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I first met Mike Nelson when I was putting together my proposal for the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant. We met at Extraordinary Desserts in downtown San Diego (one of my favorite places!) for lunch one day and chatted about his work on the San Diego River. As Executive Officer of the San Diego River Conservancy, I learned that he helps secure grants to buy private property along the river, restore it, and make it accessible to the public.
In fact, he shared that his ultimate vision was to have a cohesive trail system that runs from the headwaters of the San Diego River in Volcan Mountain, near Julian, all the way to its mouth where it spills out at Ocean Beach. I thought this was a fantastic idea, since I was planning to trek along several of San Diego’s rivers and was realizing how big of a challenge it was going to be, not because of the terrain as much as all the private, industrial land I would have to navigate.
Over lunch, he explained to me the historical importance of San Diego serving as the “Plymouth Rock of the West Coast,” and the San Diego River, the feature that attracted Spanish explorers to establish California’s first settlements along it.
A friendship was born that day at Extraordinary Desserts, and my respect for him has grown ever since. Mike is a no-nonsense kind of guy, with a no-nonsense approach to conservation. He makes things happen.
So Mike, where did you grow up and when did you move to San Diego?
I grew up in Crisfield, Maryland, a small town found in the tidal marshes that protect Chesapeake Bay. I moved to San Diego in 2003.
When did you first start caring about rivers?
When I landed a job planning, acquiring, and developing stream valley parks, greenways, and ecological corridors for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest threat to the health of the San Diego River, specifically, as well as rivers across the US?
The San Diego River was damaged, rerouted and armored; however, fortunately, a phenomenal regional collaboration led by San Diego communities, non-profits, and the government has been launched to restore it. My worry is that future generations will think damaged rivers are normal, and that growth and progress always mean more development must be accommodated.
Across the US, I believe the impacts of global warming and climate change will be devastating to rivers and the communities located along them. I worry that they will experience more frequent droughts and floods. As the number of bad storms increase, water quality will decrease, ecosystems critical to wildlife and fish will be jeopardized, economies of local communities will be threatened, and public health issues will rise.
How can the average citizen help keep their rivers healthy?
Remain engaged and remember the goals of the Clean Water Act; “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
What’s the biggest challenge in your job?
Establishing a riparian corridor and river park from the river’s mountain headwaters to the Pacific, that connects habitat conservation areas, parks, and public open spaces, while restoring the health of California’s most historic river .
Do you see a need for more communication between San Diego non-profits that have overlapping missions?
Yes, promoting efficiency and effectiveness, while strengthening existing relationships and establishing new ones is an ongoing and critical exercise in continuous improvement. Because human and financial resources are so scarce, and the costs of restoration so great, poor coordination is waste of money and energy that should not be tolerated.
What’s your favorite river creature?
The endangered Least Bell’s Vireo, a 4-5 inch riparian song bird.
How about your favorite Native San Diegan Flower?
That goes to the Wolf’s Cholla.
What is your ultimate goal for the San Diego River?
My goal is to launch a capital campaign that creates a stable and adequate fund for the revitalization and restoration of the river; one that promotes and fosters the San Diego River Park as a civic imperative; a fund that captures federal, state, local, municipal, and charitable contributions; and, an enterprise that achieves an enduring natural legacy for the citizens of San Diego County and the State of California.