If the Tijuana River Valley isn't cleared of debris by early fall, horse owners and ranchers fear they could have a repeat of last year's catastrophic flooding.
Forecasters are predicting El Niño conditions that could mean a wet, stormy winter for San Diego. The Tijuana River and its levees and flood-control channels remain clogged after moderate storms in December flooded nearby ranches and farms. The flood killed four horses and nearly a dozen goats, and ruined crops, nurseries full of plants, and barns full of hay, equipment and vehicles.
San Diego officials are working on a multiyear permit to clean up the sediment and debris in the river but say the process is complicated and involves more than just the Tijuana River Valley.
“We have attempted to find a solution to this problem because it's happening all over the city and the county,” said Jennifer Nichols Kearns, a spokeswoman for the city's Storm Water Department. “This is a master plan for a master permit to allow us to go in at any point in time, anytime there is flooding, and clean up.”
Meetings tonight and tomorrow will allow the public to view and comment on an environmental study of the Master Storm Water System Maintenance Program. The master plan will guide maintenance of all of its storm-water facilities, including natural and concrete drainage channels.
The environmental study does not address costs, and it is unclear who will pay for the cleanup. Comments may be submitted on the environmental study until Aug. 22.
Nichols Kearns said the Tijuana River Valley is a priority.
“It's considered a high-risk area,” she said. “We're very concerned about it. We know it's a sensitive issue. Last year was horrific and horrendous.”
Locals got hit from all sides Dec. 17 as clogged city and county flood-control channels, the river and its levee system diverted floodwaters onto their properties. Horse owners and emergency workers swam in gushing water while making dramatic rescues of horses and other animals.
Bruce McIntyre with Helix Environmental, a consultant working on the environmental study and master permit, said the city is trying to find ways to maintain channels while reducing impacts to wetlands habitat.
McIntyre said the process has taken a long time because several agencies are involved, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Maintenance has been done on a case-by-case basis, but McIntyre said the agencies pushed for a better process. A master plan would give the city a 20-year permit and allow the agencies annual input on any cleanup impacts.
John Gabledon, president of the Tijuana River Valley Equestrian Association, said he was told the permit might be issued in November or December. He said that might be too late.
“Meteorologists say an El Niño could bring normal rain, which is more than we had last year and we still flooded,” Gabledon said.
Gabledon, who boards three horses at Suncoast Farms at Hollister Street and Monument Road, said San Diego has cleaned out part of a channel but the hydrology — the way the water moves in the area — has not changed.
“The Tijuana River pilot channel is even fuller and higher than last year,” Gabledon said. “I wouldn't say horse owners are nervous, but many are taking steps to get their horses out fast.”
Emma Spurling and her husband, Mike, own the 40-acre Suncoast Farms. She said the December flooding cost them more than $10,000.
“I have an emergency plan,” Spurling said. “My clients know where their horses are to go. We have temporary corrals on high ground. We have a neighbor who's offered her arena.”
Gabledon said if it rains as much or more than last year, it could be devastating.
“There would definitely be loss of animal life and possibly human life,” Gabledon said. “We'd like to prevent that.”
Storm Water Maintenance public meetings
When: 6 to 7 p.m. today and tomorrow
Today: Valencia Park/Malcolm X Library, 5148 Market St., San Diego
Tomorrow: Nobel Recreation Center, 8810 Judicial Drive, San Diego
Agenda: Information provided on maintenance program; comments accepted.
By Janine Zúñiga (Union Tribune)