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City of the Dream, 1940-1970

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Price – Changes in the Land and the Sea

In the 1950’s the word ecology was familiar only to a few peo­ple. Yet, the way of life in Southern California could be af­fected by seemingly minute changes in the environment. A change in the sea temperature of a few degrees could revolu­tionize the dynamics of the fish population; a drought could nearly abolish a whole grazing population.

The natural events which wrought ecological changes in Southern California were minor compared to another force that affected practically all life forms in the space of little more than a century. This force was the invasion of civilized man.

It is probable that no region on the face of the earth ever faced such a potential ecological force as this invasion. Certainly many other areas have felt the weight of man for millenia. There is a mid-East saying that when the Bedouin arrives, the sand must follow.

But the price — and effects — of this invasion were still only dimly recognized, even though local water sources had proved insufficient to meet the demands of growth, when in the 1950’s a brown haze appeared over Los Angeles and would not go away. It soon spread across the basin and was even noticed over San Diego. This was diagnosed with a new word: smog.

Other changes were occurring. Sea otters had long since vanished and as far as anyone knew, they were extinct along the coast. Whales had abandoned the San Diego Bay for Baja California. Sea lions and porpoises were no longer coming into the bay as they once had done. New signs warned swimmers of pollution. Some shore birds species were getting fewer in num­ber. The California Brown Pelicans were hesitant to raise their young. The wide use of pesticides, too, soon would have an un­foreseen serious effect on bird and animal life.

Evidence had existed for some time that there were cyclical changes in some of the kelp beds that covered a hundred square miles of ocean off California. But in the 1940’s and early 1950’s a widespread sickness of the kelp beds became noticeable. The kelp beds off Point Loma, the southern tip of San Diego, had permitted a harvest of 122,000 tons in 1917. By 1958, this had shrunk to almost nothing.

Only a few scientists were becoming aware of the price man had to pay for the dams he had built across the seasonal rivers and streams. The sand that had created the Silver Strand and the Mission Beach peninsula, and thus formed the two largest bays in Southern California, was no longer being carried down to the sea where currents could deposit it along the shores. Waves were slowly beginning to encroach on the beaches and wash them away.

Erosion, in the form of advancing waves, and wind and rain, was eating away at the cliffs on the ocean side of Point Loma. The restful structures which A. G. Spalding, the sporting goods manufacturer had left the City with his gift of Sunset Cliffs Park, were falling away.

Going north from San Diego Bay the lagoons are Mission Bay, San Dieguito, Los Batiquitos, San Elijo, Agua Hedionda and Buena Vista. In centuries past, and probably for thousands of years, native peoples had camped seasonally by the lagoons and lived off sea and bird life in a balance with nature.

In modern times, these natural environments would form probably the most controversial areas in San Diego County be­cause they could be altered by man in many cases into recre­ational parks, or into green masses of stagnant water or even dry alkali beds. Developers would want to fill the sloughs and turn them into housing projects; the sportsman would want a waterfowl hunting area; conservationists would want a refuge for sea and bird life; the salt water enthusiast would want ma­rine and water-skiing facilities.

As for Mission Bay, it long had been looked upon as an area of mud flats, with narrow winding channels and unnavigable marshes, a delight only to a relatively few people who lived along its shores, with small rickety piers for their boats, and who felt akin to nature and its wildlife. By 1877, when the Army Corps of Engineers had again diverted the San Diego River from the main bay into False or Mission Bay, after the effort of the 1850’s had failed, a Los Angeles reporter wrote that the confin­ing of the river to a new channel sent the flood waters into False Bay, “which has no commercial value and can be filled up with impunity.” In time the bay might have disappeared, because of silting, and the river could again have sought a new outlet to the sea.

State and Federal interest in the bay, however, either as a harbor or a park, had been manifested for years, though there were those in San Diego who argued in the late 1940’s that the bay should be left to nature. But there was always the question of whether they also would have left the area of Balboa Park as unused open space covered with thick brush. Balboa Park had become a treasure.

