Updated at 8:32 a.m. Feb. 20, 2013
If weather permits, work to clear the Tijuana River Pilot Channel and Smuggler’s Gulch will begin 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 allow dredging until March 15, Harris said.
Heavy rain and river flow may temporarily stop dredging, but Harris is optimistic that rain starting Tuesday won’t prevent dredging Friday.
Whether tens of thousands of cubic yards of material can be removed in time—less than a month to go—may hinge on what is found when dredging begins.
“I can’t give an answer to how long it will takes because we don’t know what we’ll find underneath the sediment,” Harris said. “If we get in there and it’s sand, no trouble. But if we get in there and it’s all tires, that’s trouble.”
John Gabaldon is the president of the Tijuana River Valley Equestrian Association (TRVEA), a group of horse owners and local residents.
“Boy, it’s kind of scary when that rain starts,” he said Tuesday. “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.
“It’s a great area and the city’s risking it.”
The area has not been dredged since 2010, according to court documents.
Multiple lawsuits by the group San Diegans for Open Government have disputed Tijuana River Valley dredging projects over the past three years.
Courts allowed the city to clear the channels by emergency action in 2009 and 2010, but in fall 2011 a temporary restraining order was approved to stop operations until analysis of environmental impact and mitigation plans were completed.
A settlement was reached last October, but several permits following strict guidelines of the settlement were needed to move forward.
Action to start dredging began in November after the California Coastal Commission approved a five-year permit, but the city wasn’t ready to dredge until recently due to bureaucratic hurdles, Harris said.
“The delay came because of a process question, not a product question,” he said. “So in other words, no one disagreed with the need to do the work. It was hugely frustrating to the rest of us down there to have an esoteric discussion about the process.”
The need for more public notice and the deadline extension also caused delay.
“This is the first time in a long while we’ve done this as a straight permit application,” Harris said. “We went to every single regulatory agency and worked with the agencies to do it exactly as it needs to be done.”
Biologists, archaeologists and other professionals will monitor the project as it moves forward.
In the ecologically sensitive environment, permits to carry out dredging have to be approved by five government agencies: the Army Corps of Engineers, California Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board and the City of San Diego Development Services Department.
For emergencies when the river valley does flood, Gabaldon said, a few months ago TRVEA created a Twitter account @trvwater.
The account was set up after learning from previous disasters.
“We learned things in wildfires when bringing horses in from burning areas and during the last floods how critical it is to get info out there and how scant it can be when it counts,” Gabaldon said.
“So we’re trying to get the equestrian community to get a resource for what’s going on during regional catastrophic events.”
The purpose of the account is to keep people in the river valley informed, let people know how their horses are doing and where flooding has occurred.
“We’re hoping it brings a lot of relief to the ranch owners who are just flooded with calls,” he said. “We’re hoping we can put enough reporters in there on a micro-level so we can all respond better.”