Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

La Jolla Cove Stinks. What Are The Options For Cleaning Up The Bluffs?

Seals, sea lions and sea birds inhabit the rocks along the sandstone cliffs at La Jolla Cove.
Susan Murphy
Seals, sea lions and sea birds inhabit the rocks along the sandstone cliffs at La Jolla Cove.
Options For Cleaning Up La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove Stinks. What Are The Options For Cleaning Up The Bluffs?
GUESTSDave Gibson, executive director San Diego Regional Water Quality Control BoardSerge Dedina, Ph.D. is the executive director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of "Saving the Gray Whale" and "Wild Sea."

CAVANAUGH: Everyone agrees, bird and sea mammal excrement is making La Jolla cove stink. But what people don't agree on is what to do about it! The latest conventional wisdom on the topic says a fix is possible but state regulators are slowing down the process. State regulators say they're still waiting to see a plan, any plan from the City of San Diego to mitigate the stench. And they say there are several things that can be done without a state permit. Joining me to talk are my guests, Dave Gibson, executive director of the regional water quality control board. Welcome to the program. GIBSON: Thank you for having me today. CAVANAUGH: Doctor Serge Dedina joins us, executive director of wild coast and international conservation team. Welcome to the program. DEDINA: Thank you very much. CAVANAUGH: Dave, first of all, let's back up for people who are not familiar or haven't kept up with this story. What do you know about why this bird and marine mammal smell has gotten so bad? GIBSON: Backing off further than that, are the emission of the water board is to insure water's proper allocation for the present and future generations. And those uses include the Marine use of the water, are the cold and warm beneficial uses of rivers and streams. But it's also intended to protect the human uses. Recreation for example. The rec is walking along the shoreline there and enjoying the sights. When you're looking at this as the water board, we're looking at it from what needs to be done to protect water quality and the beneficial uses that are being experienced there. In this case, the waters off La Jolla have been designated in the 1980s as a area of special biological significance. Scripps institute of oceanography, for example, has an exemption. CAVANAUGH: We know there has been this smell problem for a while. It has by all accounts been increasing lately. Do we know why that is? GIBSON: Well, the most likely reason for that is that the cliffs were fenced off from the public because they're a hazardous area to be walking on. And when you have that type of area next to the ocean, sometimes marine mammals, the seals and sea lions will begin to use that water. And sealions are particularly fickle. They will come on mass, use the area, then move off to another area. It seems that during the last couple of year, there were more sea lions. And I walked to this site a week ago to see and smell for myself. And I counted not less 75 sea lions perched up on the bluffs well out of the splash zone. So if they're doing their business there out of the splash zone, it's likely to linger longer. A few yards south and north, you did not smell an odor. CAVANAUGH: Let me get Serge into this conversation. Since you look at the whole coast of San Diego County, is this a problem that other areas along the coast have? DEDINA: Well, just to back up like Dave said, when I look at La Jolla, I look at one of the richest marine and coastal environments in Southern California, if not the United States. And that's been recognized since the 1970s as some sort of underwater park or marine life refuge. Now we have the new state protected area in southern La Jolla. So La Jolla is a rich area. And that attracts a whole plethora of wildlife. That's the good thing about La Jolla. And that has generated lots of people coming to La Jolla and a thriving ecotourism economy. That's the good thing. Obviously when you have that type of wildlife, you could have problems that upset people who have businesses around the area. We have the good, and sometimes we have to deal with some of the problems. But when we look at overall San Diego County, part of the reason why so many marine mammals might be attracted to La Jolla is because of the degradation of other coastal areas in San Diego. And wildcoast also works with the regional board trying to deal with the Tijuana river where we had millions of gallons of sewage water spill into the ocean this past week. CAVANAUGH: The problem in La Jolla has made national headlines. The story line seems to have shifted from the stench itself to a resolution. Sherri Lightner sent a letter to the governor last month, she began it by saying La Jolla finds itself in a morass of state regulations, and it stinks, literally. What state regulations is she referring to? GIBSON: Probably the state regulations are also superseeded by the federal regulations. If there were to be something sprayed onto the rocks and into the water, they would need to get a clean water act authorization. And it's the steps leading to that authorization that they're referring to. But those steps are intended not simply to protect the waters and the Marine life but also the people themselves from legal liability. We want to make sure that if somebody wants to do something there to improve the air quality, they're not creating a liability for themselves and the public. And there's also a basic safety issue. Those are highly erodible bluffs. If you're spraying something onto them regularly, how fast are they going to be eroding, and at what point will you need to do some reenforcement? Or will workers be threatened as they're out there harassing marine wildlife? I wouldn't want to get near some of those sea lions myself. CAVANAUGH: Right, right has the City of San Diego submitted any kind of plan for cleaning up the bluff to your office? GIBSON: As of now, they have not. And I think it's important that we have an opportunity to discuss with the parties interested in this all the facts they can bring to bare. We have to base this on findings of fact, not goes work, but findings of fact. And that's especially true for an ASBS. The board can measure a permit, and we went on on a limb to do it for the community organization in La Jolla for fireworks. It was an incidental discharge, of limited duration and scope, and even if water quality objectives were momentarily exceeded, we would authorize that discharge. That was appealed by the state board. If we wanted to do the same thing here for -- to clean up the site there at La Jolla cove, to remove some of the odor issues, we would have to base it on sound findings of fact that it would not cause a water quality issue of lasting duration and that it would not be an issue with wildlife protection acts. Although we don't enforce those, we work with other agencies to make sure our purposes are not crossed. CAVANAUGH: Assembly woman Atkins sent us a statement which reads in part "that my staff is meeting with council member Leitner's office today. We need to find a balance between protecting this environmentally sensitive area and supporting the businesses and residents. Once the city has finalized its proposed plan for resolving the situation, I will make it a priority to work with the relevant state agencies to expedite the process." What options does the city have to address this problem -- what could be done without a permit? GIBSON: Probably very little. If they're able to comply with our waivers of waste discharge requirements, as long as they're in compliance with local ordinances and basic BMPs, housekeeping, they may not need a permit. So it has been alleged that going out there and sweeping the rocks might be done. That might be a violation. I would really want to make sure we had a chance to talk with those persons before they did that, especially if it was going to be an ongoing activity. There are other laws which are of concern here. The city's ordinance prohibiting people from accessing the cliffs, the Marine mammal protection act. Let's not make things more difficult than they need to be by violating those laws before you actually get a permit. But if they needed a permit, there are permits and then there are permits. Some permits are far more complex than others. There say public process. So there are people who feel that the seals and sea lions and birds have a right to enjoy those rocks, and the odor is the result of an inappropriate expectation of that type of an environment. They would have an opportunity to be heard by the board as well before the board made a decision. Of we try to work with people well in advance of urgency so we have a chance to vet all the issues and have a chance for the board to consider the matter based on sound science and facts. CAVANAUGH: Down if the environmental community has a preferred solution to this stench problem? DEDINA: Well, I think you're going to see some on the pro wildlife and animal rights saying that you shouldn't touch the area at all. I think Mr. Gibson's outlined a fairly reasonable process to go through. I think it's important for the City of San Diego to work with the regional board and other agencies to come up with some sort of reasonable plan. And I think it's up to the regional board to evaluate that plan and make sure it would work or not. And there wouldn't be, as someone who swims in La Jolla cove and body surfs around the corner, we want to make sure that we're not polluting the water there and not having more of an adverse impact on wildlife than you would if you didn't do anything. So I think those are critical issues to be evaluated. And this is a fairly unique and complex issue, and a lot more complex than a lot of issues we deal with in such a small area. So it's definitely going to require a lot more study. I'd like to tell you that I immediately would know what to do, what the best preferred solution would be. But definitely wildcoast understands that some of the business owners and folks in La Jolla are concerned and they should be. But No. 2, that we've got to make sure we do everything we can to preserve those federally and state-protected wildlife and animal populations and do everything we can to actually continue to maintain La Jolla as one of the world's richest marine environments. CAVANAUGH: One last question, Dave. Serge made a point when he answered the first question, and he talked about the surge spill that we're trying to deal with in the south bay. And basically sort of making the point that the smell from the Marine mammals and the birds in La Jolla cove maybe is not that much of a big deal outside of a very limited area. Does the water quality control board also have bigger issues on its plate? GIBSON: It most certainly does. We have been spending the last year working on our 7-year strategic practical vision. In San Diego bay, the board has just adopted a landmark cleanup and abatement order that will remove more BCBs, from shipyards. It was 20 years in the making. But we have 33 other sites in San Diego bay that need to be addressed where there are toxic pollutant, and public health is at risk at eating them in the fish when they come up to the food chain. And La Jolla is not the only place with an odor issue. There is a serious odor issue in Santee in the river, it's locked oxygen all summer because of the inputs of fertilizer during the winter and the dry accept. That condition of anoxia has killed the fish. So we've lost uses. Santee has done an excellent job in their storm water program. But this is an ongoing issue. And because there are no fish in that segment of the river, we now have mosquito problems. And they are applying larvicides. That's something we want to make sure we use our authority to control storm water run off. So we have many issues. CAVANAUGH: Yes, you do have many issues on your plate. I guess the next chapter in this is going to be seeing what kind of a plan the city submits to the various agencies to clean up whatever is going on in La Jolla cove.

