GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

San Diego’s Alvarado Creek and the future of Adobe Falls

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 26, 2009

There’s only one place remaining where you can tell that Alvarado Creek is a creek anymore.  That place is Adobe Falls, a steep, pretty (but graffiti-ridden), rocky cascade in Del Cerro. It has the status of being the only waterfall within San Diego city limits that runs pretty much year-round. A small portion of the falls is owned by the city as open space with historical significance, and a larger portion of the surrounding land belongs to San Diego State University (SDSU) just across the freeway to the south. Even during the hot, dry month of July, the creek is flowing despite the long absence of precipitation because of urban irrigation and Lake Murray reservoir runoff. Adobe Falls’ undeveloped status is eventually going to change, however, as I’ll discuss shortly.

AdobeFalls (6)View

When it rains, this changes considerably

Plenty of boulder-climbing opportunities

A pond just before a drop

On the upper falls looking west

But first, an exploration of the Alvarado Creek watershed.

By my reckoning, Alvarado Creek draws its water from much of Del Cerro, San Carlos, Fletcher Hills, Grossmont and some of the hilly areas south of the I-8 corridor from Grossmont west until Fairmount Ave. Roughly speaking, the northern boundary of the watershed would be Waring Road and then Navajo Road; on the east and south it would be the Fletcher Parkway area, and along I-8 some runoff from the south may also come from near El Cajon Blvd and Montezuma Road.

The creek starts visibly forming where Fletcher Parkway and S-125 cross paths (the underground Grossmont Reservoir beneath Harry Griffen Park and the Duck Pond behind Anthony’s are nearby).

Beneath the 125, part of the beginning

Beneath the 125, runoff from the northeast

Growing rapidly, it’s almost immediately channelized alongside Fletcher Parkway…

MedOfficesNear125FletcherView

…and makes its way past the Grossmont Trolley Center and the commercial strip featuring BabiesRUs and Costco:

At Costco corner of Baltimore and Fletcher Pkwy

At the corner of Baltimore and Fletcher Pkwy the creek is hidden from street view.

As Fletcher Parkway ends, it continues alongside I-8 past an RV trailer park before going underground again beneath the trolley tracks just before Alvarado Hospital:

Under the tracks along Alvarado Medical complex

The creek meets SDSU at College Avenue, then veers briefly north in a tunnel under the I-8 freeway, and emerges on the other side to cascade down Adobe Falls. Below the falls, the creek subsequently gets channeled around the large Smoke Tree gated condominium assemblage and the other housing units springing up, and gets another moisture boost from Navajo Canyon (when it rains, anyway) at Waring Road:

Looking east up Navajo Canyon

Looking northeast up Navajo Canyon...

Navajo Canyon meets Alvarado Canyon

...looking southwest where it meets Alvarado Canyon at Waring Road...

...and piped under Waring and into Alvarado Creek

...Navajo Canyon runoff gets piped under Waring Rd. and into Alvarado Creek

The creek then tunnels in a few places beneath some Grantville businesses before emptying into a channel leading to the San Diego River:

Burrowing beneath Grantville

Burrowing under near the Grantville post office

Incidentally, The Grantville Redevelopment Plan envisions opening up a portion of Alvarado Creek as a mini-park somewhere in this vicinity, possibly near the trolley station.  In the picture below the creek does a final underground at Fairmount Avenue and finds the San Diego River on the other side of the Honda dealership:

Grantville channel filling with sediment

Near Grantville trolley station channel filling with sediment

Also near Grantville trolley station

Also near Grantville trolley station

Lake Murray reservoir is an interesting contributor to Alvarado Creek.

MurrayFromAfarView

The dam is at the southern end of the reservoir

The reservoir capacity is 4,818 acre feet (AF). Nearly all the water in the reservoir is imported from the Colorado River and Northern California (via San Vicente and El Capitan reservoirs). A small amount, perhaps 100AF per year, comes from local runoff. The Alvarado Water Treatment Plant and its storage tanks are adjacent to the dam. As part of a recent plant upgrade, 6,128 photovoltaic solar panels were installed atop the concrete roofs of all three storage tanks, a total area covering approximately 4.33 acres. The solar energy supplies about 20% of the plant’s power needs.

The treatment facility is to the left of the dam

The treatment facility is to the left of the dam

According to Gregory Cross from the SD Water Department, the concrete dam itself leaks, as do all dams. When I asked if percolation under the reservoir might also contribute to runoff below the dam, he told me he thinks there is a flow net under the dam, and that there’s some leakage from headwall piping associated with the storage tanks at the treatment center, and nuisance water from undetermined sources that caused problems during construction of upgrades to the treatment plant.

