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San Diego Leaders Call For State of Emergency To Clear Storm Channels

The City Council's Environment Committee Wednesday unanimously called for the city of San Diego to declare a state of emergency to help get storm channels cleared before the brunt of El Niño storms arrive.

The committee members pointed to Tuesday night's lightning-punctuated rainfall as an example of what this winter's climate conditions might bring. According to the National Weather Service, 1.09 inches of rain fell at Lindbergh Field, a record for the date and already surpassing the November average.

Because of environmental concerns, it's a laborious process for San Diego to acquire the permits needed to remove vegetation and debris from the city's 133 miles of storm channels. At a news conference before the committee meeting, Councilman David Alvarez said the State Regional Water Board can take two years to process permit applications for scheduled storm channel maintenance.


In emergency situations, such as when a major storm is imminent, the city can go to the Army Corps of Engineers to get the necessary permits, the councilman said. However, that has to happen a few days before a storm hits.

He said an emergency declaration could help the city obtain a blanket permit to clear out the most clogged channels well in advance of dangerous storms.

"This work needs to start as soon as possible," Alvarez said. "I believe the city is capable of doing much more."

The motion passed by the committee also calls on city staff to prepare the necessary permit applications for the water board, Army Corps and other applicable agencies; have council members notify city staff about any specific areas of concern; and encourage Gov. Jerry Brown to issue a statewide declaration — which could expedite the permitting process.

David Gibson of the water board said the governor is considering such a declaration, but it's unknown when it would be issued. He said the agency has expedited city requests in the past and invited San Diego officials to submit permit applications.


The proposed emergency declaration was met with some reluctance from the mayor's office because of previous litigation.

"Five years ago, the city declared a state of emergency to clear the Tijuana River Valley and was sued, resulting in years of litigation that postponed maintenance work," mayoral spokesman Matt Awbrey said.

"Doing so again could open up taxpayers to more lawsuits, fines and actually end up delaying work further," Awbrey said. "We are unable to move faster than state and federal regulations will allow, so the mayor is asking regulators for relief so we can take all necessary actions to prepare San Diego in the event of an El Niño storm event."

Alvarez and committee member Marti Emerald said the city might get sued, and lose, but in the meantime would be protecting property.

"The city is already paying through the teeth because of property damage (from flooding)," Emerald said.

Kris McFadden, director of the Transportation and Stormwater Department, said the biggest problem wasn't the financial damages that were assessed, but the fact that litigation stops channel clearing work.

He said city crews cleared out six channels in the most recent fiscal year, including two in flood-prone areas — Murphy Canyon Creek near Qualcomm Stadium and Soledad Creek in Sorrento Valley.

Work has resumed in the Tijuana River Valley, and Alvarado Creek was cleared out recently, McFadden said. Councilman Scott Sherman said at the news conference that the creek, which is in his district, was draining much better during Tuesday night's rain than before the work was done.

"The city is doing everything it can to prepare for El Niño within the boundaries of state and federal environmental laws," Awbrey said.

According to Alvarez, 25 channels are at risk for flooding. The 10 worst, according to his office, are:

• Via de la Bandola in San Ysidro

• Engineer Road in Kearney Mesa

• Pomerado Road in Rancho Bernardo

• Washington Street in Hillcrest and Little Italy

• Parkside in Paradise Hills

• Section Four of Auburn Creek in City Heights

• Cottonwood Channel in Shelltown

• Chollas Creek in the College Area

• Red River Drive and Conestoga Drive in Allied Gardens

• South Chollas Creek in Southcrest