Officials are scrambling to prepare the city for El Niño, the weather pattern that is supposed to dump massive rainfall on Southern California. Regulators believe the rains will inevitably sweep away some cars and homes, and maybe even people.

As they hustle to mitigate the damage, local, state and federal officials are also locked in another race: the one to assign blame for getting us into this mess.

City officials say the lack of preparation is because of burdensome environmental regulations.

State regulators and local environmentalists question the city’s sudden cries for help. If property is destroyed and if lives are lost, they say a good share of the blame should fall on decades’ worth of bad decisions by the city.

The city’s waterways that carry rainfall to the ocean are clogged – with vegetation mostly, but also trash.  When it rains, these clogged rivers, creeks and concrete channels can’t drain the rain water fast enough, so they flood. There are 84 miles of these city-owned channels snaking through San Diego, often right next to people’s homes and offices.

The city is supposed to keep these channels clear. But last year, city crews did major clearing of just six clogged waterways. In September, the city produced a list of two dozen waterways in need of flood control maintenance and said it had no plan to do work on most of them for several more years. The city is now trying to complete about a dozen of the highest-priority projects, if it can get approval.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The city says it normally takes a year or more and as many as six different agencies to get permission to clear the channels. That’s because state and federal regulators worry about habitat destruction when waterways are cleaned.

With El Niño approaching, the city has begun getting expedited permission to clear a handful of those channels. Environmental regulators said they too want to rush the permits.

Even a small flood can be costly: The city plans to pay $1 million to a pair of homeowners near Cowles Mountain after a plugged pipe caused flooding on their block twice this year.

The city has been taking a piecemeal approach to clearing out its storm channels.

“I don’t think the city has ever come in and said, ‘Hey, we have to do 20 channels this year, give us a permit,’” said David Gibson, the head of San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state regulator.

Instead, the city asks for permission to clear three or four channels a year.

Of the six major channel clearing projects the city did in its last budget year, only three were planned. The other three were in response to an emergency. Emergencies allow the city to avoid some regulations.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other local mayors last week pleaded with Gov. Jerry Brown to declare an emergency because of El Niño that would allow unfettered storm channel clearing.

Gibson said the mayors are asking for a “complete suspension” of laws that protect the region’s waterways.

The city’s reliance on “emergencies” is not new.

In 2010, San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy B. Taylor said the city was “attempting to ‘institutionalize’ an ongoing ‘emergency.’”

A year earlier, because of another El Niño, Taylor had accepted the city’s argument that it needed to do emergency storm channel work in the Tijuana River Valley. But in 2010, the city wanted to keep doing “emergency” work, even though the forecast for the next winter was unusually dry.

While a city spokesman said Taylor’s comments should not be construed to apply to other city work, city officials have blamed lawsuits like the ones that ended up in front of Taylor for their reluctance to do emergency work this winter without a clear green light from regulatory agencies.

“Doing so again could open up taxpayers to more lawsuits, fines and actually end up delaying work further,” Faulconer spokesman Matt Awbrey told City News Service in early November.

In response to comments like that, Cory Briggs, the attorney fighting the city in the 2009 and 2010 Tijuana River lawsuits, fired off an acidic email to the mayor and members of the City Council. Briggs wondered if the city was trying to have blood on its hands.

Briggs said that litigation ended years ago and the takeaway shouldn’t have been that the city can’t clean storm channels. The city just needs to follow rules and do routine maintenance, instead of waiting for emergencies to fix life-threatening problems, he said.

“It is hard to believe that the City – as incompetent as it is when it comes to things like properly maintaining its flood channels – has not learned its lesson,” Briggs wrote. “Thus, I’m left having to ask a question that is in no way intended to be rhetorical: Are you trying to get someone killed?  If so, your inaction appears likely to pay off.”

Brian Bilbray, a former congressman who spent his life near the Tijuana River Valley, made a name for himself several decades ago by bulldozing part of the Tijuana River without a permit to reduce flooding in the area. People frustrated with slow work in storm channels still talk about Bilbray’s approach, which emphasized action rather than procedure.

In an interview, Bilbray said he blamed the city for poor channel maintenance, but for different reasons than Briggs.

Some of the regulations the city faces are absurd, he said: The federal government won’t allow anyone to clear a new 50-foot-wide channel to carry water out into the ocean, a measure that Bilbray said would ease flooding. As it is, Bilbray said, regulations to prevent habitat destruction are preventing work that would reduce flooding that destroys larger amounts of habitat.

The city is also in something of a catch-22: It generally isn’t allowed to clear storm channels during some dry months because birds are nesting. But then it rains and it’s too late.

Bilbray said there are no consequences for city bureaucrats when other people’s land floods.

