Liquid Sapphires of the Chaparral
An Ephemeral Oasis of Biodiversity
To defend, or to destroy?
Before development there were an estimated 28,500 acres of vernal pool habitat in San Diego County. Mesa tops, like the one where San Diego State University now rests (aerial photos below), were covered with so many pools that aerial photographs taken back in 1928 look like carpets textured with thousands of tiny, evenly spaced dots. Those are all gone now. When the county was last inventoried in 1986, only 7% of the original vernal pool habitat remained. Fewer than 2,400 pools existed in 2001. Of those surviving, some are temporarily protected in restricted areas like the Miramar Air Station or Camp Pendleton, but their futures are still uncertain; others remain vulnerable because they exist on private land.
In December 1999, owners of a protected vernal pool site off Arjons Drive, north of downtown San Diego in Mira Mesa, bulldozed a significant portion of the parcel, scrapping off native vegetation and filling in fragile pool basins. Destruction of a protected vernal pool site is a violation of state and federal Endangered Species Acts and would ordinarily be a clear signal for prosecution. However, in this situation, the City of San Diego issued a grading permit without first checking their files and completing a proper investigation. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game coauthored a letter informing the city it violated state and federal regulations in addition to San Diego’s own municipal code for issuing permits. The pools had been protected in the 1980’s by an agreement approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service with the land’s former owner and that information was communicated during the sale via a signed letter from both real estate brokers involved. Responsible parties claimed ignorance and Michael Cafagna, co-owner of the property, denied any wrongdoing. In late 2002, San Diego County prosecutors quietly dropped the case.
“We looked carefully at all the players involved, looked at the liability and decided it didn’t meet the standard,” said Deputy District Attorney Karen Doty. “It didn’t rise to the level of prosecution and provable evidence.”
Even under the protection of government sanctioned conservation initiatives, protection of sensitive habitats is not guaranteed. Neither federal nor state Endangered Species Acts provide complete protection of species listed as endangered. Developers are frequently granted permits for the “taking” or killing of protected species. In an attempt to turn over the stewardship of endangered species and habitat preservation to local governments, Habitat Conservation Plans have been implemented. For example, the city of San Diego approved their Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) in 1997, promoted it as a rational way to balance development with the preservation of the area’s remaining wild habitats.
As with many compromises involving competing interests, the MSCP has a significant number of open-ended definitions allowing agencies tremendous flexibility. Specifically, the section applying to vernal pools allows for continued destruction as long as everyone tries to minimize impacts. Section 3.3.3 states, “For vernal pools and narrow endemic species, the jurisdictions and other participants will specify measures in their subarea plans to ensure that impacts to these resources are avoided to the maximum extent possible” (MSCP 1998). The section is open to interpretation as it allows agencies to define the meaning of “maximum extent.” Shortly after the MSCP was approved, a major development was authorized in San Diego on Mira Mesa Blvd, next to Interstate 15. On site were 67 endangered vernal pools recognized by the plan as deserving protection. The developers, however, indicated they could not profitably build unless they were able to use the entire parcel. As a result, “maximum extent” was translated into a compromise favoring development over preservation. The consequence was that one vernal pool was salvaged when the apartment complex was built in the late 1990s. Today, you can view the remaining pool at the end of a cul-de-sac on Hillery Drive. Under the crowded gaze of multistory apartments, surrounded by black asphalt stands a stylish rod iron fence, enclosing the sole remnant of a once dynamic vernal pool complex. The sixty by forty-foot preserve is marked with a plaque and three park benches. The apartment complex that now covers the site where the vernal pool complex once existed is called “Legacy.”