Exactly what's wrong

by Carolyn Chase


Exactly what's wrong in city government was on flaming display last week when political favoritism and grandstanding took priority over fair process and facts. Two Mission Bay issues were heard before the Natural Resources and Culture Committee of the City Council being chaired by Juan Vargas. The first was whether or not the City Charter's 25% limit on leases in Mission Bay Park should apply to all leases (including non-profit acreage) or just commercial leases. The second was a report on the impacts to water quality of polluting marine engines.

Donna Frye, Clairemont native and clean water activist asked to read a letter from Judge and Mayoral candidate Dick Murphy. Vargas told her she could not read the letter on the Judge's behalf, but failed to clarify that she could read it during her own three-minutes of time. Frye felt she was told that she couldn't read it at all. Vargas' handling of the situation was at least confusing. Frye had followed the exact same procedure a few weeks before on an item before the Planning Commission. Turns out the City Council uses different protocols than the Planning Commission. How delightful for the citizenry.

Vargas missed a chance for a moment of political grace. He could have demonstrated leadership by allowing Ms. Frye to read Murphy's letter and thereby showing that his style is to include people no matter their views or their politics. Furthermore, the opinion of a Judge after all, has additional value on a legal matter. But no. Vargas had little interest in the opinion of a Judge - or at least this Judge.

There in person to testify was Murphy's opponent, Ron Roberts. Roberts had a display of cute rubber duckies, showing the difference between pollution from 2-stroke engines vs. less polluting 4-stroke engines. He was also there to opine the correct position on the limits on all leases. This is the first round in what is hopefully an ongoing competition between Murphy and Roberts for best environmentalist. Imagine my amusement.

Vargas was also perhaps none too happy with Frye. Frye is a veteran at tracking political pandering to the press and public. Just the day before, she crashed a press conference called by Vargas and Roberts attempting to make hay on clean water issues.

Frye saw it coming in advance. ""It offended me because it appeared to be political pandering before a tough election, rather than a genuine concern for Mission Bay water quality. Neither offered a real solution".

Frye also cited their tactics of falsely claiming that environmentalists were asking for an outright ban. "This is not the case, but the media fell for it and it was reported with this spin on TV, ('Ban against jet skis were held back')." But, according to Frye, "None of the environmental organizations were calling for an outright ban It was just a lot of their own hot air."

Unfortunately, usually seeking the extremes, the broadcast media especially do not always seek the facts. I guess they just presumed that environmentalists would call for a ban so they didn't even check. They just took the politician's word for it. With both Vargas and Roberts running for election, the media should tighten up their standards right away. A quick check with enviros would have set them straight.

What environmentalists - real environmentalists - and community members are proposing is: buffer zones near designated swim areas, wildlife preserves, least tern nesting sites and eel grass mitigation areas, as well as moving jet skis into specific areas based on circulation and impacts on other recreational water users. Environmentalists are also asking that vessels meet the upcoming 2001 emissions standards for marine engines. While politicians are concerned about how many engines would meet that standard, their best choice would be to support trade-in and retirement programs for old, polluting technology. The manufacturers ultimately win because they get to sell the new machines. Water quality wins as the technology improves. Otherwise, the politicians are merely supporting pollution.

This one should be an easy issue for politicians and environmental wanna-bes such as Vargas and Roberts. Legal victories by environmentalists have led to enforcements action that, among other things, require termination of polluting two-stroke marine engine sales in California by 2006 (the Air Board on which Roberts served has preempted this provision, establishing 2004 for the phaseout). The point is, the phase-out is a political no-brainer because it is coming no matter what. Publicity over threats to ban jet skis is only grandstanding, and nothing else. But the problems of existing polluting engines on Mission Bay are real.

At least the politicians are figuring it out things are going to evolve. But the city staff persists in apologia for pollution and the existing status quo. The staff presentation stated that " existing numbers of gasoline powered watercraft operating on Mission Bay are not currently having a measurable effect on the bay's water quality."

Jim Peugh, San Diego Audubon volunteer and local kayaker, disagreed,: "In my kayak, I can smell it and see the oil on the water. Go look and go smell. This is a measurable effect and a water quality standard too."

The Clean Water Act has two kinds of criteria: Numeric and narrative. Narrative standards, the kind Jim was reporting are known as the "free from" standards: Free from waste, free from oil slicks. Free from odor, etc. These are intended to cover those things where you may not be able to set a numeric limit. Frye notes, "You can't possibly have numeric limits for everything in the universe."

It's hard to understand the City's reasoning that polluting two-stroke engines couldn't be having effects on Mission Bay water quality. And since polluting marine engines are going to be phased-out, it's in everyone's interest to develop a plan for it. While not totally solved, progress is slowly but surely being made on the direct polluting impacts of marine engines. The other impacts of concern for the community (safety, other natural impacts) also need to be addressed. The Committee asked for additional recommendations for future review.

They also voted 5-0 that yes, all leases means all leases and not, as according to the City Manager, some leases. Maybe we will finally get hat little bit of flim-flamming cleared up.