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Again, what follows is nothing more than a statement of my beliefs; any correspondence between my beliefs and the truth is purely coincidental. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I work for citizens and organizations involved in the mess that I write about below, even though I don’t officially represent them in the mess – at least not yet.
Have you ever wondered how government agencies can come up with such dumb-ass proposals for the various things they do? Recently I started asking myself this question because of San Diego’s asinine effort to avoid complying with the Clean Water Act in Chollas Creek. The creek dumps so much toxic material (mostly bacteria and metals) into San Diego Bay that the state has put the creek on a special list of water bodies that must meet stricter requirements known as “Total Maximum Daily Loads” (TMDLs). Everyone who discharges to a water body on the list is assigned a pro rata amount of the TMDL (the “Waste Load Allocation,” for those who like legal jargon) and must not discharge above that amount. San Diego bureaucrats fear that the city cannot keep its discharges below its portion of the TMDL for Chollas Creek and have put forward one of the dumbest proposals I’ve heard in a long time to meet or avoid – depending on whom you ask – the Clean Water Act’s requirements.
The Background: Chollas Creek, which begins in Lemon Grove and La Mesa and runs through City Heights until it drains into eastern San Diego Bay, has too much pesticide, metals, and bacteria in it to be safe for recreation or wildlife. Almost all the water that gets into the creek comes from roughly 800 storm drains that carry not just runoff during wet weather, but dry-weather runoff from municipal, industrial, and residential activities. (Urban runoff exists because we have made so much of our urban environment impervious – by paving everything – that water cannot seep into the ground and instead runs into storm drains.)
The Problem: San Diego must obtain a Clean Water Act permit in order to discharge into Chollas Creek, and the permit will prohibit the city from discharging storm water in excess of its pro rata share of the TMDL. The city could be sued and heavily fined for violating the prohibition. Because the pollution in Chollas Creek is so severe, the city thinks it will take more than 20 years to comply with the prohibition. (I struggled with including a reference to litigation in this section because I don’t really view Clean Water Act litigation as a “problem” when you’re going up against recalcitrant polluters like the city. Thanks to litigation filed by San Diego Coastkeeper a few years ago, the city has cut its spills of raw sewage by 83 percent. Without that litigation, the city would have, quite literally, continued to crap all over itself.)
The Proposed Solution: The city hired a consultant – at a cost of roughly $70,000 – to come up with a detailed plan that ostensibly will enable the city to comply with the TMDL prohibition. Released last August, the plan has several components, but the centerpiece is a $500 million expenditure to acquire just over 300 acres of private property in the Chollas Creek watershed – much of that being in City Heights – that will be turned into detention basins and other more-or-less natural treatment facilities. If you do the math, that’s about $1.6 million per acre of private property that they propose to acquire. To get the most out of every taxpayer dollar, the city will have to target the least expensive properties. So let me translate and summarize: They propose spending half a billion dollars to buy and then tear down the most affordable homes in City Heights. That’s how the city is going to stop water pollution in Chollas Creek! It’s so absurd that it’s impossible to take seriously. It sounds more like the proposal’s proponents want to put forward a plan that has no chance of ever getting off the starter’s block. (Unfortunately, this one is 70,000 paces – i.e., dollars – past the starter’s block.)
I began this thread by asking how it is that dumb-ass proposals come to life. Since I had nothing to do with this one, I can only speculate about its origins. Here goes.
It seems to me that the real problem lies with the people at City Hall who are charged with trying to find ways to solve serious problems like water pollution. Serious problems call for serious solutions. But the city’s proposal to oust low-income folks and convert their homes to detention basins – at a cost of half a billion dollars – could never be taken seriously. Since folks working to prevent water pollution usually aren’t stupid, the only other explanation for such a ridiculous proposal is that folks at the city are trying to come up with excuses for why the goal of clean water is a pipe dream. If they were sincere about cleaning up Chollas Creek, why have they not sent the consultant back to the drawing board? Three months later and the folks at the city who are charged with stopping water pollution and protecting public health still think that this is the only option. God save us!
What’s even more troubling is that new pollutant-removal technologies are evolving but have been ignored by the city. Companies like AbTech Industries make products that go into storm drains and filter out about 70 percent of the non-metal stuff that’s polluting Chollas Creek and will soon be pilot-testing new products that remove metals. So, the city can get nearly three-quarters of the way toward the goal of clean water in Chollas Creek, almost immediately, and easily save 95 percent of what it would otherwise spend to worsen the city’s housing problem – OOPS! I mean, to improve the creek’s water quality.
To be fair, I realize that a 70 percent improvement will not bring the city into full compliance with the TMDL for Chollas Creek. But it’s too good of an idea to ignore. Rather than having to burn too many brain cells demonstrating why the city could never comply with the Clean Water Act, the city’s water-pollution folks should focus their attention on solving just the last 30 percent of the problem. If these folks really cared about putting an end to water pollution and about public health – and about the equally important problem of housing – they would implement prevention measures like those available from AbTech now and turn their attention to the narrower but still-difficult problem of ending that last 30 percent of the pollution. Then San Diego should rush to the front of the line to pilot-test new technologies that show promise in removing metals from urban runoff, getting us even closer to the goal of a clean Chollas Creek and less pollution flowing into San Diego Bay. The city should be working to implement all it can now rather than wasting time and money justifying what it can’t do. The low-hanging fruit should be harvested immediately; the city is acting like it’s on hunger strike.
To be even more fair, I should also mention that the city and its consultant have put forward a few reasonable ideas to solve Chollas Creek’s pollution problem. They should be commended for taking a holistic approach to regulating pollution (i.e., going after many different pollutants at one time) and for a willingness to consider options for preventing pollutants from getting into the runoff in the first place. Even though these
approaches are decades old, and the city has come to them kicking and screaming, at last the city seems willing to put them into action.
Perhaps putting an end to all water pollution in Chollas Creek will be more difficult than I could ever imagine. I accept that possibility. What I cannot accept is that the people responsible for protecting public health and the broader public interest put so much money and effort into a plan that has no chance whatsoever of succeeding, practically or politically.
Let’s clean up our water as much as possible and as quickly as possible now. The city is forcing itself to make a Hobson’s choice, when in fact there are numerous alternatives that deserve but have not received in-depth consideration. That the quest for perfection may be elusive does not justify our failure to make progress where progress can be made.