The bluffs around La Jolla Cove have long been fenced off to people, allowing cormorants, seagulls and pelicans to have the place to themselves.

Everyone agrees, the unintended consequence -- bird and sea mammal excrement -- is making La Jolla cove stink.

This problem has made national headlines, and now the story line has shifted from the stench to the regulations that are preventing a solution.


But people don't agree what to do about it. The latest conventional wisdom on the topic says a fix is possible, but state regulators are slowing down the process.

Dave Gibson, executive director San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, told KPBS no one from the city of San Diego has yet reached out to him but said "we're always willing to work with people at the beginning stages of an issue like this."

"If they are contemplating needing a permit to spray something on the rocks, our doors are open to them to meet with them to discuss what we would have to do to develop the findings of fact we would need to base a permit on," he said.

Gibson said state and federal regulations, including the Clean Water Act, puts strict control over what the city can do at the cove.

"If they were going to be spraying something on the rocks, they would have to have a permit from us," he said.


He said the state also prohibits "discharges" into water, except in special circumstances.

But Gibson said if the poop is scooped up or swept up on shore instead of into the ocean, that might not require a permit.

Potential bluff cleaners would have to be careful not to get too close to the seals and sea lions, he said.

Gibson said Pier 39 in San Francisco faces a similar problem, but hasn't done much of anything about it.

Corrected: July 14, 2024 at 4:24 PM PDT
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.