Mayor Bob Filner says he’s got a solution to La Jolla’s stinky problem but at least some of the regulators who may need to sign off on the arrangement haven’t seen any details.

Filner told reporters last week that the city plans to vacuum the bird droppings that cause an acrid stench at La Jolla Cove, particularly during hotter months.

But getting approval to remove the guano is complicated.

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. It’s also home to dozens of sea lions and cormorants, who have settled in the area since the city put up a fence to keep human visitors off the bluffs. One regulator previously estimated it would take more than two years to get a single permit.

Yet the mayor claimed last week a temporary solution could be ready by Memorial Day.

“We think we have everything legally lined up so I don’t have to go up there with my little Hoover vacuum cleaner and do it, which I was prepared to do,” Filner said.

The mayor’s office hasn’t detailed those plans but regulators who spoke to Voice of San Diego this week say they have yet to receive official details from the city.

“Essentially, I don’t know what method they would be using,” said Monica DeAngelis, a marine mammal biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

That agency, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, may need to provide formal approval if the city’s efforts to clear the bluffs will disturb sea lions who sleep and play there.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act bars disturbances to the animals but an exemption may be on the city’s side. The law allows governments to remove animals under some circumstances.

DeAngelis said the city and environmental consultant Keith Merkel recently contacted her to ask whether they were properly interpreting the government exemption in the law. She couldn’t provide specific answers.

“It’s kind of hard for us to provide much feedback other than (pointing to) two sections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act without knowing exactly what they’re intending to do,” DeAngelis said.

She hasn’t heard from the city since.

Dave Gibson, who heads the agency that’s contributed to some of the city’s biggest cove-related headaches, hasn’t heard from them at all.

“I think it would be a good idea for us to at least meet and talk about what they’re proposing,” said Gibson, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

A staffer with Gibson’s agency previously suggested it would take years to get a permit from the regional board. Such a permit would be required if there’s any chance the bird droppings could fall into the ocean in the clean-up process.

Kanani Brown of the California Coastal Commission, another agency that would also need to approve any discharges, said the city’s latest plan doesn’t appear to require such a permit.

“I believe they are planning on doing a maintenance program of shoveling or vacuuming the bluffs on a regular basis to ameliorate the smell issue, if not solve it completely,” she said.

But as of late Thursday, Brown was still awaiting more details. Once she gets the draft, Brown said she can quickly assess whether it will require further vetting.

Other agencies may need to OK the city’s plans too.

They could include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency.

An EPA spokeswoman says regulators there haven’t heard from San Diego officials. Fish and Wildlife staffers who specialize in the area could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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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