Worrying about El Niño flooding

Posted: November 13th, 2015 | Featured, News | No Comments

Councilmembers seek ‘state of emergency’ declaration

By Dave Schwab

San Diego City Councilmembers David Alvarez and Scott Sherman have called upon the city to declare a state of emergency — and take whatever action is necessary — to prepare for anticipated wetter-than-normal El Niño conditions by immediately clearing debris from high-risk flood channels.

“Scientists at Scripps [Institution of Oceanography] say there is at least a 95 percent chance that El Niño weather conditions will hit San Diego this winter,” said David Alvarez, whose District 8 includes Barrio Logan, Grant Hill, Logan Heights, Nestor, Sherman Heights and Stockton. “The upcoming El Niño storm season has the potential to be one of the strongest on record, with the potential for a devastating wave of flash floods and really hazardous conditions.”

“Three years ago when I came to office, one of the first things that hit my desk was about flooding problems in Grantville and Mission Valley that we have on a regular basis because the concrete-lined storm channels haven’t been cleaned,” said Sherman, whose District 7 includes Allied Gardens, Del Cerro, Grantville, Mission Valley and San Carlos. “It’s a daunting task to try and get permission to clean out those channels, because they’re considered wetlands, so you have to go out and buy mitigation property to offset the debris that’s going to be removed.”

Rick Engineering Co. has identified the worst channels in San Diego that are prone to flooding. (Photo by Dave Schwab)

Rick Engineering Co. has identified the worst channels in San Diego that are prone to flooding.
(Photo by Dave Schwab)

Ed Witt, a Mission Valley business owner whose auto lot historically floods, said he has suffered through two other El Niño storms in 1997-98 and 2010. “They really were quite devastating for our area,” he said.

Witt expressed frustration with government’s inability to take preventative action to prepare for storms.

“We have just a few weeks to prepare for what could be really a devastating occurrence for the citizens and taxpayers of San Diego,” Witt said. “I really applaud Councilman Alvarez’s effort to declare a state of emergency. That’s imperative that the government get involved.”

Witt characterized the most recent storm in San Diego that caused widespread flooding as “a precursor, a preview of what is to come.”

“It’s urgent for the city, county and state to bolt down San Diego before it rises or floods to the sea,” Witt added.

The San Diego River Park Foundation expressed concern about the impact of flooding on homeless encampments in Mission Valley.

“The San Diego River Park Foundation is alarmed that the homeless who camp in the river basin may drown when the river suddenly rises in a severe rainstorm,” said Rob Hutsel, executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit dedicated to creating a San Diego River Park system from the mountains to the ocean.

“With some estimates of more than 10 percent of the city of San Diego’s unsheltered population living along the San Diego River, we are deeply concerned for their welfare, especially with predictions of flooding in the coming weeks and months. In October 2015, our organization documented 23 encampments just in Mission Valley. All of these were in areas that would most likely be underwater during flooding conditions.”

Noting homeless encampments can range from one to 10 or more people, Hutsel said, “Each is at risk. Before the rains hit is the time to increase outreach to these people to offer assistance so they move out of harm’s way … we remain concerned for the welfare of those that, for whatever reason, are living along the San Diego River.”

Alvarez said the city will hear more accounts like Witt’s of damaging flooding throughout the winter rainy season, “if we don’t do anything.”

“We’re all frustrated, including Councilman Sherman and myself, who represent particular communities that get severely impacted when there is flooding,” Alvarez said. “That’s why we’re calling for action. We have to do something. We can’t just continue to say what we’ve done is good enough — because it isn’t.”

According to a list furnished by Alvarez, five of the 10 most at-risk flood channels in the city are located in communities served by San Diego Uptown News and Mission Valley News. They are:

— Engineer Road in Kearny Mesa

— Washington Street in Hillcrest and Little Italy

— Section Four of Auburn Creek in City Heights

— Chollas Creek in the College Area

— Red River Drive and Conestoga Drive in Allied Gardens

El Niño — “The Christ Child” in Spanish referring to its impact during Christmas in South America — is a naturally occurring, periodic warmer-colder ocean temperature cycle happening every two to seven years and lasting an average of nine months to two years, that brings more-than-normal rainfall to the West Coast including San Diego.

CBS News 8 weatherman Shawn Styles said an El Niño isn’t a guarantee of more rain but rather “increases your odds for having elevated rainfall.”

Asked if he concurred that there’s a strong likelihood of an El Niño this winter, Styles said, “Based on elevated sea surface temperatures and the strength and extent of it … we will, if the jet stream acts like it appears it will.”

Styles said there is a new “element” that could influence the impact of an El Niño in unpredictable ways.

“The other weather phenomenon is called the blob,” Styles said. “That is another thing that’s never happened in conjunction with an El Niño.”

Styles said the blob, which originated on the southern edge of the Gulf of Alaska, has “drifted south and that’s why our ocean water temperature is still near 70 degrees.”

In addition to asking for a declaration of a state of emergency, Alvarez also called upon the city to “increase preventative maintenance activity in every storm drain and every flood channel immediately.”

“We want the city to work with the Regional Water Quality Control Board to expedite permits needed to do the maintenance work on the highest-risk flood channels,” Alvarez said. ““Specifically, we’re going to request a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to give them the authority to perform all the maintenance work that is needed on the remaining high-risk channels.”

Noting that Mayor Kevin Faulconer has “prioritized cleaning out the different flood channels,” Sherman said those channels in his council district that were cleaned out recently showed marked improvement in water flow.

“You can tell the difference,” Sherman said. “There was no flooding, and the waters were moving smoothly.”

But Sherman warned there are many other flood-prone spots in the city to be addressed. “We need to get the workers out in the trenches and get them cleaned,” he said. “It’s up to us to make sure there’s litigation in place so we can prepare for what’s coming. We want everybody to know that we’re doing everything we can for what could be a very large flood season coming up.”

 Dave Schwab can be reached at

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