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San Diego Bay Embodies a Dual Personality

A new list from the state Water Resources Control Board shows several bodies ...

Photo by Roland Lizarondo / KPBS

Above: A new list from the state Water Resources Control Board shows several bodies of water in San Diego County are severely polluted, including parts of San Diego Bay.


San Diego Bay will see significantly more and bigger ships coming in and out over the next few years. So who’s responsible for monitoring growth and traffic on the waters of the Bay?

San Diego Bay will see significantly more and bigger ships coming in and out over the next few years. KPBS reporter Alison St John takes us down to the Embarcadero to pose the question of who’s responsible for monitoring growth and traffic on the waters of the Bay.

San Diego Bay is one of the region’s best assets. Walking along the Embarcadero downtown, you can see gleaming white cruise ships moored on one side and looming gray war ships moored on the other. In between are the commercial pleasure craft and private yachts. It’s an interesting mixture of serious business and pure pleasure.

The Navy, which has nearly 60 ships home ported in San Diego Bay, says it’s planning to expand the fleet by almost 20 ships over the next five years. Meanwhile the Port District has expanded the cruise ship industry even faster than expected, and now brings in about 300 cruise ships to the bay every year. Those ships are getting bigger and the number is increasing.

The Bay is part of the public tidelands, so who keeps an eye on the growing and possibly competing activity on San Diego Bay?

“Initially,” says Paul Thayer, head of the State Lands Commission, “the Commission was given the responsibility by the California legislature to manage all of underwater properties in California. So that would include bays and off-shore regions out to three miles.”

However, over the years, Thayer says the state legislature has granted much of the urban area of this underwater land to local ports for management.

The San Diego Port District manages San Diego’s tidelands, but focuses on the waterfront around the bay rather than the actual waters of the bay.

Thayer says neither the Port District nor the State Lands Commission have jurisdiction over traffic on the bay. “We generally don’t get involved with navigation - regulating whether a ship can pass and re-pass over state lands. In fact, that’s a protected use.”

It’s the Coast Guard that is responsible for being the traffic cop on the Bay. Lieutenant Commander Mike Dolan is Chief of Waterways Management for the Coast Guard in San Diego.

“As part of our national defense mission” Dolan says, “the Coast Guard works with the Navy to provide security escorts for the high value Navy vessels, to basically keep recreational boating traffic out of the way, and to prevent a terrorist attack on these Navy vessels as they transit in and out of the port.”

In fact, Dolan says, just a couple of months ago, a group of jet skiers got too close to an aircraft carrier being escorted through the bay, and did not respond to repeated calls to move away. Dolan says the use of force – firing on the men – was narrowly avoided. He says it was a very close call.

These are the kind of encounters that could become more common as more large ships share the waters of the bay with pleasure craft and jet skiers.

Dolan says what happens out on the Bay is regulated by several overlapping local state and federal agencies.

“We’re very pleased with the way everyone in the bay cooperates and talks and has different forums on risks and safety factors that we’re seeing," Dolan says. "We try to pay attention to the trends and then we manage that cooperatively with everyone in the bay.”

Dolan says he is aware of the increased cruise ship traffic expected. However, in spite of the cooperative relationship between the agencies operating in the Bay, Dolan says he is not aware of the Navy’s plans to increase the number of home ported vessels by about a third over the next five years.

Mark Delaplane of the California Coastal Commission is responsible for conducting consistency reviews of federal plans that affect California’s coastal waters. But he also was surprised to hear of the Navy’s imminent expansion plans in San Diego Bay.

“Actually, I wasn’t aware of that.” he says.

Delaplane says, with the Navy’s increased focus on the security of their ships, it’s a legitimate concern what effect an increase in the fleet might have on the bay.

“There’s no sort of master plan for congestion in the bay” Delaplane says, “It’s a good question.”

With so many overlapping agencies, it’s less clear who is responsible for growth and development in the waters of the bay, as opposed to the tidelands around it. And it may be a challenge for the waters of the bay to contain both sides of San Diego’s growing dual personality: tourist haven and military stronghold.

Alison St John, KPBS news

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