Updated at 4:22 p.m. Feb. 22, 2013
Dredging in the Tijuana River Valley has effectively been halted until this fall after an environmental group’s appeal kept storm-channel work from starting Friday.
San Diego city crews were going to “scrape the banks … pull out a bunch of Riparian habitat that is housing birds and other species,” said attorney Marco Gonzalez of the Encinitas-based Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, or CERF.
Jonathan Heller, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, said the city performed what is called a substantial conformance review for the Tijuana River Valley under the master storm water permit.
“Yesterday, that SCR was appealed … to the Planning Commission,” Heller said via email. “The administrative appeal effectively stays the dredging until the appeal is heard.”
Gonzalez doesn’t think an appeal to the San Diego Planning Commission and City Council will come before March 15, a deadline because of bird-breeding issues.
Filed by Livia Borak of CERF, the Feb. 21 appeal [attached as PDF] says that San Diego was wrong in determining that the Tijuana River Pilot Channel and Smuggler’s Gulch maintenance work conformed with the programatic environmental impact report for the Master Storm Water System Maintenance Program.
“The PEIR is currently being challenged because of its inadequate analysis and mitigation measures for impacts to biological and water quality resources,” Borak wrote. “The water quality white paper was rejected by the [state] Coastal Commission and should not be relied upon for water quality impacts.
The group said biological surveys were not conducted to account for spring-blooming annual plants, migratory bird species and nocturnal wildlife.
“Impacts to jurisdictional wetlands and waters will not be adequately mitigated,” she wrote.
Gonzalez—better known for his efforts against July Fourth fireworks over water—told Patch: “The fact is, the city botched it”—submitting its application late and not giving enough public notice.
“They basically bumbled their way through the permitting,” he said, “and ended up too late.”
The reality, he said, is that “I don’t expect there to be any big problem on the ground,” and work won’t start until fall.
Work to clear the Tijuana River Pilot Channel and Smuggler’s Gulch was to have begun Friday, said Bill Harris of the San Diego Storm Water Department.
This was supposed to have been done by Feb. 15 to accommodate bird breeding seasons, but new permits allowed dredging until March 15, Harris said earlier this week.
On Tuesday, John Gabaldon of the Tijuana River Valley Equestrian Association (TRVEA), a group of horse owners and local residents, said: “Boy, it’s kind of scary when that rain starts. So here comes another storm, and we’re all holding our breath again.”
Flooding has been relatively minor this wet season, Gabaldon said, but a lack of dredging “could have cost human life, animal life and what multigenerational families have invested their life savings in—and we think that’s a real shame.”
The area has not been dredged since 2010, according to court documents.
CERF has sued San Diego about its overall storm-channel cleaning program, and mediation efforts with the city are scheduled next month, Gonzalez said.
“We’ve been butting heads with the city to get them to put together a mitigation plan that actually accounts for the impacts that happen in the channels,” he said.
Historically, people didn’t pay attention to such issues, he said.
“They just [said]: ‘Oh well. It’s just conveying storm water, so who cares?’ But the problem is that as we overdevelop our urban areas, oftentimes the stream beds—which is what they really are—are some of the only habitat areas in our cities. So we have to get in there and actually protect them.”
Other environmental groups have supported dredging since this gets rid of trash and tires that foul the ocean.
Paloma Aguirre, border coastal program manager for WiLDCOAST* on the U.S.-Mexico Border Commission, backs the dredging.
“WiLDCOAST fully supports the dredging because not doing it poses a threat to human life,” Aguirre said Friday.
Gonzalez acknowledges that environmental groups including the Surfrider Foundation don’t always see eye-to-eye on Tijuana River Valley dredging.
But he said: “We’re much more on the same page than we are on a different page.”
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of thsi story incorrectly said Aguirre was a former employee of WiLDCOAST.