November 29, 2011

San Diego Union Tribune

By Mike Lee

San Diego’s freshly minted storm water system maintenance plans have been appealed to the California Coastal Commission, where staff have found what they describe as substantial issues with the city’s centerpiece strategy for keeping channels clear.

The commission’s governing panel will take up the issue on Dec. 7 during a meeting in San Francisco.

In October, the San Diego City Council unanimously approved a citywide “master maintenance” plan for channel clearing after years of drafting and debate. It’s designed to minimize flooding in low-lying areas along Chollas Creek, Los Penasquitos Creek and several other waterways. At about the same time, the council signed off on a separate strategy for removing sediment from the heavily polluted Tijuana River Valley.

The city is trying to avoid going through the costly and time-consuming multi-agency permitting process for each segment where crews want to remove vegetation and muck that reduce channel capacity.

Both efforts were challenged at City Hall by environmentalists and community groups, who didn’t win there but now are seeking changes through the Coastal Commission. The powerful agency controls development in the state’s coastal zone and over time has forced many project proponents to make environmental upgrades.

Newly released commission documents show that its staff doesn’t think opponents raised a “substantial issue” over the Tijuana River dredging strategy. That plan also has been appealed to Superior Court, and work isn’t expected to start on that project until next fall at the earliest.

However, the Coastal Commission staff did agree with lawyers at the Encinitas-based Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation that there are problems with San Diego’s master maintenance program. They include the lack of an explicit expiration date and concern about the amount of biological protections planned by the city.

“The objections to the project suggested by the appellants raise substantial issues of regional or statewide significance and the (city’s) decision creates a poor precedent with respect to the protection of sensitive biological resources,” said the staff report.

[Coastal Commission staff report on San Diego’s master storm water maintenance plans]

City storm water division spokesman Bill Harris said his agency will defend its plans before the commission. “It is the most carefully designed and executed maintenance program possibly in the city’s history,” he said of the citywide strategy.