Vernal Pool Conservation Vote Expected in 2012

The Environmental Quality Report Card series examines environmental stewardship of San Diego Councilmembers and the Mayor. The series looks at history of past reports, shows the voting record of individual Councilmembers, explains voting methodology and examines the environmental issues the Councilmembers voted on.

In this year’s Environmental Quality Report Card, many of San Diego’s City officials were marked down for their votes related to the City’s vernal pools. These votes allowed the City of San Diego to establish an interim policy that allows vernal pools to be lost without a comprehensive planning, protection, and mitigation package.

So what are vernal pools? Vernal pools are unique seasonal wetlands where life flourishes in a crescendo of reproductive activity when conditions are optimum. Yes – vernal pools are often “sexy” in the spring, but they are easily overlooked during the longer periods of quiet dormancy. In partnership with the Wildlife Agencies and in response to court findings, the City of San Diego is now preparing a new Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for vernal pools. Vernal pools are the most endangered of ecosystems – over 97% have been lost. The few functional ecosystems that remain are on the verge of destruction and even “protected” sites often suffer from disturbance and isolation from the natural lands needed to support healthy ecosystems. Seven pool “indicator” species are in such severe decline that they are granted endangered species status. Other pool species (such as the Western spadefoot toad that lies burrowed under the dried mud of vernal pools in dormancy) are in similar peril.

The City is accepting public input now regarding what factors should constitute an effective conservation plan and has established a website to accept your comments. An environmental Impact report will also be released for your review and comment. City staff intends to bring the plan to city council for approval in June of 2012.

Key issues concern how to resolve pressures to develop private land with vernal pools while meeting specific legal requirements to implement a recovery strategy for their endangered species. Considering less than 3% of the resource remains, the task of developing an effective and legally adequate plan is a serious challenge. Once a strategy is developed it will need funding to be implemented. In fact, the Court struck down the previous plan in part because there was not assurance of funding. Despite the dire state of vernal pool ecosystems, it is encouraging that the City and Wildlife Agencies are endeavoring to meet the challenge of vernal pool recovery.

Van K. Collinsworth, M.A. is Coordinator of Vernal Pool Conservation Program and member of California Chaparral Institue, Sierra Club San Diego