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Streetlight cameras in downtown San Diego / Photo by Megan Wood

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc not just on public health and the economy but government budgets. The next of its victims could be the city’s attempt to reduce the impacts of human-caused climate change.

Citing financial reasons, Cody Hooven, the city’s chief sustainability officer, told City Council members last week that her department is not planning to hire the consultants necessary to update the 5-year-old Climate Action Plan.

Hooven also said her department was not planning to produce an annual report that shows how well the city is (and isn’t) meeting its greenhouse gas reduction goals and that surveys people on how they get around San Diego. Transportation, remember, accounts for 55 percent of the total greenhouse gases emitted and it’s tracked by the city so officials can figure out how to move people more efficiently.

An independent budget analyst report suggests both the update and the report would have cost about $1.2 million to produce, which is curiously close to the amount of new money — $1.3 million — that Mayor Kevin Faulconer asked the City Council to dedicate next year to a controversial streetlight sensor program.

The so-called smart streetlights got rolling with a $30 million loan more than three years ago. At the time, its supporters promised that the public would be able to make their own transit and mobility apps to better move around the city, but as Jesse Marx reports, none of that has happened yet. Instead of delivering reliable pedestrian and parking data, the thousands of sensors places across the city have proven especially useful to the San Diego Police Department.

The program was supposed to pay for itself through the installation of LED lights, but its costs have grown substantially. The irony here is that an energy-saving program appears to be crowding out other needs within the Sustainability Department. The sensors themselves are capable of collecting environmental data, and that data could be useful to the Climate Action Plan update.

Nicole Capretz, founder of the Climate Action Campaign, a nonprofit that helped write the city’s Climate Action Plan, was among a group of activists caught off guard and disappointed by how the streetlights program is turning out. Elected officials are now working on a surveillance ordinance that’ll govern how technologies capable of listening to and watching the public are purchased and used in the future.

“It was sold as a sustainability project that’s absolutely critical to the Climate Action Plan and that’s why the community had no idea it would bring serious privacy issues,” she said.

The total cost of the smart streetlights program in Faulconer’s fiscal year 2021 budget is $2.1 million. The city’s independent budget analyst notes that the program is currently about $1.5 million over budget and the energy cost savings are only enough to cover the debt payments for the initial purchase of the equipment.

But the mayor previously identified funding for both the Climate Action Plan and smart streetlights program as “critical strategic expenditures” under a long-range financial planning budget for 2021-2025. It’s obvious which pinned the other in the proverbial political arm wrestle.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s five-year budget outlook for the Department of Sustainability, 2021-2025. / Image courtesy of the city of San Diego
Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s five-year budget outlook for the Department of Sustainability, 2021-2025. / Image courtesy of the city of San Diego

Most of the City Council members at Tuesday’s budget hearing expressed some concern over the growing cost of the streetlights program — City Council President Georgette Gómez called for turning the devices off permanently. It’s unclear how all this will shake out during the next round of budget drafting.

Hooven couldn’t be reached for an interview Monday.

Good News! These Poisonous Newts Are Multiplying

Every other week, I try to provide some light at the end of your news tunnel, and this one comes in the form of a particularly frisky newt.

San Diego River land managers walked in on a couple of threatened California newts getting hot ‘n’ heavy in Boulder Creek over the weekend. It’s a welcome sign, though. The busyness of these creatures shows the creek, a headwater for the San Diego River, is healthy, said Sarah Hutmacher, chief associate director of the San Diego River Foundation.

A California newt spotted in Boulder Creek / Photo courtesy of San Diego River Park Foundation

The auburn-colored salamander species mostly make their home on land, where they dine on worms and thrive for up to 20 years. They don’t really have a predator. That’s because their skin secretes an extremely potent toxin similar to a puffer fish that messes with nerve signals, causing paralysis and sometimes death. (While doing some research, I found one human death-by-newt instance: In 1979, a 29-year-old Oregon man drank a bunch of whisky then swallowed one of these newts on a dare and refused to go to the hospital. So, don’t do that.)

For now, the main threat to the newt is habitat loss due to human development, invasive marine animals that eat their eggs and climate change, Hutmacher said.

California newt eggs spotted in Boulder Creek / Photo courtesy of San Diego River Park Foundation

Conservationists saw fewer newts in the years following wildfires and drought in the Boulder Creek area, Hutmacher said. Newts are picky and desire cold-water streams to procreate. Fires decimated surrounding natural oak groves whose broad leaves shade and cool streambeds.

Researchers at UCLA blamed the 2016 drought for sightings of emaciated California newts in Southern California.

Boulder Creek used to be home to the rainbow trout, a popular sport fish, which haven’t been spotted since the drought of the 2000s, Hutmacher said. But it’s what partly sustained the Kumeyaay people for thousands of years long before Europeans took over San Diego’s riverbanks.

The fat and happy newt spotting is a sign we’ve had a good, wet year so far in San Diego. One can hope that remains the case as the region approaches the hot summer and fire season. It’s also a sign, Hutmacher said, that habitat restoration works.

The San Diego Foundation manages over 2,100 acres in the region. The area the newt was discovered was previously private property.

Once COVID-19 restrictions slacken, the foundation offers volunteer restoration opportunities on its website.

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