Then, with the slow creation by dredging of small coves along the western shore, and the building of public beaches virtual­ly up to the front doors of the homes of long-time bay residences, the value of privately-held lands adjoining the bay began to rise, and many property owners saw the possibilities of the fu­ture.

There was no general agreement, however, as to what a proper division of Mission Bay as a park should be, as between land and water uses for people and the requirements of any wildlife, and how much space would have to be devoted to the tourist industry and the creation of income to help make the park self-­sustaining as had been promised.

Glenn Rick, the City’s Planning Director who had originally set the plans in motion for development of the bay into a rec­reational area, had resisted a too rigid master plan which might jeopardize opportunities for income or uses as time moved on. He told the Mission Bay Park Commission that the prior commit­ments to the State on wild life requirements eliminated much of the possibility of change in the general plan for the northern half of the eastern bay area. In 1949 City planners had envi­sioned nine wildlife islands. But by 1955, the islands had been reduced to five, one of them to be heavily wooded.

Impatience at slow progress was expressed on many sides. There was wide dissatisfaction with the granting of a lease for a drive-in theater but Rick pointed out that the area of its loca­tion was landlocked and would not make a good camp site as had been suggested

Edward Hall, president of the San Diego Taxpayers Associ­ation, argued before the Commission, and its chairman, George A. Scott, that the park had to be self-sustaining and not become a burden on taxpayer. In this he was supported by Elliott Cushman, chairman of a Chamber of Commerce Mission Bay commit­tee, and Ray Blair, executive assistant to the Chamber’s man­ager. Frank W. Seifert, the retired Army major and former City Councilman, was still urging that a major airport should be laid out in the southern area.

The San Diego Union brought the situation into focus:

“Because the development of Mission Bay had been slow, there has been a temptation to grasp at whatever offers are made for the construction of park facilities. … The idea of immediate revenue is alluring. And, unquestion­ably, revenue is important. But more to the point are questions regarding the best possible use of the land — uses of the most lasting good for the greatest majority. … Pressures are being built up to set aside parts of the beach for varied private groups. Each group feels that the bay is large enough so its small request will do little damage. But all these add up to major proportions and do not serve the general public.”

While everything from water skiing to gun clubs and play­houses was being suggested for a place in what had been con­ceived to be an aquatic park, and winning some commission fa­vor, the principal pressure was to get on with the job. The Fed­eral Government already had spent more than $7,000,000 of its estimated share of $10,000,000. The City had spent more than $8,000,000 of its anticipated share of $19,000,000. The State of California had reimbursed the City for river flood control work in the amount of $3,500,000.

Most of the City’s work had been on the west side of the bay while the Federal Government had built the three great rock jetties which forever would carry the flood waters of the river out into the ocean and at the same time provide a deep water channel leading into Mission Bay. But so far only seven miles of beaches had been developed and only 565 acres of water had been made navigable for standard pleasure craft.

A bond issue of $5,000,000 was placed on the City ballot for June, 1956 and voters were warned that other Federal appro­priations of about $3,000,000, to dredge the outer harbor to a depth of twenty feet in order to accommodate ocean-going craft, probably hinged on the outcome of the election.

The $5,000,000 would be spent for further dredging of the bay proper, to a low-tide depth of eight feet, and the creation of new beaches on the eastern shore, more recreational areas, camp grounds, landscaping, and general public facilities. City officials predicted a “whirlwind” courtship by commercial, hotel, motel and marine interests if the bond issue carried

A comparison with Miami Beach could not be resisted by those concerned with the economic aspects of Mission Bay. The San Diego Union scouted Miami and found it had a well-developed package to sell to the East Coast and the Middle West and had parlayed year-round sunshine and salt water into a multi-mil­lion dollar annual business.

San Diego had the same potential, it was found, with Mission Bay, the weather, and its other vacation and recreational attrac­tions, but its “tourist plant” — convention facilities, restaurants and hotels — was only beginning to take on aspects of impor­tance.

