Thoughts on a One-Way Morro Bay Watershed Sign

May 9, 2012 § 7 Comments

I just returned from a very enjoyable vacation in San Luis Obispo, California. I stayed in downtown SLO and, a few times, bicycled out to the Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve, about ten miles away. As I was bicycling west on Los Osos Valley Road a cresting a ridgeline, in the midst of agricultural fields, I saw this sign along the highway:

Watershed signage along Los Osos Valley Road

It reads “MORRO BAY ESTUARY WATERSHED / KEEP IT CLEAN / ENTERING.” 

I initially thought it was this sign was good: a small indicator of watershed awareness… at least a tiny bit of awareness mostly targeted toward folks zooming past in their cars. Maybe a few drivers would toss a bit less trash out of their car windows. Maybe they’d look up the word “watershed” or “estuary.” As I pedaled on, I made a mental note to, on my return leg, photograph the eastbound sign, and write about it at Creek Freak. I thought about some random ideas I’ve had, but never acted on, that would use public art to build (primarily pedestrian and bicyclist) awareness of watershed boundaries in Southern California.

I went and spent the day with the great old oaks (I plan to write more on the Los Osos Oaks Reserve in a future post – done here ), and on my return I noticed that there wasn’t any eastbound watershed sign at that location… where I think that I was entering the San Luis Obispo Creek Watershed.

Here’s a photo of San Luis Obispo Creek (I think known as San Luis Creek – sorry I didn’t fully get up to speed on this during my 5-day visit) in downtown SLO:

San Luis Obispo Creek in Downtown SLO. Vertical channel walls visible on the right, but plenty of vegetation, tree canopy, and some walk paths and creekside dining.

Though it’s very altered, partially lidded, there is definitely a creek that runs through SLO’s downtown, and, indeed a network of urban creeks throughout the area. The SLO downtown creek is not easy to find. It’s well below grade. Access is limited. One sign of its health is that, bicycling through town at night, I could find it just by listening for the frogs croaking. Also there are a few restaurants advertising “creekside dining.”

This got me thinking about how we privilege some watersheds, some natural areas, some environments, some countries, some peoples… above others.

Maybe I am being too cynical, but not including a sign entering the San Luis Obispo Creek watershed sort of says to me “entering a woe-begotten urban watershed – pollute/trash/drive/pave all you want because it’s already a lost cause mess.” As an advocate for the restoration of the L.A. River, it seems like half my job is to convince folks that, yes, degraded urban watersheds are worth investing in. They’re not a lost cause. And that all this is connected… the guy that trashes his urban watershed visits and trashes your coastal watershed, too. It’s all interconnected. (More on urban watershed worth here.)

Then I was thinking that maybe I am too harsh. The Morro Bay sign does build some awareness. It sure did for me, crossing that otherwise anonymous innocuous ridge soon became part of my sense of place, a landmark. If the Morro Bay folks want their sign, then they should put it up, even just one way. I am probably setting the bar too high. If all watersheds needed to be acknowledged, tended to, before any could proceed further, nothing would get done anywhere.

What do you think?

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§ 7 Responses to Thoughts on a One-Way Morro Bay Watershed Sign

  • Brent says:

    I believe that you’ve overthought the semiotics of that watershed sign and perhaps seen it from too much of a creekster perspective.

    One could equally assert that Morro Bay city leaders erected the sign to distinguish Morro Bay (the city) from local economic and tourist juggernaut SLO. SLO, by virtue of its brand name recognition (at least regionally) doesn’t need a sign.

    In terms of valued versus non-valued watersheds: That creekside dining is a valuable economic resource for downtown business. I don’t know if you noted high or low utilization of those dining areas, but in good weather they are absolutely filled. Therefore one would think that the San Luis Creek would be highly valued – at least by local business. Generally, I believe the area that you’ve photographed is considered picturesque by locals and valued for its greenery and cool shade as a walking destination. I don’t think there is a widespread perception that the creek is significantly degraded in that location, though many who read this blog would agree that it is.

  • Severin says:

    I felt a sign wasn’t necessary because it is so obviously a creek, whereas signs are needed for the LA River because otherwise one would assume it’s just a open, industrial sewer to funnel our water waste to the ocean.

  • Jessica Hall says:

    I love Los Osos/Morro Bay/SLO!! Sorry for the off-topic gushing.

  • Mike Letteriello says:

    Was charmed by that SLO creek some years back when my wife and I spent some time there. Hell, I’d like to be there now!

  • Dear Joe,
    I’m the Director at the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, the organization that worked to have the Morro Bay Watershed signs installed. I’m very glad to hear you noticed our sign and that you feel it is helping to build awareness, for that was the purpose of our push to get it installed. In fact, the Estuary Program (part of a national network of 28 similar programs) and our government partners worked for a number of years to get the project in place, not a simple process. My guess would be that the lack of other signs around has more to do with the cost of installing (can be quite expensive) and the regulatory requirements. San Luis Obispo Creek and the area’s other coastal creeks are not forgotten or ignored. There is great conservation work happening on SLO creek and others.

    The City of San Diego, in conjunction with CalTrans, piloted the signs that we also had installed. Our hope is that as more projects go in around the state, the easier it will be to install similar projects. Alas, like many projects right now, there is interest, but limited or no funding available.

    We’d love to hear your ideas about using public art to build awareness. We are always looking for creative ways to encourage community stewardship. Thanks for the blog highlight.

    • Joe Linton says:

      Adrienne – thanks for commenting and thanks for the sign! Was really glad to spend some great time in your watershed and SLO last week – and to get a small glimpse of the natural and human beauty there.

      I am going to do a post about my art idea later – it’s kinda half-baked right now.

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