“Nobody is going to be fired, nobody is going to be demoted, nobody is going to be hurt except the people that have to live on it,” he said.

Regulatory agencies – state and federal – are now taking some extraordinary measures to accommodate San Diego and other California cities.

Wade Eakle, the regulatory program manager at the Army Corps of Engineers’ regional office in San Francisco, said the Corps is changing what it considers an “emergency” to accommodate this year’s El Niño.

The Corps regulates work that happens in the nation’s waterways to protect threatened or endangered species. In the past, the Corps usually only authorized emergency work when the rain hit. This year, the Corps is ready to starting issuing emergency permits to projects that cause relatively minor environmental damage, even if the rain isn’t anticipated until later in the winter.

“We believe there’s still enough time for folks to get this work done if it’s needed,” Eakle said.

Some city flooding is going to happen, as it always has.

But some new development has raised the stakes for the city. Countywide, about 55,000 people live in flood-prone areas, most of them in the city of San Diego.

Gibson, the head of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, said sometimes flooding is exacerbated by land use decisions made years ago. Buildings are built in places prone to flooding. Or the new construction affected the contours of the land and waterways to make flooding more likely.

“We tend to have amnesia about the potential of these rivers to flood when we see dollar signs in front of us,” Gibson said.

One of the flood-prone hotspots in the city is Sorrento Valley. Gibson said some construction there is too close to a stream, a mistake no longer likely to be made because of newer regulations.

The city did some channel maintenance along the Sorrento Creek this year. It took nearly two years to get permission. Once it was approved, it took only 18 days to remove 285 truckloads of material from the concrete channel. That actual work cost $250,000, said Bill Harris, a spokesman for the city storm water program. But the permits and environmental mitigation cost $2 million.

Even that work may not have solved problems in a flood-prone area the city has been warned about for five years now.

In January 2010, a city-owned storm channel blocked up by overgrown vegetation flooded buildings owned by Cal-Sorrento Ltd., one of the large property owners in Sorrento Valley. The floods caused $150,000 in damage, according to the company. Ever since 2010, the company has tried to get the city to come clear the channel.

In 2012, the company even hired a consultant do a report on the city’s channel, which found that the storm channel was inadequate and clogged with vegetation.

Ironically, when the city fails to clear a storm channel and plants grow inside, it becomes harder to get a permit to clear it because of the new habitat living in it. The channels near the Cal-Sorrento property were put in to prevent flooding when the land was developed in the 1960s.

Terri Ducey, the company’s property manager and daughter of the land’s original developer, said the city told her it could not clear the channel without an emergency permit.

“People come out and look at it and nothing happens and then things flood,” she said.

    This article relates to: Environmental Regulation, Science/Environment

    Written by Ry Rivard

    Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and power. You can reach him at ry.rivard@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665.

    16 comments
    Donald Sexton
    Donald Sexton

    Despite the El Nino hype, the precipitation will likely fall under supposed normal levels for the region (despite the broadening ITCZ from energy drivers, strong currents, gravity waves, & other colliding conditions there were other regional geographic & climate influencing factors seemingly disregarded such as those creating the high pressure & causing katabatic winds) although the apparent episodic flow has been exacerbated by the channeling, impervious surfaces, watershed alteration, reduced floodplain, & other contributing conditions from synthetic activities. People in this region are notorious for their irrational hubris by sighting structures in known hazardous areas with risks that are eventually fulfilled while appropriate accountability is evaded. The responsibility for maintaining some of these areas should be on the land & property owner with the construction interests that profited while placing people & activities in floodplains, canyons, watersheds, & other areas obviously known to impose risks while they still influenced policymakers & bureaucracy to indulge their desires. Timothy Taylor indeed reiterates how a supposed good cause or community emergency can get promoted so often that it becomes exploited for indulgence, conniving opportunity, & else while the conditions are never alleviated ... one of the issues with corruption & kleptocracy that San Diego, CA blatantly exhibits seemingly without accountability. Weathering, erosion, mass wasting, & other processes are persistent. The engineering measures rarely alleviate the risks while supposed mitigation is a myth that has been exceeded soon as the project is promoted. The EIRs & assessments are terrible while too many, including the supposed conservators & others that are paid to look the other way & indulge the ever deteriorating conditions, compromising buffers, losing arable land, eroding soils, & mismanaging habitat along with misunderstanding & altering the ecosystems so that bio-system services are opposed or eradicated. The energy, effort, & infrastructure required to replace them is exorbitant while the eventual hazards will happen more often with greater severity; initially I appreciated the affiliated activities & organizations involved with environment, resources, built communities, ... but involvement became criticism about the direction, efforts, & policy. Too much compromise, covert arrangements, undue influence, & conniving opportunism that are complicit in the corruption characterizing San Diego, CA ... definitely exposing the problems but some have enjoyed the indulgences at others expense & well-being for too long. Now the issues & exploitation are getting called out & recognized. Hopefully, nobody else suffers or is harmed.