Also of interest is a ‘brow ditch’ that encircles part of the reservoir. The San Diego Water Department Watershed Sanitary Survey says: Murray Reservoir itself is surrounded by a diversion ditch which intercepts dry weather, low flow, and first flush runoff from all tributaries and diverts it around the reservoir to a discharge point below the dam. At higher runoff levels, for example, during major storm events, surface flow carries past the diversion system and into the reservoir.

Water from brow ditch empties on the dam's spillway

Water from brow ditch empties on the dam's spillway

For the higher runoff levels mentioned above, the brow ditch has an overflow spillway into the reservoir:

Brow ditch spillway to reservoir on left

Ditch overflow goes into the concrete spillway on the left

The spillway has a few problems: a leak of ‘nuisance water’ …

UnkeptSpillwayView

… and an almost-choked drain:

SpillwayDrainBlockedView

Here’s a bird’s eye view of the brow ditch spillway (you can see that leak):

BrowDitchOverflowSpillway

From the dam, runoff flows through a small canyon, tunnels under I-8, and joins Alvarado Creek near Reservoir Drive at Alvarado Hospital. This picture shows where the runoff goes underground at I-8 and joins Alvarado Creek under the trolley tracks. Note the air vents (or drain?) between the tracks and the freeway:

LakeMurrayDrainJoinsAlvaradoDrainage

In this satellite view the faint blue line traces the runoff from the dam into Alvarado Creek, the creek’s course, and the San Diego River (click image for a slightly larger version):

LakeMurrayDrainageAnnotatedSmall

So, as I said, there’s not much that is creek-like. That brings me back to Adobe Falls.

Adobe Falls is tucked into the undeveloped canyon north of the I-8 freeway across from SDSU. In this view looking east, you can make out palm groupings near the freeway in the upper falls area and then a little farther down in the lower segment of the falls:

AdobeFallsOverlook (6)View

This is on the opposite side near the falls, looking west:

AdobeFallsOverlook (12)View

The City of San Diego owns a 4-acre slice of Adobe Falls as Historical Site No. 80. It’s referred to as Adobe Falls Open Space Park and is not maintained for recreational purposes. SDSU owns the remainder of the undeveloped space in that part of the canyon.

The Adobe Falls area was slated for development by SDSU’s 2005 Master Plan with a project to develop residential housing for faculty and staff. SDSU initially planned to build 540 residential housing units above and below the falls. There was considerable opposition to the plan, especially by area residents worried about the impact on the neighborhood and environment and additional traffic on the already overcrowded, low-capacity Del Cerro Blvd which ends in a cul-de-sac west of College Avenue. Presently Del Cerro Blvd from College Avenue is the only way the area can be reached.

The project drew several lawsuits against California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees in 2005. The suits contested certain aspects of CSU’s Environmental Impact Report.  They also sought to invalidate CSU’s claim in the 2005 Master Plan that it was not obligated to pay for road and other public infrastructure improvements or for environmental mitigation required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

SDSU overlooking the upper falls

SDSU across from the falls

The court agreed that CSU did not meet CEQA requirements and that CSU was responsible for mitigation expenses.  It set aside CSU’s 2005 Master Plan and Environmental Impact Report and  awarded attorney fees for all plaintiffs (the university lost an appeal trying to avoid paying attorney fees to Del Cerro Action Council).  Recognizing that CSU would revise its Master Plan and EIR, the court also retained jurisdiction on the matter to ensure future compliance with CEQA .

SDSU’s subsequent 2007 Master Plan (approved by CSU Trustees Nov. 14, 2007) scaled back the project.  It would build a maximum of 348 units (down from 540) if a second vehicular access route could be found, or 172 units if the single access point through Del Cerro was the only possiblity (SDSU Senate minutes from Feb. 5, 2007 explain also that instead of 6-story condos, they would build 2-story townhomes). The second access route would be from the west, most likely through property owned by the Smoke Tree Adobe Falls Homeowners Association, but comments from that group published in the Environmental Impact Report show extreme opposition to any development whatsoever, much less allowing access to it through their property. It’s a little ironic that they complained that the “permanent green belt” they anticipated when they moved in might be disturbed. I suspect that many people were thinking the same thing when the Smoke Tree complex was going up.

Smoke Tree includes the line of condos/townhomes alongside the palm-dotted creek:

SmokeTree

Trying to learn more about the current status of the Adobe Falls development, I sent email to a field representative for city council member Marti Emerald and was told the project had been pulled and nothing was pending for Adobe Falls.