The concern of most citizens, however, was for a Mission Bay as a playground, a water playground, for themselves. On one Summer afternoon it was estimated that 38,000 had enjoyed the beaches or the warm water. The bond issue was approved by the voters, but unhappiness over progress brought renewed debate on how best to administer such a large project so important to the City’s future and its economic expectations.

An original Mission Bay Park Advisory Committee had evolved into a Commission but its role still was advisory and its authority vague. A Mayor’s committee early in 1955 had rec­ommended that a five-man board be designated to operate Mission Bay Park and that it be given the same autonomy as the Harbor Commission.

This would have required a City Charter amendment. The Council deadlocked on a decision whether to refer the issue to the voters. Mayor Dail soon afterward pressed again for such a Commission, and again to no avail. Instead, a study by a consulting firm was approved and it came up with a recommenda­tion that the director of the park be an assistant to the City Man­ager and that he be made responsible both to the Manager and the City Council, and that a new seven-man Commission be constituted but only be advisory to the Council. This plan was adopted in 1956.

The fight for an autonomous Commission, however, was not over. It would come up again and again. In 1957, Councilman Justin Evenson took up the cudgels, while the new Commission itself sought clarification of its powers. The San Diego Union termed progress in the park as “faltering” and “lacking in strong, decisive leadership.”

Feeling that it was unfairly receiving the brunt of public crit­icism for any delays in progress, or lapses in administration of the park, the Commission appealed to the Council to place the issue of an autonomous Commission up to the voters. The only change, however, was an ordinance re-defining the Commis­sion’s status, in that it would report to both the City Manager and the Council. An effort to have members of the Commission be appointed by the Mayor instead of by all members of the Council, failed in passage. More than a year after passage of the $5,000,000 bond issue, and eleven years of time and the ex­penditure of nineteen million dollars, plans for the park itself had not yet been made firm. A re-drawing of old informal plans produced a new one providing for central islands and a curving shoreline on the east side.

Scientists familiar with the bay expressed misgivings about the plan. Dr. Douglas Inman, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said there was little reason to believe that the proposed shore lines would remain in the same shape they were built, because of tide, wave and wind action. A $25,000 oceano­graphic study was commissioned and it supported his conten­tion.

A new Master Plan, and actually the first formal one, was pre­pared for public hearings in 1958, which were to be conducted, not by the Bay Commission, but by the Planning Commission.

There was a new cast of characters. Glenn Rick, who had brought the idea of an aquatic park into being, tired of politi­cal strife, had resigned as Planning Director to enter private business. Harry Haelsig was selected to succeed him and Lester Halcomb as an assistant to the City Manager was acting Mis­sion Park Director.

Haelsig told a public hearing that dredging by the City had been too long delayed while plans were drawn and re-drawn, but now a fifty-fifty balance had been achieved between land and water uses, the configuration of the eastern shore had been modified, the central islands of the east bay, originally to be wildlife preserves, had been reformed into one large island of 418 acres which would provide camping and picnic areas.

Dr. Carl Hubbs, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, urged the retention of a wildlife preserve, and Haelsig replied that this had been done by setting aside seventy-seven acres of the northern shore, seven more acres than had been included in the 1956 plan with the islands.

The proposed central island was the principal dividing issue that seemed to remain, and water sports enthusiasts protested what they described as an over-emphasis on land uses. A yachtsman, Alonzo Jessop, called the island “downright ridicu­lous” and that picnic and camping areas were available at a dozen other parks throughout the County:

“I don’t know of any other place along the Pacific Coast where they are filling in water areas. In most places they are dredging out areas to make more harbors and canals.”

The City’s reply was a practical one: there had to be a place to put all the sand that had to be dredged up to convert mud flats into navigable water, and it was too costly to transport the sand out to the ocean. This had been done in a measure by the Army Corps of Engineers in dredging the channel entrance. The sand had been deposited to enlarge the swimming area at adjoining Ocean Beach, as well as in South Mission Beach, where beaches had been seriously eroded.

