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A Landmark Event at the Lagoon (2/6/08)

By Jacqueline Winterer, President of the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley,   February 2008

On January 23 we watched intently as a large back-hoe scooped away a narrow dam holding the waters of the 45-acre tidal basin dug out by Marathon Construction crews hired by Southern California Edison(SCE), thereby opening an extensive new area of the lagoon to the ebb and flow of beneficial tidal waters. This landmark event heralded major progress in the San Dieguito River Valley Joint Powers Authority/ SCE efforts to restore severely degraded wetlands.

Historic Wetlands

At the end of the 19th century, the San Dieguito Lagoon was a thousand-acre wetland that included salt and brackish marsh, tidal embayments, sloughs and mudflats that were progressively developed for a variety of commercial and residential uses.  

In the 1930’s some of the lagoon wetlands on the North of the San Dieguito River were filled and became a golf course, encouraged by the State of California Swamp Reclamation Act. After 4 years, saltwater intrusions caused abandonment of the golf course.

In 1933, California legalized on-track wagering on horse races. The State’s share of revenues was intended to support fairground operations and contribute to training youth in agricultural and animal husbandry. The golf course was purchased by the State Division of Fairs and Expositions and on October 8, 1936, Bing Crosby founded the Del Mar Turf Club and the first harness race took place.

South of the river, the Navy established an emergency landing field in the late 1920’s. That property was later developed as a municipal airport to serve the racing patrons at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The Airport during WW II

In 1941, after Pearl Harbor, the US Navy re-acquired this airport to use as a landing field. As the field could not accommodate traditional aircraft, the U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air facility used it as a base for two lighter- than-air dirigibles. The blimps refueled at Del Mar and then continued anti-submarine patrols up and down the coast up to 100 miles offshore. The Grand Avenue Bridge off San Dieguito Drive was built at that time to provide access to the blimp airport.

During WW II the Fairgrounds buildings became barracks, galleys and mess halls, officers recreational facilities and classrooms.
In September 1945, the naval facility was disestablished and the fairgrounds and racetrack were returned to their earlier use. The Navy retained ownership of the airfield until 1947 when  80 acres were quitclaimed to San Diego County for one dollar.

1946 Onward

The airfield site became a municipal airport until it was closed 1959 as the construction for Interstate 5 bisected the runway. Various businesses occupied the old airport buildings; a motel with 12 rooms, Tony’s Jacal, a worm-castings business, a duck-shooting club.

In 1953, the western part of the airfield was leased by Andrew Kay’s  Non Linear Systems. The buildings were converted into a manufacturing plant for digital voltmeters. This company produced the “Kaypro” one of the first personal computers. After Kaypro moved to Solana Beach in 1968 the site was unused.

Saving the Lagoon

Attempts, to save, and restore the San Dieguito Lagoon, date back to the 1970’s when more and more people chose to come and live in the coastal area.  In Del Mar, environmentally-minded local residents saw that, unless efforts were made to protect specific habitats this valley would end up looking like San Diego River Valley with its big shopping centers and immense parking lots. They formed a Lagoon Preservation Committee and with the support of the Del Mar City Council, a Lagoon Enhancement Plan was created and adopted in 1979 as part of the City’s General Plan. The plan was later endorsed by the City of San Diego and was certified by the California Coastal Commission.

In 1987, Bircher-Pacific, a developer, bought the old airport area. It sought to amend the Lagoon Enhancement Plan to permit development of two 300-room hotels, a shopping center, an access interchange from I-5 and a 200 seat restaurant. Several public hearings were held, hundreds of concerned people spoke against the plan and were happy to see it eventually abandoned.
 The San Dieguito River Valley Joint Power Authority is the multi-city agency formed in 1989 by the San Diego Association of Governments to create an open space greenway and an extensive trail system within the San Dieguito River Valley. There was great satisfaction in seeing the Bircher property become its first land purchase.

In 1991 the Coastal Commission required Southern California Edison to restore 150 acres of wetlands as mitigation for the impacts on the marine environment caused by the San Onofre nuclear power plant and fortunately chose the San Dieguito Lagoon for the project.
 Thirty years have elapsed since the Del Mar Lagoon Committee formulated its dreams of saving the lagoon. The persistence and hard work of many organizations has produced the exciting progress we see today in saving the San Dieguito wetlands.

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