Last time Spin Cycle checked, the factor most responsible for recent declines in the number of sewage spills and beach closures isn't running for mayor nor for a seat on the San Diego City Council.
No, Mother Nature doesn't seem to have an interest in local politics.
And yet, it seems Mayor Dick "What, Me Worry?" Murphy and Councilmember Scott "What, Me Democrat?" Peters, the mayor's sidekick on things watery, who's in a tough re-election battle in District 1, have no problem stepping up before prospective voters and taking the lion's share of the props for a fairly precipitous drop over the last three years in the frequency of filthy, smelly goo hitting the shores of our prized beaches, bays and rivers.
In television ads now hitting the airwaves, the mayor looks seriously into the camera and tells us that he made a promise to clean up San Diego's beaches and bays and, by golly, he kept that promise-even exceeded his original goal of a 50-percent cut in spills and closures by the end of his first four-year term. Mission accomplished a year ahead of schedule, the mayor beams.
Peters, too, unabashedly grabs mic after mic at various public forums (these things certainly can't be called debates) and sings his version of the "I Saved the Beaches." In La Jolla last week, some audience members actually groaned following Peters' self-promoting back-patting performance on water quality.
Enter a humble, experienced voice in the war against water pollution, City Councilmember Donna Frye, who for years cut her political teeth on the topic as her surfer friends found themselves suffering from weird and unrelenting illnesses while most local politicos seemed more concerned about possibly having to spend more money on improved treatment of the crap being pumped into the ocean a couple of miles offshore of Point Loma.
Frye won't come right out and say this pair of running boys should know better, but it's difficult for her to hide the frustration in her voice on an issue that beats close to Frye's surfer-girl heart. Her husband, iconic surfmeister Skip Frye, continues to have good and bad days battling an ocean-related ailment.
"It's always been difficult to just do a blanket statement like that," she explained. "You have to look at a whole lot of factors. It's not just so simple as saying, this year compared to last year this is what happened."
And one primary factor-rarely mentioned by-is the weather. In its most recent report, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has issued beach water-quality surveys for 13 years, noted that a 31-percent drop in beach closures and contamination advisories statewide from 2001 to 2002 was almost entirely due to dry weather, which predictably means less urban runoff.
"If you have a wet winter, you're going to have sewage overflows," Frye said. "That just goes with the territory."
Another factor is a reduction in water-quality monitoring. In its soon-to-be-released beach closure and advisory report for 2003, the county's Department of Environmental Health notes in the small print that the city of San Diego halted sampling at 10 ocean shoreline stations in July 2000 and at an additional 20 stations along Mission Bay in July 2001.
The county continues to take water samples at a majority of these sites during the warmer seasons (April through October), but no sampling occurs at these locations during the remainder of the year, when rain is more likely.
"So, if you have one year when you monitored 50 locations and another year when you monitored 20 locations, you're going to see a decrease just by the virtue of not monitoring," Frye said. The city also now takes samples 25 yards away from storm drains rather than previous samplings directly at the outfall. Posted warnings are also done for longer stretches of beaches than in years past, thereby reducing the actual number of advisories.
Also not taken into account in these numbers are so-called "chronic locations"-such as the seal-dominated Children's Pool in La Jolla, the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife shoreline and Border Field State Park-where contamination is in essence a daily occurrence.
Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Baykeeper and a member of the city's Clean Water Task Force co-chaired by Murphy and Peters, acknowledged that there's some playing with the numbers going on here, but overall he believes the council deserves some credit-at least in following a slew of mitigation requirements that resulted from various lawsuits and fines from environmental groups and water-quality agencies over the years.
"Does the City Council get an A+ on environmental issues? Of course not," Reznik told CityBeat. "They take maybe a little more credit than they should."
But, noted Reznik, at least Murphy and Peters didn't use the massive 34-million-gallon Adobe Falls sewage spill in 2000 as a comparative benchmark for future years. "I actually give the city credit for not trying to take advantage of the record-breaking Adobe spill to say that volume of spills has gone down 90 percent over three years.
"They could have tried that, and that really would have been disingenuous," Reznik said.
But still, such blanket claims by Peters and Murphy might get them into a bit of stinky water as Election Day approaches. Peters opponent Phil Thalheimer, the flight-training Republican who won't take developer money, is shipping a mailer to voters this week questioning Peters' devotion to pollution reduction.
The mailer notes that Peters voted with the City Council majority to cut pollution monitoring in the 2004 budget-a $26,095 hit in lab services and the elimination of one code-compliance officer for a savings of $53,664.
"By cutting the budget for monitoring and testing for dangerous bacteria, Scott Peters has put our children at risk," Joel Anderson, director of the San Diego Resource Conservation District, is quoted as saying in the mailer.
Thalheimer claims that Peters "has continually voted to divert ratepayers' sewer/ water funds to other city programs" to the tune of more than $100 million.
So who should get credit? Frye thinks surfers and the environmental community deserve the highest praise for more than a decade of battles over water quality. "This isn't something that all of a sudden changes one day," she said. "This is something that many, many, many people have been working on for 10 years or more."
Well before Murphy and Peters arrived on the scene?
"Yes, that's a fair statement," Frye added.
You talk: spincycle@SDcitybeat.com.