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A solution to La Jolla's smell problem proves elusive

Excrement from seabirds and marine mammals creates a stench that officials would like to effectively combat. But many obstacles stand in the way.

January 04, 2013|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

LA JOLLA — There's a political stink rising in this seaside community, blown ashore from the rocks of La Jolla Cove, where myriad seabirds and marine mammals roost, rest and leave behind what animals leave behind.

The offal accumulation is offending noses at trendy restaurants, tourist haunts, and expensive condos perched on some of the most pricey real estate in the country. But finding a solution to the olfactory assault has proved elusive.

Environmental regulations have thwarted proposals to cleanse the rocks with a non-toxic, biodegradable solution. Even a low-tech idea to scrub the rocks with brooms may need official approval.

The state-protected cove area falls under the permitting jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission and San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. Since wildlife is involved, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also have authority.

The normally low-key Sherri Lightner, who represents La Jolla on the San Diego City Council, has challenged — some say dared — Gov. Jerry Brown to tour the cove area in high stink season.

"Everybody is pointing fingers, and nobody is doing anything," said a La Jolla resident who strolled the sidewalk along the community's famed corniche on New Year's Day, tissue to her nose to battle the smell.

A San Diego park ranger assigned to the La Jolla beaches takes a more philosophic approach toward the excretory matter. "It's a natural process," said ranger Richard Belesky. "But would I want to buy a multimillion-dollar condo with the stink nearby? I don't think so."

The difficulty of reconciling the habits of sea creatures and the needs of humankind is not new to La Jolla. South of the La Jolla Cove is the Children's Pool where harbor seals lounge on the beach.

For two decades a legal and political dispute has raged between people who say the seals should be removed because they are blocking access to the water and those who say the seals should be allowed to stay, particularly during pupping season. Signs warn bathers that seal excrement has resulted in a high bacteria count that can cause disease.

At the La Jolla Cove, the droppings began to pile up after restrictions were put in place to keep people from climbing down the delicate bluffs to the rocks below. The birds and mammals suddenly had no reason to scatter.

The La Jolla Village Merchants Assn. gathered more than 1,000 signatures demanding an immediate solution. But immediate is not in the governmental lexicon when it comes to issues involving the ocean and wildlife.

To wash down the rocks would require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. The city, probably the full City Council, would need to endorse a specific wash-down proposal — but that, according to Lightner's staff, would mean submitting the issue to an application process that could take at least two years, given the backlog at the water board.

And even if the water board approved the application, the issue would then proceed to the Coastal Commission, an agency not known for its speed.

In hopes of finding a faster, if more limited, solution, city officials are considering arming Park and Recreation Department employees with brooms to scrub down the rocks. They assure that steps will be taken to ensure that no runoff reaches the ocean and no birds or mammals are hurt.

Talks are planned with regional, state and federal agency staff members to see if such a limited approach could be taken without a full-tilt application process. A radio talk-show host has shown the way, taking his own broom to the cove.

Meanwhile, restaurateurs say the smell continues to discourage patrons. Some tourists complain that it mars their vacations. Shirley Towlson, a bookkeeper who arrived in La Jolla from Phoenix, was shocked at the smell along the promenade and outside her hotel.

"I thought La Jolla meant 'The Jewel,' '' she said. "This smells more like 'The Toilet.' "

Other tourists find the smell but a small downer amid the other joys of La Jolla as a seaside place of visual beauty, fine dining and chic shopping.

"It smells like fish," said Mark Bain, a general contractor from Sacramento, enjoying a New Year's week idyll. "It happens."

He said the smell is not nearly as noxious as when dead fish line the banks of the Sacramento River. "Now, that's really bad," he said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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