Digging a little more, I contacted SDSU’s Director of Facilities Planning, Design & Construction. She indicated that SDSU’s 2007 Master Plan design for Adobe Falls remains in effect, although it still remains to be seen whether additional access can be found, so the total number of units is still unknown. She also informed me that a hearing on this case has been scheduled for September 25, 2009 in the Superior Court north county branch in Vista.

I’m guessing that at least two items will be addressed in the upcoming hearing(s): 1) Whether the revised 2007 Master Plan and EIR complies with CEQA, and 2) CSU’s fair share of the mitigation expense (the 2007 Master Plan statement about CSU’s fair share is likely to be problematic because it only admits that CSU must “seek” funds from the state legislature, which implies that if it seeks but cannot obtain funds (or registered warrants!) from the state, CSU will not pay it from its own budget).

I’m not positive I’ve identified all the major legal issues impeding the project.  For one thing, I was able to view the new consolidated case file only, because of a records snafu at the courthouse. The other cases may reveal significant information that I haven’t picked up. When I’m able to see them, I’ll update this article if necessary.  UPDATE HERE

Virtually no news updates on this story have appeared since 2007.  I’m pretty sure the project’s not dead, though.  I think once they resolve the  implementation details in the litigation, the project will get underway (if they can find any money for it!).

I have mixed feelings about developing the falls. Currently, reaching the falls is difficult (the stream crossing required in order to get there can be impossible when the flow is heavy) and navigating the giant boulders when you reach the falls is quite dangerous. SDSU promises to retain the falls and enhance them for environmental and recreational benefits, and that could be a good thing. But if it’s easier for people to go see the falls and they become more popular, that’s more traffic and parking headaches for the neighborhood.

I’m resigned to the fact that after Smoke Tree mushroomed in the canyon it was inevitable that additional development would follow. Anyway, the remaining property does belong to SDSU and they need the space. So when all is said and done, Adobe Falls will still be there, but I suspect it will have the small footprint and manicured feel of an exclusive resort water garden, and the entire canyon and Del Cerro hillside will dramatically change in appearance from a natural setting to an urban setting. Despite that pessimistic feeling, I remain hopeful SDSU will do the right thing by the environment and its neighbors.

[Please see also the Adobe Falls Update]

Here’s a Flickr slideshow of pictures from the area, and here’s a short video I made:

 

 


Additional information and bibliography

Project summary from SDSU’s 2007 Master Plan:

If no alternate access can be provided to the site, a maximum of 172 homes will be developed – a more than 68 percent reduction from the original proposal. If alternate access can be provided, up to 348 homes could be developed on the site.

The Adobe Falls property is divided by its topography into two areas – the “upper village” and “lower village.” In the first phase, 48 townhomes will be constructed in the “upper village.” The “upper village” would be the first phase of development.

Because the “lower village” was studied at a conceptual level, a range of 124 to 300 homes are proposed that depend on the vehicular access that can be provided to the site.

  • If no alternate access is provided, 124 townhomes are proposed.
  • If gated access is provided through Del Cerro and to the west through Smoke Tree Condominiums, up to 174 townhomes could be constructed. Permission is needed from the Smoke Tree Homeowners Association to secure this alternate access.
  • If an alternate access can be secured through Smoke Tree or another option to the west (no access through Del Cerro) up to 300 condominium units could be developed.

Because plans for the “lower village” are conceptual, further public and environmental review and a subsequent action by the CSU Board of Trustees are required before anything can be constructed.

In addition to providing affordable homes for faculty and staff, the Adobe Falls project will substantially improve the surrounding environment. The project includes almost 13 acres of open space. More than 9.5 acres of wetlands and native habitat will be preserved and enhanced as part of the project.

Project map from the Master Plan:

ProjectMapSharpened

Adobe Falls would be enclosed by the upper and lower villages

The lawsuits:

Lead Case Title: DEL CERRO ACTION COUNCIL VS BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY
Case Number: GIC855643 Case Location: North County
Case Type: Civil Date Filed: 10/20/2005
Category: CU-TTE Toxic Tort/Environmental

Plaintiff/Petitioner
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
CITY OF SAN DIEGO P
DEL CERRO ACTION COUNCIL P
REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY OF THE CITY OF SAN DIEGO
SAN DIEGO ASSOCIATION OF GOVERNMENTS
SAN DIEGO METROPOLITAN TRANSIT SYSTEM