    Donald Sexton
    Donald Sexton

    This was a couple of vehicles from Storm & Wastewater personnel (that day I observed four personnel each with a vehicle) perpetrating the twice per month street sweeping scam issuing clandestine citations. Effective use of their time for pillaging & pilfering that indulges the kleptocracy while the infrastructure deteriorates yet into which coffers & whose pockets do those funds drain? I have another picture & video of their activities. When I asked them how they could take advantage of citizens like that when the street sweeping causes deterioration (asphalt leaching, paint removal, ignores litter, ...)  more than any supposed benefit, the response was that I did nothing & provided no benefit for anybody during my USN career because he had observed the supposed laziness of military personnel.

    Gives you an idea of how the city personnel really consider the military personnel (active/retirees/veterans) instead of the ubiquitous hypocrisy & propaganda beside the evidence of injury, injustice, negligence, exploitation, persecution, theft, torture, & terrorism that I've endured. Despotism, kleptocracy, & corruption are easy to detect & reveal when experiencing the reality. These aren't the only sordid methods that kleptocracy reaps ill-gotten gains that imposes disparity & hardship while impeding productivity. Where is the accountability?

    Beside those issues, what was done with the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act funds? So much operation & maintenance actions along with other expenses that cities, counties, & states have relied upon the Federal dole for general budget matters while hoarding to fill their own coffers, line their own pockets, & promote their own self-interests that it has been past time to end the undeserved indulgences.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Dear City,

    It's called PREVENTIVE MAINTENANCE.

    Signed,

    Common Sense

    William Charles
    William Charles

    Why isn't this Cory Briggs character in jail for his constant fleecing of the public for his personal gain?!

    John Porter
    John Porter subscriber

    This is going to be entertaining.  Mission Valley should be completely submerged this winter.  Maybe they should issue life preservers to the customers.  Business as usual downtown....

    Frank Landis
    Frank Landis subscriber

    Speaking as an environmentalist who did comment on the City's stormwater management EIR many years ago, I'd add a couple of things.


    One is that the City's stormwater EIR sucked, in the sense that it was badly done, had a lot of faulty data, and was fairly destructive (they wanted to bulldoze access wherever and not think to hard about what they were bulldozing). Nonetheless, it got passed, so they've got the master EIR to tier off  new projects from.  Then very little happened for years.  That's on the city.


    Another is that there's a plethora of storm channel projects that just showed up in the last month.  I'm not planning on commenting on them, because I tend to agree that channel work needs to be done, and the damage from flooding can be worse than the damage from cleaning out channels and fixing access roads into them.  In this case, I'd put the blame for the planning delay squarely on MAYOR FAULCONER, because that massively rushed stadium EIR flooded City Planning this summer, delaying for months everyone who had to deal with planning issues, from the environmentalists to the consultants and developers (this based on talking to people on all sides--we all agreed on this issue).


    It's worth remembering that Faulconer was a mayor who came in on the promise of fixing infrastructure, but when push came to shove, he abandoned that notion to go play with the NFL, and now the City is trying to blame others.


    As for Tijuana River, it's a national estuary because the rest have been built up.  The kind of wild clearance Bilbray's proposing has been happening all over its watershed, especially on the Mexican side, and it's one reason it floods so badly.  I'm not sure more bulldozing is the solution there.

    Just in general, I wish City planning would do a better job.  Over the years, I've heard complaints from former workers that working there was like getting a forced lobotomy, from developers that they're incredibly inefficient at processing stuff, from environmentalists that they can't be trusted to be honest, and that they tend to hide problems that can be easily dealt with, and I've seen them make mistake after mistake after mistake, and in some cases, to not fix issues even when there's no political or other cost to doing the right thing. It's really frustrating.  Doing a good job won't stop the conflicts, but then again, the laws are set up so that public conflicts can be resolved publicly.  Trying to sweep conflicts under the rug by hiding stuff only makes things worse when they do emerge.




    Craig Anderson
    Craig Anderson

    @Frank Landis  This seems like a pretty rational comment, except why can't stop the blame game.  Blaming the Mayor for the City being broke for more than a decade is like blaming the ocean for being dirty:  it didn't get that way by itself.  We need to look in the mirror, Humans put the debris and trash in the channels, and out cars put the oil and brake contamination on the roads (yes, even the Teslas).  There will only be losers if we can't get this done.  Who sounds more reasonable in this, Gibson or Briggs?  Gibson seems ready to balance the need for safety with protecting the critters, why don't we let him do his job?

