Trash-strewn, concrete lined and filled with poisonous quantities of copper, lead and cadmium, Chollas Creek will not be fixed overnight, or cheaply. A worst-case scenario put forward in a report released last week by Mayor Jerry Sanders calls for more than $1 billion in filtration facilities that would require the acquisition of 760 acres of some of the most densely built-up land in the county. Thousands of homes would have to be razed and thousands of people would be put out on the street. This won't do, and every one involved knows it.
The Chollas Creek Basin encompasses more than the creek itself, which runs into the bay at Navy Base San Diego near 32nd Street. Imagine a rain storm. All of the water that falls on western La Mesa and Lemon Grove, then on City Heights, Encanto and Logan Heights would drain into Chollas Creek or its tributaries, a land area of 16,270 acres. Every lawn chemical, spilled can of paint or piece of trash not nailed down flows with it. Plus, all the automotive detritus, like copper from break linings or the rubber from tires, on Interstates 15, 805 and 5 heads downstream with the rain. No surprise, then, that the basin has earned a prominent place on the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board's shit list (so to speak).
The board, itself an extension of the state board and the Environmental Protection Agency, enforces water quality standards in the San Diego area. It is already in the process of imposing stiff fines on the city for failing to address runoff pollution. Now it's taking a hard line on a 10-year clean-up schedule for Chollas Creek. Perversely, the water board's proposed fixes for the creek are far less expensive or disruptive: educate the public on the use of pesticides and storage of trash, enforce cleanup ordinances, install grassy knolls along highways to catch and absorb the junk from the roads.
“We have dueling technical experts here,” Scott Tulloch, the director of San Diego Metropolitan Wastewater Department, told CityBeat. “But the standards are absolute. If we do it [the water board's] way, and it doesn't work-and we don't think their way is enough-we could face some serious penalties.”
The mayor's report, produced by consulting agency Weston Solutions, provides a comprehensive solution intended to clean up bacteria and pollutants, in addition to the heavy metals. The plan calls for dozens of underground catch basins which would then flow the water into activated-carbon filters. These solutions are expensive and time-consuming, and Tulloch plans to work with the water board to prevent the need for such drastic measures. Even environmentalists find the report extreme.
“I'm all for a wake-up call, but this goes a little past the line,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper.
At the Nov. 8 meeting of the water board, Tulloch will present a compromise, a sort of controlled experiment. The Chollas Creek Basin would be divided into its smaller sub-basins. Each of these would receive a treatment: stricter law enforcement in one, increased education in another, the catch basins recommended by Weston in yet another, and so forth. After three years, Tulloch would go back to the board with the hard data needed to back the optimal solution.
“We would also like to bring in the environmentalists, water board staff and other stakeholders to make the process collaborative,” Tulloch said.
“I think if you put our minds together, you can try some really innovative things, which will hopefully get us where we need to go without unduly burdening the city,” Reznik said.
Unlike with sewers and drinking water, there are no dedicated fees to help solve storm-water problems. Even if the billion-dollar figure in the report is an exaggeration, the cleanup will be pricey, and it all comes out of the city's general fund.
“It would have to compete with police and public safety,” Tulloch said.
City Councilmember Donna Frye chairs the council's Natural Resources and Culture Committee, which will be holding a hearing on Chollas Creek cleanup on Wednesday Oct. 11.
“You don't approach it as ‘Oh my god, the sky is falling!'” she told CityBeat. “There's tons of ways this can be accomplished. Show a good faith effort that you're trying to comply and actually do something, and the regulatory agencies are not going to come down on us.”