Wets up?

by Carolyn Chase

  emember the "good old days" when drought was the major water problem? Farmers used to pray for rain. Now, many others are praying for relief. With El Niño bearing down on us, all of a sudden it's flooding that threatens. Whether feast or famine in matters water-related, something's always mucked up.

When it rains - El Niño or not - flooding is a problem. California is among the seven states that have had the greatest loss of life and property due to flooding. What else do all these states have in common? They all have lost over 80 percent of their wetlands. California having lost 91 percent, leads the nation in paving, building and destroying wetlands. Los Angeles has lost 95 percent of its wetlands and San Diego is not far behind. We have only an estimated 5 to 17 percent of our natural wetlands remaining.

It seems that because of our enviable desert climate, we've gotten used to putting things like buildings and condos into wetlands and floodplains. But channeling of creeks and rivers and the use of walls and berms that narrow natural floodplains only increases the accumulation and volume of runoff, creating more problems downstream. As this happens, water quality suffers, natural flood and erosion control and pollution filtration are reduced and ground water recharge areas are lost.

There's hardly a time when it rains that it doesn't flood in parts of Mission Valley. Tijuana River Valley residents continue to call for removal of illegal fill. During hurricane Nora earlier this year, businesses in Sorrento Valley experienced flooding with just one inch of rain! With pavement and development increasing in the Peñasquitos and Sorrento Creek watershed throughout the years, flood conditions in the valley have gotten progressively worse and have led to lawsuits against the City. The city is supposed to manage development upstream so that downstream neighbors don't suffer flooding. Seems it isn't quite working out.

Wetlands and their buffers are critical environmental infrastructure. Wetlands are lands where the water table usually is at or near the surface or where the land is covered by shallow water. Wetlands catch and hold floodwaters and runoff, recharge ground water and act as natural filters to cleanse water of impurities. They not only help filter sediment and break down pollution, they also provide flood and erosion control FOR FREE - if left in place.

When it rains, street pollution along with pesticides and herbicides from yards and farms wash down toward our waterways. Wetlands act like sponges, slowing down runoff. They help absorb, filter out and break down pollution. In addition, they have organisms in the soils that help break down organic chemicals. This helps keep our water supplies clean and makes our ocean safer to swim in. The riparian areas along our streams can absorb and utilize over 90% of the fertilizers in the runoff that would otherwise contaminate the waterways or end up polluting beaches.

In San Diego, wetlands make up less than 0.5 percent of our land mass. Yet, they provide essential habitat for almost half of the area's threatened and endangered species. In addition to their natural attributes, wetlands help create an environment that supports tourism and draws clean business to the region.

Other wetland benefits include: aesthetics, increased values of adjacent properties, recreational opportunities (such as fishing, bird watching, hiking), and business opportunities such as the growing eco-tourism trade and commercial fishing. Seventy-five percent of all commercial fish, and fish caught for sport, depend upon wetlands at some point during their life cycles. One can readily understand why it is important to deliver cleaner water to the ocean estuaries and lagoons since they are the nurseries for many species of fish.

As we grow, wetlands along our streams and adjacent buffer areas will become critically important in dealing with pollution in urban runoff. As is stated in the San Diego Association of Governments "Regional Growth Management Strategy, Water Quality Element" (June 1997), "Maintenance of healthy waterways is important to the quality of life in the region including public health and safety, and economic prosperity." The report states that "local governments can help... reduce or prevent adverse impacts of urbanization on water quality..." by "protecting, enhancing, and restoring critical wetlands, streams, and ground water recharge areas...."

All of the above points seem to be lost on the mayor and some city council members. Recently, shenanigans downtown have been more directed at appeasing developers who don't get it. But there is some hope. The mayor has convened a Wetlands Working Group consisting of regulators, business representatives and environmentalists. If everyone can manage to remember what's at stake as San Diego heads for another wave of growth, we have a chance to score a win for both business and the environment. By implementing and enforcing a science-based watershed management plan, we could start to see a decrease in multi-billion dollar flood losses.

The protection of healthy ecosystems - and especially the few wetlands we have left - is necessary to preserve the special quality of life that San Diego offers. Along with flooded Sorrento Valley businesses, local environmental groups are calling for the city to protect our few remaining wetlands. It's critical for the region to move into a prevention mode rather than waiting to deal with problems after the fact when the costs have escalated and the damage done.