    Frank Landis
    Frank Landis subscriber

    @Craig Anderson @Frank Landis To repeat my above comment, I'm letting the City do its job with regards to storm drains, in that I'm not doing anything to impede their emergency clearance projects.  While I'm an environmentalist with an agenda, I'm perfectly aware that infrastructure damage doesn't really benefit anyone, including both me and the organisms I'm trying to protect.


    So far as I'm concerned, Mayor Faulconer has more than enough political mojo to brush off criticism about the stadium deal from little pipsqueaks like me.  However, what I hope his office DOES learn is that actions have consequences.  If one of the consequences of the 2015 rush on the stadium is preventable flooding in 2016, rather trying to blame  environmentalists like me for something we had no part in, I'd rather this turned out to be a "lessons learned" moment, where people like the Mayor admit that they shouldn't have taken so much energy away from fixing infrastructure in the first place.  In the long run, that will help the City a lot more than trying to attach blame.

    Mike
    Mike subscriber

    Nice article. Great coverage of the situation that has been glossed over by other news outlets. The city is like the failing student who did no homework but is now begging the professor for some extra credit work at the end of the semester.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Issues like this are similar to the problems of crumbling infrastructure. They require planning and steady attention, and they cost money. More importantly though, they are unseen issues, until they become emergencies. Politicians, especially in an era of term limits, tend to focus on the here and now. Spending money on infrastructure and unseen maintenance gets no one elected, especially when compared to erecting new buildings or funding new programs. As for blaming environmental regulations, when is the last time anyone heard a politician say, "I blew it. I should have directed my staff to plan for this, but I didn't." If you want to build a house, you have to get permits from the city. If the city wants to clear waterways, it has to get permits from the state/feds. Neither one happens overnight.

    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    @Chris Brewster Story excerpt:

    “…The city did some channel maintenance along the Sorrento Creek this year. It took nearly two years to get permission. Once it was approved, it took only 18 days to remove 285 truckloads of material from the concrete channel. That actual work cost $250,000, said Bill Harris, a spokesman for the city storm water program. But the permits and environmental mitigation cost $2 million….”

    Rather than view as: “…"I blew it. I should have directed my staff to plan for this,…”

    Another view: that government is the problem, not the solution?

    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    @Chris Brewster Perhaps a more useful response is that it might be best to “change the law” so that removal of debris from engineered drainage channels is automatically allowed, noting that concrete drainage channels are not a natural part of the environment but are created by intent for public safety.  i.e. applying common sense.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Wood: Concrete drainage channels are created for public safety only in the sense that they are created to allow development in flood prone areas. A consequence of developing in flood prone areas is the need to mitigate in accordance with existing environmental regulations. I appreciate that Mr. Harris states that the permits and environmental mitigation cost $2 million. I also appreciate that the author of this piece appears to have taken him at his word (i.e. not fact checked this assertion). I have no idea actually and this story doesn't help with that aspect. Bottom line: Mission Valley, for example, is a flood plain. A decision was made many years ago to allow development of Mission Valley. There are well known regulations which are intended to protect the environment. Thus, the decision to allow Mission Valley to be developed came with a cost, which is to mitigate flooding in accordance with environmental regulations. If the city was not prepared to shoulder that cost and prepare responsibly for flooding, it should not have allowed the development to take place. In any case, the history of San Diego is replete with ignorance of flooding in dry periods and declarations of emergencies in wet periods, mostly due to foreseeable consequences. I know. I've overseen countless rescues in flooding throughout the city (and county). 

    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    @Chris Brewster  Mr. Brewster: Actually the story was about Carmel, not Mission Valley and my point was that invoking environmental reviews to allow clearing debris from drainage channels seems pointless both in raising the cost of the work and introducing delay.  Even if you would like San Diego to be a more rural agricultural community it is not, so government should address it’s responsibilities.  


    The argument is that environmental reviews should not be required to clear drainage channels since environmental concerns were part of the original design and granting of permits.  If the law requires such it should be changed to be more in line with - “common sense”.  


    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Wood: I respectfully disagree that the story is about Carmel Valley. That was an example invoked, but this is a county-wide problem. Regardless, I have no problem with responsible parties (e.g. city leaders) proposing modifications to environmental laws related to clearing drainage channels. You may well be right that they need to be less stringent. However, the time to do that is long before the modifications are needed. If leaders fail to propose legal modifications and fail to clear the channels in advance, knowing the time it will take to either change the regulations or clear the channels in light of those regulations is negligent in my view. 

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    When a developer builds next to a creek or river and demands that the city spend its own money to keep it from flooding, isn't that an example of privatizing profits and socializing losses?


    Maybe the city should charge the flood insurance of properties in flood zones to keep the waterways clear. Why should people who wisely chose to live on higher ground have to help pay for that?