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Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series examining the intriguing past, present and future of Mission Valley. It is also the first in an occasional series evaluating the issues facing the region’s different neighborhoods.
Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2006 | It’s not easy to imagine Mission Valley filled with water.
On a hot, sunny day, while the throngs scurry in and out of Staples and Best Buy, Jamba Juice and Pier One, the valley seems to emanate dryness. The sad trickle of the San Diego River adds to a thirsty feeling that seems to pour out of the concrete, leaving shoppers with dry throats and wet brows.
But that aridity is deceptive. The Mission Valley landscape didn’t simply appear one day, but was formed over millions of years by the gradual massage of the San Diego River. While that waterway is barely noticeable in the summer months — many San Diegans don’t even know it’s there — the storms that rush in off the Pacific Ocean have the power to turn the river into a powerful, churning force. Most of the trillions of rain drops that fall in eastern San Diego during such storms end up finding their way into the river’s flood plain.
That’s when things get interesting. A good chunk of that flood plain is Mission Valley. And there’s no plan to evacuate its 18,000 residents in the case of a flood.
The San Diego River flows from the hills near Julian in the east and enters the sea at Ocean Beach in the west. Over the last 200 years, the local government has sought to both subdue and solicit the resources of the river. Despite these efforts, the river has flooded Mission Valley a number of times since Europeans first settled there, washing away property and people in its path. In 1862 and 1916 floods almost completely cleared Mission Valley of development.
“There is the possibility that we could have a catastrophic event,” said Steve Lindsay, a deputy city engineer in the city of San Diego’s Development Services Department and an expert on the issue of flooding in Mission Valley.
If and when there is such a catastrophic event, local experts admit that they don’t really know what will happen to a community that’s seen its population grow by 41.8 percent since 2000. The last study to examine what might happen to Mission Valley in the event of extraordinarily heavy rainfall was in 1985. Since then, more than 2,000 condos and innumerable commercial buildings have made their home in the valley.
But Mission Valley wasn’t built to be a neighborhood. Its only park land is a 166-acre stadium site that is mostly concrete parking lot and whose patch of grass is only open to professional football players. The community’s scrap of open space surrounds a river that many residents don’t even know exists. It’s a neighborhood with no schools, built on a vulnerable flood plain that could flood again at any time. It just this month got its first fire station, albeit a temporary one.
Mission Valley was built without a blueprint until it got its first community plan in 1985. Today, the neighborhood that has reinvented itself several times over the last 100 years is undergoing another metamorphosis into a bustling residential area.
The increased development in and around Mission Valley has heightened the chances of flooding despite actions taken to control the flow of the river. More concrete means less open space to bear a storm’s brunt. With no emergency plan for Mission Valley, local people are concerned about what could happen to their community and whether they are in safe hands.
“They sold the land here for cheap because it floods,” said Craig Burt, a local resident. “People just say, ‘It won’t happen to me,’ and when it does, they say, ‘The city’s got to fix that problem.’ “
Fixing the “problem” of the San Diego River has been a priority of San Diego’s government for a long time.
The river once flowed into San Diego Bay. In 1853, city leaders, worried too much silt was being deposited into the San Diego harbor, hired an expert to divert the river’s course. Lt. George Horatio Derby, of the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers, was hired to build a dike to divert the river north to Mission Bay, which was then called False Bay. The “Derby Dike” failed after two years, but was rebuilt by the Army in 1876 and the river has flowed into Ocean Beach ever since.
In addition to altering its course, the local government has sought to control the river by building a number of dams and reservoirs over the past 200 years. Some of those dams have failed in past floods, but many remain and provide a powerful check on the amount and speed of the water that eventually flows down the river and through Mission Valley.
But the measures to control the river have been countered by the increase in development on and around the San Diego River’s flood plain.
The increase in the amount of concrete and asphalt covering what was once porous arable land means less and less rainwater can now seep into the ground. More drains, roads and roofs in the areas around the river also means rainwater now finds its way more quickly from storm clouds through neighborhoods into the river’s flood plain.
Whether the measures that quell the river are a match for the factors that swell it is anybody’s guess.
“There’s not enough analysis,” Lindsay said. “Nobody really looks at what’s going to happen.”
The last time a hydrology report — a measurement of how much water will flow through a given location at a given time due to heavy rainfall — was completed for the area was 20 years ago. Without any solid information to rely on, experts and residents are left only to ponder what damage a so-called “100-year storm” would deliver.
Jim Peugh, a local environmentalist who works to conserve the San Diego River, said history is bound to repeat itself in Mission Valley.
“The dams will hold it up to a certain point, then they won’t hold it any more and we’ll have another flood like 1916, and our city will face another economic loss,” he said.
“That will probably be billions of dollars, and then we’ll be surprised again,” he added.
Eric Frost, a professor of structural geology at San Diego State University, thinks such a flood could severely damage some of the area’s new housing and might affect some of the businesses, but he doesn’t foresee a massive amount of damage. What does concern Frost, however, is the lack of any emergency evacuation plan if water were to fill the long, slender river valley.
“What if Friars Road wasn’t available?” Frost said of one of Mission Valley’s few exits. “And most businesses have probably never thought about how they would evacuate their stuff to the second floor.”
An emergency flood plan for Mission Valley is essential, Frost said, considering the valley’s long, thin shape and the lack of roads in and out of the residential areas. Such a plan, Frost said could consider the possibility of using public transport — including the trolley system — to evacuate residents.
Wilhoit said the formation of such a plan is “probably a good idea after looking at New Orleans,” but he said it’s not something that is currently in the works.
Indeed, the experts said that the two catastrophic natural disasters in 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami, showed that natural forces are extremely difficult to plan for. A 100-year storm may be statistically unlikely, they said, but so is almost every natural disaster that strikes.
However, Frost was quick to point out that, for the proverbial 100 years between floods, Mission Valley serves as a home and a place of business to many thousands of people. The revenue that is raised for the city through Mission Valley is considerable, he said, and must be balanced against the financial impact of any potential flooding.
Local environmentalists insist that some serious measures are needed to control the amount of development draining into Mission Valley. New developments must be made accountable for the impact they will make, said Peugh, and that is going to involve a monumental shift in the way that development is managed in the city of San Diego.
“In San Diego, money talks,” Peugh said, “so people that want to put in big developments are able to do so in spite of the long-term impacts on the environment and the public.”
Until that changes, Peugh said, any further development in Mission Valley will simply exacerbate what some say is already a catastrophe waiting to happen.
— Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.
Coming Wednesday: The schoolchildren of Mission Valley can’t take a bus to school. There is no bus; there is no school. As Mission Valley’s population continues to boom, there are no plans to give the neighborhood of 18,000 residents their own school.