Commentary : Bay Health Controversy Surfaces Again : Pollution: Scientists, bureaucrats and politicians need to come to a consensus on how to deal with environmental problems in San Diego Bay.

<i> Lyn Greene is assistant to the San Diego Interagency Water Quality Panel</i>

With almost routine reports of raw sewage spills and the discovery of illegally dumped toxic wastes, it seems obvious that San Diego Bay is a mess. But, for nearly 40 years, a debate has raged about the pollution, and no one can seem to agree what to do about it.

Now environmentalism is back--propelled by TV stars celebrating Earth Day and the reality of a drought. And, just as it has during the last three decades, San Diego Bay has resurfaced as a topic of discussion in local politics.

Once again, politicians and experts are trying to decide how polluted the bay really is and what, if anything, should be done about it. And, once again, studies have been conducted, and everyone is arguing about the results.

The San Diego Unified Port District has just announced the findings of its study of the bay and has given the bay a relatively clean bill of health. The county Department of Health Services is about to announce the results of its own health risk study. The port’s conclusions already have been questioned. Undoubtedly, the health services department’s data will be disputed as well.


In fact, the results of scientific studies of the bay’s sediments, fish and water have been the subject of controversy since 1950. That year, the Regional Water Quality Control Board declared that domestic sewage was the crux of the bay’s pollution problem.

In the early 1950s, the citizens of San Diego were the major obstacle to cleaning up the bay. The Regional Water board made specific recommendations for cleanup, but the voters defeated the city of San Diego’s bond measure to pay for the development of a better sewage system.

In the late 1950s, the city passed and implemented a sewage removal program that resulted in a much-improved bay. By the mid-1960s, the bay had recovered from its polluted state to become the center of San Diego’s growing tourism industry. In 1970, the National Observer declared that the by was “the cleanest metropolitan harbor in the world"--a far cry from the bay of the early ‘60s.

But signs of a different type of pollution problem began to surface at the same time that the bay was being heralded as a model of cleanliness. Routine sampling of the bay’s water and sediments began to show unsafe concentrations of industrial wastes. Fifteen years’ worth of studies and monitoring have confirmed that the bay is polluted with toxic wastes.


Assured that the wastes were a significant problem, the Regional Water board shifted its attention to monitoring the problem. Its proposed solution, in 1985, was a five-year plan designed to study water quality problems, identify the responsible polluting parties, and pursue cleanup options. But the plan became the center of controversy because, for the first time, it suggested action, not just study.

The San Diego Bay Cleanup Project is now in its third year and the lion’s share of its efforts have been sunk in further studies of the bay’s problems. Scientists working around the bay continue to debate the findings of all of these studies and to call for even more studies.

A legislative attempt to address the problem of too much research and too little action resulted in the creation of the San Diego Interagency Water Quality Panel. The “bay panel” brought together the various agencies and entities studying the bay to share information and coordinate action. But even this entity, specifically charged with the responsibility of helping coordinate efforts around the bay, hesitated to recommend cleanup action. Instead, this body of scientists suggested better ways of doing more meaningful studies.

Why can’t scientists come to some kind of agreement on the bay’s problems and then act to solve and prevent further ones?


The problem is fragmentation. The bay is the responsibility of numerous agencies and entities that focus on separate and disparate aspects of its environment. One agency studies mussels to monitor pollutant levels. Several agencies sample different fish to measure pollutants. Other agencies take sediment samples to determine where excessive levels of pollutants might rest. Some sample the water itself and monitor the movement of pollutants.

And what these scientists have found in their studies are various levels of pollution. Their findings are different and their data is barely comparable because methods of gathering information differ and the geographic areas studied differ as well. And so they can rightfully argue that, from their perspective, their conclusions are correct and the conclusions of other studies have little relation to their own.

For example, a scientist who has been studying the water quality of the bay for several years stated that, in his opinion, the bay is healthy, except for a few toxic hot spots. He dives for sediment samples, and, after testing them for pollutants, he has determined that the levels are not harmful. His statement is based on what he has gathered and analyzed. But would a doctor declare the patient perfectly healthy if he found a few tumors spread throughout the body of the patient?

It is time for the doctors to work as a team to determine the health of the patient. The scientists have to come out from behind the cloak of their research, take the separate findings of the studies performed and reach some conclusions on actions to help the patient recover. Otherwise these fragmented efforts at studying the illness will all be in progress, but the autopsy will show that the patient died from lack of attention.