DPR & 811: A Safe and Solid Combination

Safety is a priority for the County of San Diego Department of Parks and
Recreation (DPR). We work in open space and in community centers. We lead educational hikes and activities. We manage large projects and small ones – preserving natural habitats and forging new paths for recreational use. We work for the public, by the public, and in the public eye. And when we dig, we call 811.

Before we start any project that requires us to break ground, we call DigAlert
at 811 to make sure there’s nothing big underneath us that could compromise
the health or safety of our guests and the surrounding community. Through 811, they notify the owner/operators of underground lines like gas, oil, electric, water and telecommunications so we know what’s below.

The call to 811 happens at least two working days, not counting the date of notification, and
not more than 14 calendar days before a new trail or park project. We connect with 811 staff,
request a “meet-and-mark,” and await results before any shovel or backhoe hits the soil.

The free service has been around since 1976 and is a mandatory part of the construction process. In Southern California, DigAlert must be contacted any time you aim to dig in a public right-of-way or on private property when permits and power-driven equipment are required for digging.

We comply with these guidelines because it ensures safety remains paramount at the parks and preserves we manage. With 125 outdoor spaces across 50,000 acres of open land, 36 local parks, 19 regional parks, nine campgrounds, seven historic sites, several community gardens and fishing lakes, and more than 360 miles of trails, we are a very busy crew. We can’t afford to make mistakes that could compound construction issues or require re-work. Moreover, we never want to be in a position where we are forced to close a park, preventing customers from spending quality time outdoors.

In February, we opened a one-mile stretch of trail in the Lakeside area of San Diego. The goal was to open one more piece of a continuous path that moves east to west, following remnants of a historic water flume from the mountains to the valley. A large staging area leads to a series of steep switchbacks that take hikers, cyclists and horseback riders through our staple coastal sage scrub habitat to a viewpoint that reveals the magnificent rocky face of El Cajon Mountain, the abundant green space of El Monte County Park and, on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean. You can view the virtual hike at youtu.be/7sWalwfsE94!

On site was a partial structure, an old pump station and a water district facility. Before we could even start clearing the staging area and establishing a trail, we had to survey the land to see what sat beneath. So we called 811. Crews came out to mark the site with paint and flags, identifying intersection points and areas that could not be disturbed during construction. Results forced us to adjust the placement of a split-rail fence.

What was interesting about this particular project was, as we dug about four feet below the base of the hill, we came across some old cast iron piping and non-energized utility lines – items that did not pop up in the 811 evaluation, or in conversations with area agencies, because they were not active. Safety risk averted, the water district was able to remove the pipes quickly so we could complete the work in the staging area. The entire project was completed on time and within scope, bringing a new (and now popular) single-track trail to east county residents.

Another plot of land that required special attention was a high-incline area of Mt. Gower County Preserve. Situated in eastern Ramona, a small community with about 30,000 residents, the 1,574-acre preserve features eight miles of multi-use trails that meander through woodlands, meadows and high-altitude habitats. It’s a weekend oasis for equestrians and a training ground for hikers attempting even tougher climbs like El Capitan County Preserve or nearby Mt. San Jacinto.

In three months, we rehabilitated five miles of well-traveled trail system to correct the effects of
erosion, slough and other naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s a project we take on every year and as often as necessary to ensure safe trail travel. Culverts, water bars and proper drainage were fixed with local wood and rocks. Ingress/egress points and other busy areas were re-sloped and reinforced. In some places, vegetation was removed and in others, it was replanted.

Years ago, our team came across a collection of power lines when they dug into the ground to
complete these routine projects. It was a scary surprise, one that could have easily been remedied had 811 been contacted. Nobody got hurt, but that could have changed in an instant if the lines had been active. DPR’s mission is to enhance the quality of life in San Diego by  providing exceptional park experiences and by preserving significant natural resources. We embrace new technologies that can make us a smarter, more innovative, more cohesive governing unit to better support our resident and visiting populations.

This aligns with San Diego County’s overarching Live Well mantra, to build a community that is healthy, safe and thriving. Collectively, we are protecting what we have by exposing new people
to the free perks that nature provides. Understanding the outdoors and appreciating these benefits can lead to park ambassadorship–boosting community pride and fostering a desire to protect local plants, animals and land.

I’ve served the county for almost 20 years and have had the privilege and opportunity to oversee hundreds of projects from picture to storyboard at dozens of unique locations.  I’m currently stationed at our Inland Hub Operations Center where my team of 18 completes construction, maintenance, repair and replacement projects for all DPR-owned sites.  Tasks include plumbing, roofing, irrigation, trail blazing, painting, planting, tree trimming, mowing vegetation management, masonry, bridge building, wood working, fire break creation, trail maintenance and more.  The equipment we use is just as diverse:  backhoes, excavators, front loaders, bobcats, dump trucks, tree trucks, water trucks, tractors and trailers, boulder busters, augers, chainsaws, pole saws, and a variety of hand tools.

Because of the nature of the work that we do and the equipment we handle, we call DigAlert every time we go below the surface.  It saves time and money, and in some situations it can save lives.

Be Prepared and Ready for Action

When you call 811, be ready to share the following information:  project address or GPS coordinates, project scope, foreman, when the work will begin, and the type of work.

DigAlert takes all of this into consideration as they pull up their own mapping system to identify
facility owners near the dig site. DigAlert then sends a message to all of the water, power, gas,
telephone and cable agencies identified to inform them of the proposed project. The  owners/operators of the underground lines in the proposed area will then either mark the lines in conflict, provide information where the lines are or let you know they have no lines in conflict. Different colors are used to denote different agencies and interception points to form a literal ground map for easy construction.

Build a cushion into your project plan. You’ll be happy with the results and thankful for the peace of mind as you do your duty to enhance opportunities in the areas you manage. Get specifics about your state’s “Call Before You Dig” law or attain membership with your state One Call.


Mary Ramsey is Supervising Park Ranger for the Department of Parks & Recreation. She has served the county of San Diego for almost 20 years in various roles.

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