The San Diego Regional Water Quality Board eased cleanup requirements for Chollas Creek on Wednesday — a move that will save local cities over $1 billion.

A decade ago, researchers found that tiny but toxic amounts of dissolved metal hurt marine life in the creek.

So the board imposed strict limits on the amount of copper and zinc allowed in the creek and ordered cities to start cleaning it up. Those metals came from roads, industrial businesses and parking lots. They were mostly carried into the creek by rain. So the cleanup was going to be long, complicated and expensive.

But the rules were based on what’s now considered old and inadequate science.

On Wednesday, the board simply decided that its old limits were too strict. Now, thousands of pounds of copper and zinc will continue to flow into the creek, but it’ll be considered fine.

Environmentalists said the decision was a defeat for low-income people and minorities who live along Chollas Creek, which starts in La Mesa and Lemon Grove then runs through the heart of San Diego and out into the bay.

The decision was a victory for the city of San Diego, which would have been on the hook for over $800 million in cleanup costs.

That’s expensive work, but it would have helped with other problems in the creek and could have brought Chollas close to the ideals of the federal Clean Water Act: to make every waterway in America fishable and swimmable. Instead, the creek remains ugly and undesirable.

The city spent much of the past decade trying to change the rules. It funded more studies of the creek. Those studies concluded that tiny bits of metal – which add up to thousands of pounds a year – are not toxic to marine life. Even the water board’s chairman, Henry Abarbanel, has called the old limits “unscientific and random.”

But environmentalists said that the board was essentially giving up on the creek by easing the rule.

“This is the mechanism to ensure that progress will happen in Chollas Creek,” said Matt O’Malley, the executive director for San Diego Coastkeeper, referring to the rule that just got scrapped.

David Gibson, the executive director of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board, said the rule change “does not mean that we’re turning our back on the South Bay, it just means we’re adjusting our focus to the issues that are of greatest concern.”

Livia Borak Beaudin, an attorney at Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, said the rule change will hurt environmentalists’ litigation strategy, which is to hold individual businesses along the creek accountable for polluting San Diego’s waters. Since 2014, the foundation has filed or threatened to file dozens of lawsuits against area companies for violating clean water laws, taking on a task that government regulators have seemingly been unable or unwilling to do, though others have questioned whether going after individual businesses is effective or fair.

While their lawsuits focus on water pollution, Beaudin and her law partner, Marco Gonzalez, use water laws to counter what they consider to be bad land use planning that hurts low-income San Diegans: The polluters they identify are also doing industrial activity, right in the middle of residential areas like Barrio Logan and City Heights.

Laurie Walsh, the head of the board’s stormwater program, said 35 industrial facilities in Chollas Creek have permits that indicate they are likely to be discharging metals into the water.

The board regulates about 800 businesses in the entire region, though it’s likely that hundreds if not thousands more companies may be evading the law. Of those that do have a permit in the region, over 200 have discharged more pollution into the water than is allowed by state rules, according to state data. Those rules remain in place and were unaffected by Wednesday’s board vote.

Some of those polluters are along Chollas Creek in low-income residential neighborhoods, according to state records.

But staff at the board said that industrial activity is responsible for less than 10 percent of the copper and zinc flowing into the creek.

The board also decided against requiring businesses in the area to adopt more expensive testing requirements, something it had briefly entertained several weeks ago.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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