Del Mar Horsepark advocates release water test results

A horse exercises at the Del Mar Horsepark east of the fairgrounds.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Equestrian activities suspended because of water quality issues


Advocates working to keep the Del Mar Horsepark open for equestrian shows, a riding school and other activities released a report Friday, Jan. 8, that indicates the park’s water issues originate outside the property.

Testing lab ALS Group USA Corp. of Irvine examined water samples taken during seasonal rains Dec. 28 upstream and downstream from the horse park. The upstream samples showed significantly higher amounts of coliforms, pollutants that come from human and animal waste.

“The results indicate that the horse park is not the source of any additional contaminants to the San Dieguito River Valley waterways,” said Carla Echols-Hayes, a Solana Beach resident and horse park advocate. “It may also indicate that the marsh is cleaning the water that flows past the horse park.”

The 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the horse park and the Del Mar Fairgrounds, announced in December it was cancelling all 2021 contracts for equestrian shows, animal boarding and other activities because of groundwater issues on the 64-acre horse-park property.

“Continuing with an equestrian presence at the horse-park property would require a significant and immediate investment of funds to address water quality requirements, which is simply not possible given the dire effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the fairgrounds’ revenues,” said 22nd DAA board President Richard Valdez in an email last month.

A recently completed two-year, $15 million construction project added a water treatment plant, a holding pond and wetlands restoration at the 340-acre Del Mar Fairgrounds. But fairgrounds officials say that with the economic crisis they face there’s simply no money to make those changes at the horse park, a separate piece of property the 22nd DAA bought in the 1990s two miles east of the fairgrounds.

A group of residents called The Friends of Del Mar Horsepark sponsored the water tests as part of their efforts to see equestrian activities continued there.

The samples were taken by Duncan Mcintosh, a rider and horse trainer who works with equestrian facilities across Southern California.

Test results showed the highest total coliform bacteria counts at a third site, a storm drain along Via de la Valle southwest of the horse park on a slope below a residential neighborhood.

“If there’s a pollution source, it’s not the horses, it’s the people,” Echols-Hayes said.

An online petition to keep the horse park has more than 9,000 signatures so far.

A news release from The Friends of Del Mar states that, instead of being shut down, the horse park could be leased to an operator who could afford to make the water-quality upgrades needed and retain the riding school and other activities there.

The horse park has two grass jumping stadiums with seating for 1,320 people, a covered, lighted arena, four show rings, four training rings, a dressage ring and 400 training stalls, along with permanent stalls for year-round boarding.

Officials at the Regional Water Quality Control Board and at the fairgrounds did not respond to questions Friday, Jan. 8, about the water tests.

Fairgrounds officials have scheduled a discussion of the horse park for their meeting at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12. Because of COVID-19 restrictions the meeting will be held online and can be seen live at

The 22nd DAA has been especially hard hit by the pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the 2020 San Diego County Fair and all other mass gatherings at the fairgrounds. Revenue for the year was down almost 90 percent, and the fairgrounds laid off almost two-thirds of its full-time employees in October.

In December, the fair board voted to cancel all 2021 entertainment contracts, though staffers said they are still considering ways they might hold a scaled-back version of the county fair.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune