For months, the conversation surrounding the stench at La Jolla Cove centered on what the city couldn’t do and the permits necessary to break the rules.

The city explored countless options to clear bird droppings considered to be the source of the stink, including various chemicals, vacuums and even a run-of-the-mill hose.

This week city officials unveiled a plan that takes a different approach, a solution that works with the rules rather than against them.

That’s how the city settled, at least for now, on a caramel-colored compound they hope will cut through the crap.

The product, manufactured by the San Rafael-based Blue Eagle company, is made up of seven types of live, natural microorganisms that literally feed on poop.

A local distributor plans to use a hose to spray the product on the bluffs at La Jolla Cove, a process that will likely spread over days and weeks.

But the city has rejected similar solutions in the past, so why did this one pass muster?

Turns out it has a lot to do with the process.

About a month ago, the city hired environmental consultant Merkel & Associates Inc. to help sort through the regulatory mess.

Keith Merkel, the company’s principal consultant, urged the city to reflect on all those regulations: At least three agencies required permits for any cleaner that might, even inadvertently, flow into the ocean. Other agencies would be on guard should the city disturb sea lions, bird nests or even the bluffs.

Merkel focused on ways to approach the problem that didn’t run afoul of all those rules. What the city settled on is a plan that conveniently skirts them.

Last week, Mayor Bob Filner issued an emergency finding that allows the city to disturb the seals and sea lions that nap and play at the La Jolla Cove by declaring a threat to the public health and welfare. An exemption in the Marine Mammal Protection Act allows the city to make such a determination rather than wait for a permit.

This means workers can mist the brown, foamy solution on the cove without an outside agency’s approval but the city is still taking precautions to avoid violating other rules.

A biologist and geologist will be on hand as the workers apply the solution over several days. Regulations will dictate where it goes.

Workers will avoid the edges of the bluffs so the compound doesn’t make its way into the ocean, meaning La Jollans are still likely to see droppings snaking their way down the rocks.

“The approach that we’re taking is no discharge and by taking the approach of no discharge it inherently means there are places we can’t get to,” Merkel said.

Workers will also spray the product beginning at 5:30 a.m. and call off work for the day if it’s too windy to avoid any potential accidents, Merkel said.

The day-to-day lives of the cove’s animal inhabitants dictate the plans too.

Workers are set to clear the majority of the guano-covered cove beginning early next month but they’ll have to wait for the end of the bird nesting season to finish the job to avoid a potential conflict with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requirements. That means the job won’t be finished until late July or early August.

Sea lions could also change the cleaners’ plans.

A biologist who works with Merkel will observe sea lions lounging on the cove and let workers know if one looks likely to refuse to move.

A stubborn seal means workers won’t be able to spray the solution in that particular area on that day, Merkel said.

As a result, the clean-up process is expected to happen over a 10-day period, which allows the city to work around the animals’ schedules and provides more time for the compound to eat through the bird guano.

Whether the solution will work — and how much it might cost over the long haul — isn’t certain.

Workers began testing the Blue Eagle product this week and they will charge the city $50,000 for the initial clean-up effort.

They’ll likely need to return at least two to three times a year to remove the stink, meaning the solution could cost more than $100,000 a year. That doesn’t include the city’s bill for Merkel’s assistance.

Filner said Tuesday he’ll find a way to cover the bill.

“It just has to be done,” he told U-T San Diego. “It’s a health and safety feature.”

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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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