Defendant/Respondent
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY P
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY P
ALVARADO HOSPITAL MEDICAL CENTER, INC
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY
CITY OF SAN DIEGO AND REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY OF THE CITY OF SAN DIEGO

——————————–

SAN DIEGO STATE UNIVERSITY UNIVERSITY FOUNDATION VS. REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY OF SAN DIEGO
Case Number: 37-2008-00091165-CU-BC-CTL Case Location: San Diego
Case Type: Civil Date Filed: 09/05/2008
Category: CU-BCW Breach of Contract/Warranty

Plaintiff/Petitioner
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY P
SAN DIEGO STATE UNIVERSITY FOUNDATION P

Defendant/Respondent
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
CITY OF SAN DIEGO P
REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY OF SAN DIEGO P

——————————–

CITY OF SAN DIEGO VS. BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY
Case Number: 37-2007-00083773-CU-MC-CTL Case Location: San Diego
Case Type: Civil Date Filed: 12/14/2007
Category: CU-MCO Misc Complaints – Other

Plaintiff/Petitioner
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
CITY OF SAN DIEGO P
REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY OF THE CITY OF SAN DIEGO

Defendant/Respondent
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY P

——————————–

SAN DIEGO ASSOCIATION OF GOVERNMENTS VS. BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY
Case Number: 37-2007-00083768-CU-TT-CTL Case Location: San Diego
Case Type: Civil Date Filed: 12/14/2007
Category: CU-TTE Toxic Tort/Environmental

Plaintiff/Petitioner
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
SAN DIEGO ASSOCIATION OF GOVERNMENTS P

Defendant/Respondent
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY P

——————————–

SAN DIEGO METROPOLITAN TRANSIT SYSTEM VS. BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY
Case Number: 37-2007-00083692-CU-WM-CTL Case Location: San Diego
Case Type: Civil Date Filed: 12/14/2007
Category: CU-WM Writ of Mandate

Plaintiff/Petitioner
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
SAN DIEGO METROPOLITAN TRANSIT SYSTEM P

Defendant/Respondent
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY P

——————————–

CITY OF SAN DIEGO VS BOARD OF TRUSTEES CA STATE UNIV
Case Number: GIC855701 Case Location: San Diego
Case Type: Civil Date Filed: 10/20/2005
Category: CU-TTE Toxic Tort/Environmental

Plaintiff/Petitioner
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY CITY SD P
CITY OF SAN DIEGO
REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY OF THE CITY OF SAN DIEGO

Defendant/Respondent
Last Name or Business Name First Name Primary (P)
BOARD OF TRUSTEES CA STATE UNIV P
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY P
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY P
BOARD OF TRUSTEESOF THE CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY P

Sources:

4 Responses to “San Diego’s Alvarado Creek and the future of Adobe Falls”

  1. Matthew Awbrey said

    I grew up in allied gardens and as a kid often explored the falls and surrounding canyons. My late father Dr. Frank Awbrey earned his PhD in Zoology at SDSU and taught biology there as well. I often accompanied my father to the falls via the access tunnel in the evenings where I would help him set up his recording equipment so he could record frog calls for his research in bio-accoustics. Just a few days ago my girlfriend and I were driving on I-8 west and I mentioned the existance of the “falls”. To which she commented she never knew there was an actual waterfall that goes with the name “Adobe Falls”. I think most people in S.D. don’t have any idea of the falls existance. It would be a great loss should we lose the area to developement. The pictures and the accompaning reading material about the falls is most excellent and greatly appreciated. Thank You.

  2. Dee said

    I live in san carlos and I knew about the falls, but have yet to visit it. I have been to a few caves, one on cowles mountain, another on the santee side of cowles, and the one by mission gorge road.

    • tim said

      DEe, I belong to a group that is interested in caving. can you post the location of the sites?…..you can reply here or at the urban explorer site.

      The San Diego Urban Exploration Meetup Group

      San Diego, CA
      1,491 Urban Explorers

      Our group is composed of experienced urban explorers and inexperienced ones, looking for new (and especially old) places around the city to explore, investigate and also docum…

      Next Meetup

      Almost Full Moon Hike at Cowles Mountain

      Tuesday, Sep 9, 2014, 6:30 PM
      3 Attending

      Check out this Meetup Group →

  3. JJ said

    The SDSU “master Plan” should scrap the North side of interstae 8 in the interest of common sense and somehow “aquire” the entire neighborhood that is directly east of it. Emminant Domain?

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