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San Diego's Chollas Creek May Get An Environmental Boost From New State Rules

Chollas Creek is pictured, April 22, 2015.
Nicholas McVicker
Chollas Creek is pictured, April 22, 2015.
San Diego's Chollas Creek May Get An Environmental Boost From New State Rules
San Diego's Chollas Creek May Get An Environmental Boost From New State Rules
California is implementing tough new regulations designed to get trash out of the state's waterways.

Leonard Smith has been cleaning carpets in Logan Heights for 65 years. His National Avenue shop snuggles up against Chollas Creek.


"We've been down here since there was nothing here, and now you can look around and see what there is here," Smith said.

The creek slips between Logan Heights and Shelltown and under Interstates 5 and 15. Like the surrounding neighborhoods, the waterway has a bit of a reputation.

"Just to find trash, all you've got to do is look and you see how ubiquitous it is in this stream," said Travis Pritchard, program director at the clean water group San Diego Coastkeeper.

The creek bed runs from East County through central San Diego, and it finds San Diego Bay near the 32nd Street Naval Station. Trash flows upstream every time the tide goes up.

"Because this stream is a trapezoidal, non vegetated channel, it really gives us an opportunity to see the trash," Pritchard said.


The trash makes the creek unappealing and it also fouls more than just Chollas Creek.

"About 80 percent of the marine debris that we find in the ocean comes from inland sources and this is where those inland sources are," Pritchard said. "It gets washed down from our watersheds, into the river, and then flows out to the ocean or bay."

That's why clean water advocates are encouraged by new state trash rules approved in April. State regulators are developing rules that require all municipalities develop plans to capture or divert trash in waterways.

The water board's Johanna Westin said the effort is modeled after a successful seven-year trash project in Los Angeles.

"It's not just a Los Angeles problem. It's not just a coastal problem. It's a statewide problem," Westin said. "We're taking lessons that we've learned in L.A. and applying that across the state."

Each city gets a chance to tailor its plan to control trash coming from commercial or residential areas.

San Diego city spokesman Bill Harris said the new rules will divert attention from efforts to reduce pollution like bacteria and heavy metals.

"We see that if we have to go after trash early, meaning before the deadlines of the other regulations we've got, we're going to be building structure," Harris said. "We're going to be building fence inserts to our drains that work marginally at best, according to our research. But then are they going to be superseded by different treatment methods that are going to be more holistic?"

The city will likely have to install traps that filter storm water and keep trash out of gutters, Harris said. Nets might be needed in flowing streams.

"We want trash out of the waterways. We want to do everything we can to get trash out of the waterways. But we also need to make sure that all of our regulations align so we're acting efficiently, spending taxpayer money wisely, and getting the biggest bang for the buck," Harris said.

The local rules are still being developed, but Harris worries the city will end up spending money on temporary fixes.

But Beto Vasquez, who has lived near Chollas Creek his entire life, sees it differently.

He knows the waterway isn't what it could be, but Vasquez also thinks about the potential. That potential has already been realized along a short stretch of the creek in Encanto.

"I know a little bit more upstream from here at the Market Creek Plaza, they have kind of already tapped into a little bit and tried to incorporate that part of the wildlife for people's enjoyment," Vasquez said.

A multi-million dollar restoration near the Jacobs Center created a more natural park-like environment there. Plants hide the trash that's so visible just a few miles downstream. But even that trash would be gone if the new rules work.

Vasquez said it is all about the follow through.

"It really does need some teeth into it," Vasquez said. "Just policy on its own, or ordinances or laws aren't just going to work if they're not being enforced, if they're not coupled with action. If the community itself does not buy into the idea it's going to be short lived."

Vasquez said years of good intentions have fallen short, when it comes to restoring the creek. However, he thinks taking trash out of the equation may be enough to get residents to see the possibilities.