Sludge Fund

by Carolyn Chase


n 1981, the California Coastal Commission approved an expansion of sewage-sludge drying facilities on Fiesta Island in Mission Bay Park. Recognizing that this was not an appropriate permanent use for a public park, the City agreed to relocate the facility out of the Park by January 1, 1987. The sludge beds were finally returned to the Park and Recreation Department in December of 1998.

A series of amendment requests by the City to extend the deadline over a twelve-year period resulted in the establishment of a multi-million dollar mitigation fund "to offset the public's ongoing loss of recreational opportunities and restricted access during the time the facilities remained on Fiesta Island." Basically, the Coastal Commission fined the City and the City's "punishment" was to have to actually invest some taxpayer dollars into the Park. To qualify for funding any projects must be directly related to resource protection, public access and recreation in Mission Bay Park and "could not be projects adequately funded by other sources." Over the years more than $15 million has been accumulated for park use.

Now, the City has forwarded to the Coastal Commission a list of projects for using the last $811,775 in the fund. The projects are unfortunately unbalanced toward public access and recreation. Whether or not the projects could be funded by other sources is an arguable
political standard, at best.

Of the seven items on the list, three of the top four most expensive are concrete pathways or related improvements to Bayside Walk. The three smallest items are for signs, design work for lighting and for a nature center. The most expensive item is $250,000 for a new restroom at Robb Field. It is unclear to me which category - public access or recreation - a public bathroom fits in. The Coastal Commission allows as how it will "result in increased visitor-serving amenities in the Park." Fair enough. But where is the balance in this list? Is there really no other source for funding public restrooms? Many other restrooms are funded from other places. The City has other obligations and accounts from which to provide adequate public restrooms and should not be raiding this special use park fund for that purpose.

Not one of these projects does anything to address actual resource protection. You would think given there were three priority areas for dispensing funds, that about one-third of the funds remaining should go toward resource protection projects. Even if you consider that the moneys toward the nature center could be considered part of a resource-related expenditure, it is still only $25K out of more than $800K.

Past mitigation dollars have clearly gone toward that category. $40,000 was spent for salt marsh restoration activities; $60,000 for tree planting. $150,000 was spent on water quality and sediment testing; another $100,000 was allocated for a storm drain education program. But almost entire balance of the rest of the funds have been used for projects completely unrelated to resource protection.

The bad news is that Mission Bay is officially listed as an impaired water body under the Clean Water Act for unsafe levels of bacteria. What this means is that it doesn't meet basic standards for "fishable swimmable waters." So this tells us that now is the time make water quality a higher priority.

Rose Creek, Tecolote Creek and Cudahy Creek are all listed as areas
where projects are to be undertaken to improve water quality and restore habitat. Wetlands restoration designed to capture and treat pollutants are important and the public supports them. Pollution is an ongoing threat to water-based recreation, fishing and tourism. So where is the much-needed resource protection pollution-prevention funding?

Not only does the City have a duty to the common public good, but it also has legal obligations to prioritize funding for Mission Bay Park toward restoration projects at Tecolote and Cudahy Creeks. Part of the settlement terms between the City and San Diego Audubon over the illegal permitting of the X Games included a clause that work on those restoration projects would then be given "first priority" for available Mission Bay funding. Why aren't these projects being considered for sludge mitigation funding? Isn't it obvious that these orphan projects absolutely qualify as "could not be projects adequately funded by other sources"? Even a legal settlement has not managed to get any other funding invested.

The Coastal Commission will be meeting to take action on this item on October 14th in Oceanside. I urge the Commissioners to reject the project list as proposed and I call on the city to submit a more balanced list - and include projects that directly contribute to dealing with the persistent pollution - after noticed public hearings and consultations with other interested parties.

Rather than giving such a higher priority to concrete, we should be giving a fair share of funding for projects that directly contribute to resource protection which includes water quality. What point is there in providing increased access to waters that are continually polluted?