Stormwater Decision by Planning Commission Will Adversly Affect Ocean Beach

by on May 14, 2010 · 11 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, Health, Ocean Beach, San Diego

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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?

storm water drain flushedYou 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.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

doug porter May 14, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Bottom line: everything that goes down storm drains runs unabated to the coast, right? I loooove the aroma of North Park’s dog poop on a rainy morning. (snark)
How about you?


George May 14, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Dr. Lanos…were you able to access the EIR online? Could you share the URL? The Planning Commission’s website has no link for the Maintenance Plan or for the EIR. I’m curious to see what you’ve been able to find. Thanks…


Sunshine May 15, 2010 at 8:45 am

“The real tragedy in the play is that Ocean Beach sits quiet and lifelike…”

Quiet? Not I. Not now. Not ever.

Dr. Lanos, your article is well written and quite informative. I feel that you provided a realistic and transparent look into what plans the Mayor has in store for us. I believe that the time to stop being quiet is now. What can we do to influence the powers-that-be to rethink their “brilliant” plan? Perhaps we can channel the downstream run-off (and all its toxicity) toward their homes….


Seth May 19, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Doctor, I would like to thank you for what is a very well written post here. The OBPB is visiting this issue tonight, during its Project Review Committee meeting, and it will likely also be reviewed during next month’s OBPB General Meeting at 6pm on June 2nd at the OB Rec Center.

For those interested, the PEIR and other related documents are available online at:

See the attachments for the May 19th Project Review Committee Meeting agenda.



Landry Watson May 22, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I’d also like to take an opportunity to encourage public comment and participation at the upcoming Ocean Beach Planning Board meeting of Wed 2 June at 6pm at the OB Rec Center.

It is very important that we understand how people feel about this issue that appears to have the ability to significantly impact our quality of life here in OB.

Please take the time to review the material and let us know how to best voice OB’s position. As Seth indicates above, the materials are posted on the OBPB website.

If you have specific comments, please come out and let us know or drop me an email:

Thanks OBceans!


Citizen Cane May 22, 2010 at 3:12 pm

When life gives you lemons, then you should make lemonade….or you could take them all to the Miramar Landfill. When the rivers give you trees, fibrous plants, sediments, and water, then you should consider them as resources… not trash. Mud bricks for landscaping would be just one of things we could make from excess fibers and sediments. If trees must be cut down, then sell them as firewood.

Native Americans intentionally blocked creeks in San Diego to create meadows and ponds for the benefit of wildlife. Modern San Diegans channel the creeks and drainages to benfit property development (to the detriment of wildlife.) I did a quick word scan throught the city document, and didn’t find any mention of pond creation…not even as a rejected alternative. Widening channels was considered, but not a network of ponds. Someone please correct me it I overlooked a pond alternative.

I read that the drainage problems stem from an intentional lack of maintenance on the part of the city. I can’t help but wonder if maintenance wouldn’t have been cheaper than all the time and money going into planning a master scorched-earth solution. I would favor local efforts and case by case studies. And if a building structure is flood prone, then condemn it, buy the property, and make a pond.


Citizen Cane May 22, 2010 at 4:52 pm

It also looks like water recycling is not considered an alternative. What a waste.

Among the invasive plants, arundo donax is mentioned as something the city can’t compost with their current equipment. So they will have to landfill it. No mention of biomass for fuel or pulp for paper making??? In the future we might have to add in the loss of carbon credits when we remove the giant reed and take it to the landfill. Just because the plant is non native doesn’t make it worthless. I think it should be a managed resource. Filter the stormwater with the plant, and then make something from the plant. Recycle the water before too much of it reaches the ocean. Is that too much to ask for?


john May 23, 2010 at 12:22 am

I’m not sure what your point is here, you’re pretty much discarding- even mocking the idea that properties and belongings of residents be kept in mind in regards to the periodic severe rainfalls in our region, and placed on a back burner by a flat broke city with water quality downstream given a priority.
Seems to me they are simply trying to balance the two, but your piece seems to have one component missing:
We haven’t seen an El Nino winter in what, a full decade? Have you forgotten?
While many blamed Hatfield, scientific analysis now understands 1916 was merely a strong El Nino year.
Just don’t forget the term “hundred year flood” wasn’t made up on a whim.
Dozens were killed, the city’s first priority should be preparing for another event like this.


LisanOB May 24, 2010 at 10:37 am

Great point John….you really cracked the nut about what the city SHOULD be doing but hasn’t. The City of SD should have been making incremental improvements to the stormwater drain system through capital improvements over the course of years and years so that we wouldn’t HAVE to conduct such of a bandaid approach to a problem caused by years of maintenance that hasn’t been implemented.

Additionally, the City of SD SHOULD be making these improvements in compliance with the Clean Water Act that states that the overall downstream water quality should always be IMPROVED while making the improvements to the overall system.

Truth is…the City of SD has continually shifted the problem from the developer and from the true “violator” which is the over-densification of areas that were already geologically prone to flooding (such as Grantville). Densification and redevelopment that was specifically planned and implemented by this current administration. Additionally, the City has failed to mainain the man-made portions of numerous areas which has put us in the current predicament.

And the current predicament is one that has been crafted for success by the City. The good Doctor has clearly laid out exactly a well crafted scenario where the City has managed to put the downstream victims as the Villains and the City and the poor idiots who built in the floodplain as the “victims” who have NO choice but to impact the water quality, wildlife and habitats of the same.

The REAL victim is the taxpayer who trusted that the City would comply with the law and also conduct the regular maintenance necessary to avoid this scenario instead of obviously wasting our millions on baseball stadiums and convention centers.

El Nino or not…. Here is some advice: Don’t build in a floodplain! By doing so…you are only jacking up the insurance for all of us who were wise enough to follow the advice of a million contruction projects in history gone wrong.

OB needs to speak up and object to this environmental document and force the City to comply with the law while making improvements to this system. Note: great points from Cane above…I agree with your thoughtful comments about lemonade…but let’s be clear…we haven’t been served up any lemons just yet. This document HAS to go before city council first.


john May 26, 2010 at 2:35 am

It’s pretty apparant we live in one of the most grossly mismanaged cities in the nation, be it more recent past than present (we hope). Frustratingly, the legal handcuffs can’t be unlocked as we envision half the city being washed away by a large storm in the future while well vested retired civil “servants” actually reversed that archaic description of their careers and will watch unconcerned from their retirement homes in Palm Springs or anywhere high and dry from their negligence.
I don’t know how much worse it is elsewhere, Houston declared bankruptcy, didn’t they? Many midwest cities stopped streetlight service at night even.
I will say this, admittedly anecdotal: I don’t expect too many storm drain improvements in my neighborhood, which is as flood plain as it gets, 5100 block of W. Pt Loma on the NW side- IIRC my address xing Muir is one of two that flood plain charts mark as the lowest point in the zip code… they just put in new water supply pipes, be stupid to tear it all up again.
BTW that last series of storms that relented as the scare was worsening? Over knee deep centering at Muir and halfway up to Voltaire one end and the same up the other side, so about a block long lake. Any car parked on the street sitting lower than an SUV was a total loss, I know of at least several. And that evening, the second of four “waves” of storm fronts, was much lighter than predicted yet the lake remained unreceding hours after the rain ceased till after midnight when it suddenly dropped.
We’ve been courting disaster and had luck, I think the city is taking things for granted.


LisanOB June 10, 2010 at 8:08 am

Was anyone able to attend the planning group meeting on this? I hear that the planning board voted against this plan. Do we have a confirmation on how the planning group voted and if anyone voted for it?

What are the next hearings for this horrible plan?

Can we get an update???


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