Cottonwood Creek Conservancy continues to help historic wetland


In January of 1993, 130 volunteers went to battle at the mouth of Cottonwood Creek, just east of Moonlight Beach.

Their enemy? Giant reed, an invasive species, was choking the creek’s banks and floodplains. Organized by the Cottonwood Creek Conservancy, the volunteers eradicated 160,000 stems of giant reed, significantly improving the health of the historic wetland.

It was the first of many conservancy-led volunteer efforts to restore the spot to its natural habitat. More than 22 years later, the group is still going strong.

“It’s been frustrating at times, but also very encouraging and rewarding,” said Mark Wisniewski, a longtime conservancy volunteer and organizer, while gazing at the creek.

“We can see that we’re making a big difference out here.”

Presently, the creek mouth is a healthy riparian habitat — hardly recognizable from the early 1990s. As such, insects, birds and other wildlife are on the upswing, Wisniewski said.

Wisniewski said bird counts, in particular, are increasing, adding conservancy volunteers were recently excited to spot green heron chicks.

Plus, the area is “more beautiful now,” he said.

It almost didn’t come to pass. In 1989, the area was poised to be paved over to make way for tennis and volleyball courts, a turn lane and a parking lot.

This didn’t sit well with Mary Renaker, who lived in Encinitas but now resides in Los Angeles. Renaker teamed up with environmentalist Ida Lou Coley, who passed away in 2005, to form the conservancy and fight the project.

To make the case for preservation, Renaker and Coley highlighted that the creek provided water for early settlers, a point that struck a chord with the community and Encinitas City Council. Eventually, the development plans were abandoned.

And thanks to their advocacy, the state named the spot a point of historical interest.

“The small part I played in preserving Cottonwood Creek is one of the proudest achievements of my life,” Renaker wrote in a brief document detailing the conservancy’s history.

Fast forward to the late 1990s. While the giant reed was largely gone, more and more invasive species popped up. To rid the creek of them, the conservancy started hosting regular volunteer events.

By 2000, the group focused on not just eradication, but also native plantings, too. Also, Eagle Scouts projects provided the area with a new bridge and trail.

Wisniewski said he’s very appreciative of the steady stream of volunteers, noting all ages have pitched in to preserve the environment there.

“I really enjoy working with all the high school kids who come back on a regular basis,” he said.

The conservancy also played a big role in Cottonwood Creek Park, about a quarter-mile east of the creek mouth.

For decades, Cottonwood Creek flowed underneath Encinitas Boulevard, first seeing sunlight at the mouth. Due in large part to the conservancy, the city “daylighted” the creek in 2004 through a natural channel at Cottonwood Creek Park, said Brad Roth, conservancy project manager.

“The creek is much healthier when it’s exposed to sunlight and air,” Roth said. “Bacteria tend to breed without exposure.”

Roth said that’s good for wildlife, along with beachgoers, since the creek’s ultimate destination is the ocean.

While the conservancy can count quite a few victories, there have been bumps along the road.

Notably, a year ago, the city hired a maintenance company that clear-cut native plants near the creek mouth. The goal: establish a view corridor in the name of public safety.

Roth said the company failed to distinguish between native and invasive plants, calling it “very disappointing.”

He said the conservancy planted the native plants years ago, adding they’re critical for wildlife. In hopes of making amends, the city paid for 50 native plants, which the conservancy planted last month.

Going forward, Roth said the conservancy wants to make sure the city is at least more careful if it shears plants in the area again.

And further out, the conservancy is looking to put in a raised walkway in the area to encourage more visitors. It also hopes to continue building its volunteer base.

For those interested in volunteering, the conservancy usually meets from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. the second Saturday of every month at the creek mouth. For more information, go to the group’s Facebook page at

“It’s very rewarding work,” said Roth, who has given countless hours to the creek. “You can see immediately the impact you’re having.”