A former City Councilman, Gerald Crary, who had partici­pated in planning for the aquatic park, and who at the time of the hearing was manager of the San Diego Tourist and Conven­tion Bureau, described the new plan as the soundest he had seen, and he was supported by a former Mayor, John D. Butler. Both of them said the island could be removed later, if it were found advisable to do so. “Let’s adopt this plan and get going on it,” said O. W. Todd, Jr., active in sports and president of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Ultimate uses in the new Master Plan would offer the public almost 2,000 acres of navigable water, more than 2,000 acres of park land and almost thirty-two miles of shoreline. Areas were designated in a general way for boat launchings, boat slip facili­ties, parks and picnics and beaches, hotels and motels and re­lated facilities, for public activity and semi-public and public fa­cilities. Of the available land, twenty-five percent was to be set aside for commercial purposes, principally hotels and motels, by which the park might become self-supporting.

The Master Plan, as drawn by the City Planning Department and presented by the City Planning Commission, failed to win full support of the Mission Bay Commission, and its chairman, C. Harry Burnaugh, resigned. The City Council, however, adopted the controversial plan without a dissenting vote, in 1958, and it became the general guide for the aquatic park that Mission Bay was to become. But as Glenn Rick had foreseen, any plan could not be inflexible and there would be changes, par­ticularly in the location of areas to be set aside for commercial enterprises.

The dredging out of the mud and the filling in of marsh lands destroyed the normal feeding grounds of thousands of shore birds which were forced to adjust to new areas or leave the vi­cinity entirely. The Black Brant for which Mission Bay had been a principal wintering ground, and which was to be memorial­ized on sanctuary signs throughout the park, virtually disap­peared.

While wildlife may have departed the City’s waters, birds, animals and reptiles, including specimens of the survivors of man’s rush to California, and others from around the world, were being assembled in ever-increasing numbers under the protec­tion of the San Diego Zoological Society. A new director, Charles R. Schroeder, had succeeded Mrs. Belle Benchley in 1953. She retired with honors.

The Zoo in Balboa Park was becoming world famous. It was free of politics. While the exhibits were the legal property of the City, and thus the taxpayers, their care rested with the San Diego Zoological Society, a private organization.

Membership dues, some donations and gifts, and revenue from a two-cent tax return on each $100 of assessed valuation, en­abled the society to free itself of political pressures and limita­tions. In 1947, Zoo attendance was 1,447,324 — for a total of more than 50,000,000 since its founding in 1922.

At one time, the City Manager, O. W. Campbell, had looked with some dismay on the Zoo’s untouchability and suggested privately that its revenues were out of proportion to the money devoted to other social or civic institutions. He, in short, wanted to cut them down. He failed.

Again in 1959, some members of the City Council considered withdrawing support by eliminating the two cents tax. Council­man Chester C. Schneider claimed the Zoo no longer needed such financial assistance. Again, this move failed. The Board of Directors of the Zoo was almost self-perpetuating but it was be­coming the most prestigious civic group in the community.

The loss of the early otter population, of course, had been felt economically as a loss of a source of valuable furs. Naturalists were disturbed by the loss of a species so numerous and so at­tractive. Their protests had finally led to the signing of a treaty between the United States, Japan, Great Britain and Russia to ban otter hunting. The signing was in 1911, long after anyone knew where there were any otters to protect.

It took much longer to discover and appreciate another effect of the otter destruction. This was the ecological effect that took a century to become of economic importance. It was discovered when, in the middle of the 1950’s, the kelp beds started to dis­appear off San Diego and other parts of the coast. By this time the kelp beds were valuable for two things — they supplied shelter for sportfish and thus supported the lucrative sport fish­ing industry and the kelp was the raw material for the extrac­tion of algin, an emulsifying agent used in making explosives, ice cream and many other products.

The grandeur of the kelp forests was not appreciated before the advent of scuba diving in the 1950’s. For the first time men were able to penetrate among these great brown plants that pro­vided a canopy as much as 200 feet above the ocean floor. Scientists and naturalists, equipped with air tanks and swim fins, cruised in the perpetual shadow of the kelp fronds and observed more kinds of wildlife per minute than the first explorers of terrestrial forests. They were in what seemed a fairy forest. The “trees” had neither roots or trunks, for the kelp can get its sus­tenance from sea water with the help of the sun shining on its uppermost layers and it obtains its support from the buoyancy supplied by the ocean. In place of trunks, the kelp plants have thin, waving stipes that connect with holdfasts which have the unique function of anchoring the plants to their positions on the seafloor.

A scientific inquiry made by Dr. Wheeler J. North of the Cali­fornia Institute of Technology resulted in the finding that sea urchins in great hordes were chewing away the kelp holdfasts and setting the great plants adrift. It was then recalled that in times past the urchins had furnished the principal item of diet for the sea otters. Thus destruction of the otters had removed the ecological brake on the urchin population, a brake which had protected the kelp. The fight to save the kelp was about to begin.

A fight to save the Bay of San Diego, however, was slow in get­ting started. This bay was not particularly envisioned by San Diegans as a place for swimming or water skiing, though they acknowledged its commercial importance. But throughout its history, its waters and tidal flats had been nursery feeding ground and a refuge for fish and wildlife.

Finally, and almost fatally, the bay was being used as a re­ceptacle for most of the wastes from the communities develop­ing and expanding on its shores.

Prior to 1943 the City had a primitive sewer system which discharged raw sewage into the bay and ocean through twenty outfalls. The pressure of population during the war forced the building of a primary treatment plant It was enlarged in 1948 and was also handling sewage from National City, La Mesa, Lemon Grove and North Island. In the late years of the 1950’s the bay had become so polluted that most of it had been quaran­tined. Bait and game fish virtually disappeared. Aquatic train­ing by the military was seriously reduced and curtailed. Aesthet­ic uses were reduced.

A sludge bed 200 yards wide, leading from the treatment plant outfall, was reported in 1951. In a decade its depth would be increased to more than seven feet. In 1954, the City’s voters had refused to approve a $16,000,000 bond issue to correct pol­lution of the bay by carrying sewage to Point Loma and dispos­ing of it into the ocean through a long outfall. Opponents were led by the contractor, Roscoe E. Hazard, whose company was building the great freeways of the auto age. He deplored what he described as incomplete and incompetent engineering and said the costs of the system had been seriously underestimated. Those in favor of the project ascribed his warnings to his own fear of odors from the outfall drifting up to his home on Point Loma.

After the defeat of the sewer issue, a citizens’ committee was named to find a solution on how to proceed in solving pollution of the bay. It recommended the employment of three engineers, who, in turn, recommended the location of a treatment plant and ocean outfall at Imperial Beach in preference to Point Loma. This would cost $26,000,000.

The original thinking had been for the City of San Diego to finance the cost of the system, and allowing other communities to tie into it through service charges. Some apparently would want to do so, as had been done in the past; others were hesi­tant. Now the thinking changed and San Diego contemplated asking all who wanted to tie in to participate in the total financ­ing.

The obvious necessity of a metropolitan, or regional, system of sewage disposal emphasized the long-time contention of the City Manager, O. W. Campbell, that in time metropolitan gov­ernment would have to be substituted for that of individual cities now inevitably merging into great urban areas.

Too, Campbell perhaps was feeling the strains of the City Manager system which in San Diego had been modified to par­tially disperse governmental authority through a number of commissions, which, in turn, differed in the extent of their re­sponsibilities. The Harbor Commission was virtually autono­mous; the Mission Bay Commission, advisory only.

Mayors, too, were experiencing the frustration of office with­out power. A Mayor’s vote was equal to that of any Councilman and his role as defined by the City Charter merely ceremonial. Both Percy Benbough and Harley Knox had sought, with some success, to override the limitations of office. Mayor Dail would try to bring about a change of importance; he wanted the power that in most cities went with the office of Mayor.

