Water is Life

Life in us is like the water in a river. -- Henry David Thoreau

The winter and spring of 2023 brought abundant rainfall to Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP). The nonprofit MTRP Foundation documented the extraordinary flow of water through the park and some of the flora and fauna it supports. The collected footage is featured in the “Water is Life” video which accompanies the below article from the Summer 2023 MTRP newsletter. The video was produced by the MTRP Foundation, and De Facto Fiction Films — the team that created the park’s Emmy-nominated geology film.

Watch “Water is Life” Video

Water is Life

A Wet Winter and Spring Mean a Green and Colorful Mission Trails

By Julene Snyder

By mid-March 2023, more rain had fallen in San Diego County than the entire previous year. While the abnormally wet winter season was a bit of a shock to locals, for the rangers and staff of Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP), the aftermath has presented both opportunities and obstacles.

Mark Berninger, the Natural Resource Manager of the City of San Diego’s Open Space Division, leads a team that’s charged with a variety of habitat protection duties, including monitoring threatened species in the region as part of the Multiple Species Conservation Program, which includes 86 different species of plants and animals.

“Having a really wet year means that there was a great expression of both native and non-native seedbanks, along with the invasive plants that come along with that,” he explains. “We’ve seen a huge increase in plants like black mustard and crown daisies, as well as invasive grasses.”

Berninger and the “small but mighty” team of two biologists and three interns — alongside nine different ranger district staff and several non-profits — work to maintain, manage and monitor San Diego’s 28,000+ acres of open space lands.

“I’m always trying to get the word out that San Diego has the largest urban preserve system in the lower 48 states,” he says. “It’s something that no other large city in the United States has. We have an existing and continuing commitment to open space in the City of San Diego. It’s a passion of mine to preserve that for the future and for our kids and our kids’ kids.”

He says that a number of rare and endangered native plants are doing well this year. Among them is the typically rare San Diego thornmint. “It’s having a banner year. We’re seeing multiple thousands of plants in a successful restoration site, that prior to restoration only had less than a hundred plants.” The MTRP Foundation recently received a second grant from SANDAG to continue and expand the park’s thornmint restoration project.

The San Diego golden star is also having a great year, Berninger says. “This plant grows from a little underground bulb, and great rains allow all of the small bulblets to grow and bloom. Not all the bulbs will flower in drought years, but this year we’ve seen an exponential increase in flowering stalks over the past drought years.”

And when more of the smaller bulblets are produced, the species is better able to expand and sustain itself.

Park Ranger Dan Kimpel has been coming to the park since he was a child. “I grew up coming here before I could walk. I was either on my parents’ backs or in a stroller,” he says. When he first started in his role as a ranger four years ago, it happened to be another surprisingly wet winter that caused an explosion of blooming flowers.

“From a land management perspective, there are pros and cons to there being more rain than typical years,” says Kimpel. “The extra rain helps when it comes to planting plants, since we don’t have to go back again to water them. Trail work becomes easier because the ground is more saturated, which makes it easier for us to dig deeper and move dirt around. For example, there were some switchback drains that we in-sloped on Cowles Mountain. If it wasn’t a wet year, we realistically may not have been able to dig as deep by hand.”

There are other ways that an abundance of water can make life a bit easier for rangers. “When we have really high-flow water and rains, it can help some of our water diversion drains actually clean themselves out,” Kimpel explains. “With medium rains, the water doesn’t travel fast enough, and it brings silt that collects in the drains. But some of our drains are designed so that when high-flow water hits them, the silt that’s already gathered in that drain washes out.”

Keeping visitors from going off-trail in the park is always a concern, and when things are dry, there is coastal sage habitat that can be particularly vulnerable. “If visitors do it just once during the really dry months, their footprints can kill anything underfoot,” he says. “Later, invasive plants come in.”

But the wet spring has made the park more verdant, which is objectively a good thing. “From a recreational perspective, and for my own job enjoyment, the park is beautiful,” Kimpel says. “It’s awesome seeing all the flowers and it makes me happy and other people happy. I love seeing all the ‘trailies’ out here and seeing everyone enjoying the flowers and the greenery of the park.”

Park Ranger Heidi Gutknecht agrees. “The additional rains we had this winter and spring have enabled a great wildflower year, with large swaths of flowers in different areas of the park.” She is particularly struck by the profusion of California and San Diego sunflowers. “They’ve exploded all over the place; you can see shades of yellow and gold blanketing the slopes from afar. We even had a bloom of Turkish Rugging (a native spine flower) on the slope east of the Jackson parking lot, and some Peninsular Onion along Father Junipero Serra Trail, both of which haven’t been seen in the park since the super bloom of 2019.”

But the flip side is a massive increase in weeds throughout the park. “The mustard looks like it is on steroids this year, with giant stands of its light-yellow flowers rivaling those of the wildflowers,” says Gutknecht.

She, her colleagues and volunteers have definitely been keeping busy. “During the first few months of the year, my Habitat Restoration Crew added many additional native plants to the restoration areas at the East Fortuna Staging Area, and in the southeast corner of the grasslands,” she says. “The soil was nice and soft from the rains, which made it much easier. Now we’re focusing on removing the non-native invasive plants that are thriving because of all the rains and encroaching on those native plants.”

She adds, “As with all things, you can’t have the good without some bad. While I’m sure the extra rains enable extra plant growth, and have been great for all the resident wildlife, but it’s also caused a lot of erosion and trail damage that Ranger Dan’s Trail Improvement Crew has had to address.”

Berninger says among the native plant success stories that he’s witnessed this year is that of the dot-seed plantain. “This little plant is vitally important,” he explains. “This is the one and only host plant for the Quino-Checkerspot Butterfly, which is another rare and endangered species.”

He adds that Mission Trails’s vernal pool species have also benefitted from the winter rains. “Species endemic to San Diego and nowhere else — like San Diego button celery, San Diego mesa mint and San Diego fairy shrimp — have flourished in the vernal pools on the west side of the park,” he says.

“These pools are also home to the imperiled Western Spadefoot Toad; the wet winter has allowed them ample time to complete their lifecycle, which relies almost exclusively on vernal pools. Many toadlets have been seen hopping around the cracked and drying soils around the pools.”

Berninger reiterates that those that love the park can do their own part to protect it. “For as big of a city as we are, to have these vast tracts of open space right in the middle of a city is really something special. It adds to the quality of life for everyone that lives here.”