All Wet

by Carolyn Chase


he fact that flooding in the floodplains merits headlines in all media outlets just reveals how disconnected we have become from our sense of place. "Fashion Valley ought to be renamed Fashion Valley River" declared one local TV-news reporter. Excuse me! He was in the San Diego River bed, standing next to road closure signs in their usual positions across Mission Valley roads built in the river.

Regardless of what the city calls it now, it has been a riverbed for thousands of years, and will remain so. But divine intervention and semper vigilante on the part of the public and other groups may be the only things that can deter those who would continue to put development into local wetlands and floodplains.

We build as if we were gods and then stand aghast when the forces of nature overcome our efforts. We have not only insisted on building directly in the floodplains and wetland areas throughout all of the creeks in our watershed, but we also have large-scale urbanization that increases the size and frequency of flooding.

So projects go where they shouldn't, get flooded, and then the politicians get to look good by handing out taxpayer dollars to help the victims. Then the cycle starts again. It is even considered news. Quite a system, right?

Our operating paradigm still is that economic growth requires environmental destruction. Environmental protection and restoration is a cost to be avoided, reduced, or offloaded. The damages are simply to be absorbed by the environment or picked up by the taxpayer at large. Even worse, we subsidize bad practices at every step of the way. How much investment would happen in flood prone areas if the private sector had to assume the risk?

The only factor on our side is that, even with the payouts of taxpayer dollars to victims, nobody likes to experience a flood directly. It rivals fire in its ability to destroy both a victim's physical property and also their psychological well-being. This is why - after the major Mississippi floods - many victims voted to move to higher ground rather then stay trapped in the build-destroy-rebuild paradigm. Any sane person, given a fair opportunity, will jump at the chance- except for those riverbed landowners who are milking the system at everyone's expense.

It's tough to break this cycle because our investment incentives are all out-of-whack. Rather than investing in prevention and thereby protecting both the potential victims and the public purse, officials consistently cave in to floodplain landowners.

It's not flooding simply because it's raining, folks. It's flooding because we are cavalier about where and how we build.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency which attempts to bring some order to the chaos through administration of the National Flood Insurance Program, has cited the City of San Diego for "Serious problems with the community's floodplain management regulations, administrative and enforcement procedures" and "Serious engineering or other problems with maps or Flood Insurance Study."

But investments in destructive projects and questionable mitigation efforts continue to be pushed rather than investments in sound prevention and restoration.

Sadly, nationally renowned wetlands mitigation and restoration expert Dr. Joy Zedler was lured away from San Diego State by the University of Wisconsin where she will be that university's first Aldo Leopold Professor of Restoration Ecology. Restoration ecology is an emerging academic field racing in an attempt to turn back the clock for degraded natural systems.

The new program is being funded with a $2 million endowment. This is the type of investment that can be attracted. But you need local leadership which understands that programs to determine how to work best with and restore our natural environment and protect our quality of life are worth investing in - right here and right now.

Dr. Zedler's program will improve the science behind restoration efforts so ecosystems will become more likely to sustain themselves. Wisconsin has a terrific background and interest in Aldo Leopold and the land ethic, and there is a great deal to build on - unlike San Diego, where the vision is driven by the market demand to build anything anywhere and use public funds to deal with the consequences later.

But Dr. Zedler is a principled professional who was ignored by the City of San Diego, and in particular by the Mayor's Office, in their persistent pursuit of catering to the development industry over science, ecology or public cost.

Dr. Zedler's paper "Coastal Mitigation in Southern California: The Need for a Regional Restoration Strategy," (published in Ecological Applications, February 1996 Ecological Society of America), is a must read for anyone interested in development's impacts in the coastal bioregion. This 7-page paper is very readable and copies are available via Dr. Zedler's former Pacific Estuarine Research Lab at SDSU. Dr. Zedler reports on various wetlands mitigation attempts, problems and successes and also lays out a sound framework for a regional wetland restoration plan.

Among other things, she states: "This region may represent a worst-case scenario for mitigation problems." Mitigation is the process via which developers are allowed to destroy one area if they promise to try and restore another area. In this way, they are in theory mitigating or making-up for the damages caused elsewhere. But creating and restoring ecosystems is more complex than anyone might think and Zedler's research - while a scientific and ecological imperative - was under appreciated and politically incorrect in this town.

But her framework is valid and important and with support can live on here. I'm hopeful that it will be introduced for adoption by the City via the newly re-constituted Wetlands Advisory Board.