October 24, 2011
San Diego Union Tribune
By Mike Lee

San Diego storm water officials have won a key approval for establishing a two-decade program to clear the city’s storm channels and creeks that have filled with plants and sediment.

The project, expected to cost roughly $60 million, still needs final sign-offs from state and federal regulators. It’s expected to start in September if it survives environmental appeals that are that likely.

On Monday, the City Council unanimously okayed the channel maintenance plan after years of drafting and debate. It’s a watershed moment for San Diego, which is trying to avoid going through the costly and time-consuming multi-agency permitting process for each segment of waterway where crews want to remove vegetation and muck that reduce channel capacity.

Council members cast their votes as a matter of public safety and business retention after local industry leaders framed winter floods as a major cost and operations problem.

“If we do not go forward with this program and go forward quickly, we are putting public safety at risk, we are putting the environment at risk and we are putting businesses at risk,” said Councilmember Sherri Lightner, whose district includes the flood-prone Sorrento Valley. “The city has not been able to keep up with the most basic storm water channel maintenance. These businesses have said … that if the city doesn’t take care of this issue, they will leave.”

Several councilmembers pushed for assurances that work in the waterways won’t worsen downstream water quality and create other ecological problems. “The monitoring and those mitigation measures will be extremely important,” said councilmember Kevin Faulconer. “If it doesn’t work, you will certainly hear from us.”

Once formally approved by agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the longterm maintenance plan will allow the city to clean out about 32 miles of channels in Murphy Canyon, Alvarado Creek, Chollas Creek and other spots where flooding is common during downpours. The plan approved Monday doesn’t address the city’s $246 million backlog of deferred upkeep on the storm water system.

An overarching storm water plan is viewed by many as superior to the piecemeal regulatory process, but conservationists raised objections to San Diego’s proposed work in sensitive wetlands and they wanted more leverage over the site-specific plans developed in the future.

Environmentalists still have the chance to appeal the city’s plans and are likely to do so given their stance that the council didn’t install enough safeguards should the projects create the kind of problems with sediment fouling areas downstream of work sites.

Livia Borak, a lawyer for the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, challenged the process used by the council to review the permit and said the city’s water quality analysis was skewed. “There is actually no accountability,” she said. “Water quality is just going to get worse every time they do this maintenance.”

Others were disappointed that the council didn’t mandate that the Storm Water Division rethink the way it manages storm water in hopes of creating a longterm solution instead of what some view as stop-gap measures.

“We don’t oppose doing it, we just want to make sure that it’s done with the right kind of protections and the right kind of feedback so that the protections evolve,” said Jim Peugh with the local chapter of the Audubon Society. “The worry is, this is not an answer to our flooding problem.”

City storm water leaders said they are confident about getting the final signoffs because they worked closely with regulators as they developed the 20-year plan. They have predicted that about half of the overall bill will be for mitigation to help make up for environmental damage they do in the channel-clearing process.

San Diego and other local governments have struggled for years to find a balance between flood control and protection of rare wetland habitat, much of which has been lost to development.

Bill Harris, a spokesman for the Storm Water Division, expressed relief after Monday’s vote but said his agency’s work is just starting.

“We are committing ourselves a substantial amount of scientific review, public input, council awareness and now it looks like we have a city auditor who also is going to be scrutinizing what we do,” Harris said. “This may go down … as one of the most comprehensively evaluated maintenance programs ever devised by any municipal agency anywhere.”

Storm water crews across the region commonly cleared vegetation and sediment from the channels without permits until 2004. That’s when a former director of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board declared an end to “open season” on flood-control work without environmental reviews. John Robertus said he wanted to force local governments to restore altered waterways to a more natural state.