San Diegans, in adopting that City Manager system, with some modifications, and after experiencing years of police and political corruption, believed they had divorced the adminis­tration of City government from political interference. But, in the opinion of Mayor Dail and others, the voters also had tied the hands of political leaders, and that in some measure any surrender of political authority to a professional City Manager could mean, in fact, a disfranchisement of voters.

Suddenly, Campbell was gone. He resigned on July 22, 1957, to go to Miami to become Manager of Dade County. City Manag­ers of the time knew their stay in one area must be limited; the effect of decisions would catch up with them and they had to go for political reasons. But in Dade County he would manage af­fairs of a number of political jurisdictions.

At first, Jerome Keithley, City Manager of Palo Alto, Califor­nia, was selected by the City Council as the new City Manager, and then when he changed his mind about coming, the Council unanimously chose George Bean, who was City Manager of Peoria, Illinois. Bean was fifty-eight; Keithley, forty-two.

Bean, still in San Diego, was summoned to a special meeting of the City Council and he agreed to accept the position. First, however, he asked about the City’s two major problems. He was told they were a new sewer system and a Convention Hall. “I’ll get them for you,” he said, “but by that time you’ll fire me. I’ll be around only about four years.”

Man was creating an environmental revolution. Yet, in an­other sense, he was merely altering ecological systems by cre­ating new ones. Sand did not necessarily follow man’s appear­ance. It would have been difficult to return to a scene without palms, without oranges and eucalyptus trees, and without high­ways. Southern California had become a paradise in the view of those who sought a new way of life free from the rigors of climate and decay.

But there were so many people arriving now in San Diego that the inconsistencies of nature combined with population growth brought a new crisis. In the late 1950’s Dr. Carl Hubbs of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told San Diegans:

“I have a number of reasons for thinking that the drought that started in about 1934 — this great drought — was perhaps the most severe of any which has occurred since the Ice Age, during the last 15,000 years … the general trend seems to be in the direction of drier conditions. And if this is true, and I think it is highly probable that it is, it seems to me that man in and near the desert and semi-desert regions will need to think and act very boldly, or pos­sibly suffer very severe consequences.”

The second pipeline for the San Diego Aqueduct had been opened in 1954, the same year in which drought conditions re­turned after a slight interlude. The next year a report of the County Water Authority concluded that more water would be needed by 1960. However, the year 1956 saw rainfall drop to its lowest point, to four and half inches for the season.

An alarmed San Diego County responded with overwhelming approval of $35,000,000 in bonds to be issued by the Water Authority for construction of a second aqueduct. The Water Au­thority assumed responsibility for the ninety-seven miles of construction from Hemet, in Riverside County, to the Lower Otay Reservoir in San Diego County. The Metropolitan Water District assumed responsibility for thirty-eight miles of construc­tion to the San Diego delivery point.

Construction could not begin until 1958 and meanwhile a “Don’t Waste the Water Committee” was organized in the City to conserve supplies, as it was not certain that the little amount remaining in the reservoirs, and that which could be delivered from the Colorado River through two barrels of the first aque­duct, would be enough until the second aqueduct could be ­completed.

The continuing growth in population and agriculture had broken down resistance of many County areas to joining the San Diego County Water Authority. By mid-1958 there were eight­een member agencies, the demand for water had been so per­sistent down the years. This included four cities, Escondido, National City, Oceanside and San Diego. The irrigation dis­tricts included Helix, San Dieguito, Santa Fe and South Bay, which also took in the city of Chula Vista. Municipal water dis­tricts were Buena Colorado, Carlsbad, Otay, Poway, Rainbow, Ramona, Rincon del Diablo and Rio San Diego, which also took in the Lakeside Irrigation District, and Valley Center. The eighteenth member was the Fallbrook Public Utility District.

Agriculture in the County as well as life in its cities and com­munities could no longer be sustained in a land where population had so outstripped an ecological balance.

New ecological systems — with their people and its trees — would survive. But the great changes were not over — an eco­nomic upheaval shaping all people’s lives had reached San Di­ego. They would be related in a way to a dramatic re-defining of the authority of a City. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was within the power of a legislative body to determine that a community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacificous as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled.