Something stinks in La Jolla.

The odor is so foul that diners near the La Jolla Cove are known to leave restaurants before their meals arrive. Tourists have told some hoteliers they won’t be returning until “that smell” goes away.

If only it were so simple.

Years ago, La Jolla residents and tourists frequented the bluffs that surround the cove but the rocky areas have since been fenced off. Cormorants, seagulls and seals have taken over, leaving behind piles of feces.

A lack of oxygen exposure or recent rain has allowed the stench to fester, and it’s done just that for months. Dry, hot conditions over the summer made it even worse. On some days, the stench travels nearly a mile from the cove.

Early this year, La Jollans started to seek a solution. They found some possibilities and asked for the city’s cooperation.

But they soon learned the complexity of their plight: The cove is one of 34 state-protected Areas of Special Biological Significance, meaning any potential solutions must be vetted by multiple layers of regulators. One regulator estimated it would take more than two years to get a single permit.

That prompted City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, whose district includes La Jolla, to write a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown.

“La Jolla finds itself caught in a morass of state regulations — and it stinks. Literally,” Lightner wrote in a letter mailed earlier this month.

The City Council plans to vote on a resolution to seek immediate help from the state to “overcome existing bureaucratic roadblocks” later this month.

La Jolla residents have come up with some potential options to cut through the crap: products they say would help accelerate the bird feces’ decomposition, thereby improving, if not eliminating, the stench.

One of the manufacturers, Bio-Organic Catalyst Incorporated, told city officials their product could chemically degrade the bird poop without harming the sensitive coastal environment. Others have made similar claims.

But cleaning the bluffs, where any rain water quickly flows into the ocean, would require the approval of three state agencies: the California Coastal Commission, state Water Resources Control and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Though the feces accumulation is natural, it is considered a pollutant under state definitions unless it flows into the ocean under natural circumstances, so the city needs a permit if there’s any chance the feces or the cleaning solution to remove it could fall into the ocean.

Step one, therefore, is a permit from the regional board to allow potential discharge.

Such authorizations aren’t easy to come by.

Bob Morris, a senior engineer with the regional board, estimates the process would take at least two years because the La Jolla stench wouldn’t be considered a major environmental concern.

“By itself, it’s not going to jump in front of other projects, other actions that the board needs to take that would have more impact on protecting water quality,” Morris said.

He suggested the city consider a solution that wouldn’t require pollution, perhaps spraying a product on the portion of the bluffs farthest from the ocean.

“I would like to see an evaluation of what could be done,” he said.

If Morris’ agency ultimately approves the city’s permit request, the situation would fall to the state Coastal Commission.

The commission would want even more details on the potential solution to remove the bird droppings, including the concentration of any products used and an explanation of how the city would monitor the removal process, said Kanani Brown, an analyst in the commission’s San Diego office.

Finally, because the La Jolla Cove is a state-protected area, the state Water Control Resources Board would have to provide a similar stamp of approval.

The entire process would take years.

Ironically, a series of heavy rains could clear the problem. San Diego just hasn’t gotten the drenching it needs.

“Usually when the winter rains come, it washes away and resolves the situation,” said Brown, who emphasized rainfall should be considered among the possible solutions for clearing the stench.

Still, La Jolla business owners and residents are tired of waiting. Rain has yet to solve their problem.

On a recent afternoon, restaurateur George Hauer stood along the cove, watching the birds and seals.

The owner of George’s at the Cove, a restaurant that boasts ocean views, Hauer said he’s struggling to enjoy the beauty of nature.

He estimates the stench drives away 20 to 30 customers a day and he’s concerned they won’t return to his restaurant or even La Jolla.

“If the impression that’s left with visitors is that it’s not a good place to go because it smells like bird crap, then that is not an incentive to come back,” he said.

Hauer recently created a petition to persuade officials, namely Lightner, to remove the bird droppings. More than 1,250 residents and visitors have signed it in recent weeks.

La Jolla resident Mark Evans, a retired attorney, the La Jolla Village Merchants Association and the La Jolla Parks and Beaches group have also championed the cause.

They’re concerned about potential health hazards associated with the stench, which they say have left some cove visitors feeling sick.

Locals say the droppings give off the pungent odor of fish that’s been left to rot.

“It’s so acrid it sticks in your nose and throat and makes you want to throw up,” said Phil Coller, president of the merchants association.

Coller, Evans and others worry the cove could be more than just stinky, particularly because of the ammonia invading the air.

The validity of those concerns is not clear. No one has tested the air but the levels of ammonia would need to reach high levels to be considered toxic.

Lightner’s office has asked the county Department of Environmental Health to test the air to ensure it’s not hazardous but the county has not yet agreed.

Rick Gersberg, a microbiologist and an environmental health professor at San Diego State University, said the stench would need to be highly concentrated to create a substantial risk.

“My guess would be that it’s disgusting and it’s bothersome and it might even burn the eyes but it’s probably not exerting adverse health risks,” he said.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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