, despite the near hundred-degree temperature, we're getting ready to hike up there. "I used to come here with my children all the time," she recalls, "and we'd have a wonderful time."

Today, there's a chain-link gate across the dirt road leading toward the creek. On it hangs a sign declaring this is a hard-hat area, another says, "No Offroad Vehicles," and still another explains that there is a "Sewer Trunk Line Relocation" going on. But it's 11:00 on a Monday morning, and there is no sign of any work going on. A hundred feet to the left of the gate, the fence stops. Teaze and I simply walk around it and down the dirt road toward the creek. On both sides of the path, tall bamboo-like stalks 20 feet tall sway in the wind blowing up the canyon from the west. "This is the Arundo donax," Teaze explains. "It's also called giant reed. It's completely taking over. It grows in or near water and it can get up to 40 feet tall."

Before we get to it, the sound of water flowing over stones announces the presence of a stream. We reach it, about 100 feet in from the gate, a shallow rivulet 20 feet wide, creeping through a dense jungle of Arundo donax. If it weren't for the bulldozed road and metal construction bridge we're standing on, we wouldn't have been able to get to the stream at all because of the reeds. Pausing on the bridge for a minute, Teaze and I make a quick survey of the life in the stream. Tadpoles and inch-long fish dart around near the banks while seven or eight orange crawdads sit motionless in the middle of the pool on the upstream side of the bridge. Downstream, the water babbles away over the river stones and disappears into the reeds. "It's good to see the river life in here," Teaze says. "The stream is okay now. Everything was dead after the spill. But notice there are no birds. This area used to be full of birds. The California gnatcatcher used to live in the riparian habitat in here. But the Arundo has choked out all the low-growing plants and the birds have left."

Walking west over the bridge, Teaze points out a 60-foot California sycamore growing to the right of the service road. It doesn't look healthy. "There used to be more of these sycamores down here."

Further on, the road turns east and uphill. Fifty feet from the river, the Arundo gives out and the chaparral takes over. Up the hill to the right is I-8. To the left, closely growing palm trees and the ubiquitous giant reed mark the path of the stream. Also to the left, a giant orange backhoe on tank treads sits unmanned next to a concrete cylinder protruding six feet above the ground, crowned by a manhole cover. "These manholes," Teaze points to the one next to the backhoe, and three more in view up the hill to the east, "they have to take out. What they do is they take the cone out -- the cone is the aboveground part you see there -- and then they fill the pipe beneath with slurry. They say it's less invasive to leave it in the ground than to take it out."

The manholes are part of the old sewer line, the one that broke upstream about a mile. It's been moved from its position almost adjacent to the stream to a line closer to the freeway. "You can see how close this old line goes in toward the creek," Teaze says, "because they use the natural gravitational flow."

A little further up the hill a wide swath of land from the creek to the freeway, about the size of a few football fields, has been scraped bare. It marks the sight of the new sewer line. Three hundred yards upstream from where we first crossed the stream, the unmistakable sound of a waterfall catches my ear. Thick vegetation on our left hides it from view.

Pat and I manage to scramble through it and hop over some large rocks until we meet the stream at a four-foot-deep pool, about midway between the tops of the falls and the flat land. A ten-foot waterfall spills into the pool upstream, while another smaller fall drains the pool on the downstream side. Up the hill and down, I can see another dozen such falls, house-sized rock formations, some a slate gray, others a rusty red color. They form the channel through which the stream runs. It's a surprising sight to see a stream running with considerable volume at the end of a dry summer over and around rocks of such proportion -- all in the middle of suburbia. On a hot day like today, the pools look inviting until I notice the overabundance of greenish-brown?colored algae clinging to the rocks. Because there's no soil to grow in here, only hard rock, there is no Arundo donax in evidence.

"Isn't this wonderful," Teaze says, taking a seat on a bench-shaped rock next to an eight-foot cascade, "this is the only waterfall in the city of San Diego. In old San Diego, people used to come and swim in these pools. They all like to tell you, 'Oh, we used to go skinny-dipping at Adobe Falls.'"

While the area between the stream and the freeway to the west, and the section of the falls above us -- 32 acres in all -- are owned by San Diego State, the 5 acres straddling the river, from where we're sitting down to the bridge we crossed earlier, make up the Adobe Falls Open Space Park. It's also listed as San Diego Historical Site No. 80. Teaze was instrumental in gaining these titles for the area back in the early '70s. "It was after they put in the Smoke Tree development down there." She points to the cluster of condominiums that face the cul-de-sac from which we've just hiked. "They put the stream into a concrete channel down there, and we were all very upset about it."

So before the rest of the stream could be encased in concrete, Teaze and others in the Friends of Adobe Falls -- then called the Adobe Falls Conservancy -- lobbied the city government to preserve it. In the end, as part of a compromise with the Smoke Tree developer who owned the land, the city bought the five acres and made it an open-space park. The problem is, Teaze says, an open-space park in effect means a park on which no maintenance is done. Despite Teaze's "bothering them and worrying them" for over 25 years, the city has never allocated parks and recreation funds to Adobe Falls Open Space Park.

Still Tease persisted, and on February 21, 2000, her persistence was rewarded in the form of a sewer spill -- not so much the sewer spill as the fine of $3.47 million the California Regional Water Quality Control Board levied against the city on June 14 for a lack of "due care and foresight," which could have prevented the spill. The water control board then gave the city the option of spending the fine money on local environmental projects, specifically, projects that improve water quality. Predictably, proposals have popped up from all over the county. But Pat Teaze believes the proposal she has put together in cooperation with Judy McCarty's office -- $310,000 for the removal of the Arundo donax and other projects at Adobe Falls -- has a better claim to the money than anybody. "I feel it should be near the top of the list," Teaze says, "because it's so close to where the spill took place and it would improve water quality. Those are the things they're looking for in the proposals."

The board considered the proposals yesterday; Pat Teaze said she'd be there to fight for Adobe Falls. Asked why she's fought for so long, she says, "That's just my personality. My husband says, 'You have more gall than my mother and my Aunt Anne put together.'"

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