by Dr. Tawny Lanos
The decision by the City of San Diego Planning Commission yesterday to approve the environmental document for the Department of Stormwater’s Program Maintenance plan should be no surprise to people who follow politics in San Diego. The entire scene played out exactly the way the directors wrote the script – and the players performed exceptionally. But the real tragedy is yet to unfold —
One doesn’t have to dig into the 400 page Program Environmental Impact Report very far to get to the climax –
No mitigation exists to compensate for the potential reduction in the ability of the storm water facilities to remove urban runoff pollutants because mitigation would require retention vegetation that would interfere with the primary objective of maintenance to maximize the flood control function of these facilities.
What does this mean to the average San Diegan and OBcean? — Decreased water quality due to increased pollutants and toxins levels at the beach resulting in increased beach closures in order to avoid the risk of flood claims due to an incompetent stormwater system.
The crux of the issue can be simplified into the following question: Will the City of San Diego utilize the cheapest method of maintenance and violate the intent of the Clean Water Act OR will the City be a leader in water quality and opt for more expensive but effective improvements in order to improve stormwater quality while accomplishing the task of shoring up the capability of a woefully underdesigned stormwater system in the first place?
You be the judge of what will happen. The stage was set yesterday – the script was written by the Office of the Mayor and the Players strutted and fretted their hour on the stage. The hearing was centered around an misguided discussion about a 400 page document that almost no one has honestly read and accompanied by the usual parade of consultants and City Staffers (paid for by your taxpayer dollars) who were trying to “convince” a panel of commissioners (appointed by the Office of the Mayor) that their recommended course is the best for the environment, the citizens and all concerned.
The protagonists are the poor and suffering citizens of four flood prone areas in which the City has failed to conduct proper and timely maintenance on a storm system under-designed for the volume of growth and density present in those locations. Growth and density promoted, even subsidized, by the City (read Mayor).
Further included in the script provided by the City is the poor and embattled Stormwater Department who has been beset on all sides by challenges from the “evil” regulatory agencies (such as the EPA and water authorities) and has worked incessantly for the last 8 years to produce this environmental document (perhaps instead of conducting maintenance of flood prone areas).
Enter the antagonist….Here are the quirky, wacky and downright radical environmentalist’s and not-in-my-back-yards (NIMBY’s) that the City loves so much. These are the watchdog organizations who are simply pointing out the woefully obvious, even if you don’t know squat about stormwater, to the City Experts that their plan is ill conceived and misguided at best.
Now that the stage is set, the script is written and the players on the que…. You only need to fast forward to the final minute to see where the commissioners vote unanimously to approve the environmental document (with much disgust in their voices while doing so) and understand how the rehearsal played out.
Clearly, the City intends to compromise downstream water quality in order to reduce their risk of flood claims although alternatives DO exist that would provide improved water flow in addition to mitigating the impacts to downstream water quality. They are costly and would require an already dysfunctional and broke City to focus their efforts on improving these areas that are flood prone vice focusing their $11million dollars of capital improvements on adding infrastructure to areas in order to add more growth and density to our already overburdened stormwater system.
The real tragedy in the play is that Ocean Beach sits quiet and lifelike while the City makes a decision that has such an important potential for impact to the quality of life in our community. Beach closures don’t just inconvenience the surfer dudes and dudettes from catching a few tubes. They impact our economy, destroy habitat and wildlife and degrade our level of service by wasting taxpayer funds to test water and close beaches instead of moving forward in a progressive manner with a better stormwater system – or maybe opening a park in OB?
The rehearsals are now over and the one-night-only version of this showing will play out in City Council quarters in the upcoming weeks in front of a slightly different audience…but one can predict the same tragic ending if the people of the beach communities don’t step up and protest this obvious inequity. We simply cannot accept a step back in water quality because the City of San Diego cannot manage our taxpayer dollars well enough to improve these areas correctly.
I would recommend that the City of San Diego not approve this blanket approval for wholesale channel clearing over the 160 man-made and natural areas that comprise the now under-designed and inadequate stormwater system that is already not providing the City with healthy downstream water quality. I would further recommend that the City take a lesson from Portland or even San Francisco who are both running very successful and positive stormwater quality programs.
People don’t come to San Diego to check out our interesting and wonderful industrial areas…they come (and stay) to visit our beaches. But they won’t EVER come back….if WE can’t keep them clean.
Hopefully, a hero can emerge in this black tragedy to save the day…perhaps our local Planning Group, Town Council or Councilmember will wake up and change the ending to one that better benefits ALL concerned…not just the risk management division of the Office of the City Attorney.
Dr. Tawny Lanos is a retired educator and has been a proud OBcean for over 40 years.